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Join the conversation! There are now 57 comments on “What is terrorism? pg 6 – Not Government
    • That was a war crime, not terrorism. Both are awful, but it is important to distinguish one from the other, because different rules apply depending on which awful thing it is.

      This isn’t the best example, as the bombing itself wasn’t even an official activity of the armed forces. Active Indonesian military commandos entered Singapore in civilian clothing, with orders to bomb the electric works. They disobeyed those orders, and instead set the bomb off in a civilian building.

      Still, even apart from war crimes, when governments use violence against civilian populations, we just don’t call that terrorism.

      Obviously, not everyone agrees. In fact, this disagreement is one of the primary reasons why the United Nations has failed time and time again to agree on a definition of terrorism. They really need a definition, but a few countries keep insisting on including government violence in it, which nobody else agrees with.

      The other major sticking point has been states that want to exclude resistance groups and freedom fighters from the definition. The problem is, a resistance group that targets innocents on purpose, rather than those whose power they’re ostensibly resisting, IS a terrorist group.

      Much of the time, both of these problematic attitudes are held, not because of their inherent logic or merit, but because one sympathizes with their cause. It’s not the IRA who are the terrorists, a sympathizer might argue, it’s the British response that is terrorism. It’s not the jihadist attackers, but the resulting drone strikes. In general, it has been members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation who are the stumbling blocks. They don’t want the definition of terrorism to exclude acts of national armed forces that are GOVERNED by other international law; they want to include such acts that are not in CONFORMITY with such other law. They also don’t want to exclude the ARMED FORCES during an armed conflict, but the PARTIES engaged in armed conflict. That would criminalize as terrorism non-terrorist acts already unlawful under the properly applicable law, while declaring a large proportion of terrorism to not be terrorism at all.

      It may just be the criminal lawyer in me, but I think it best to keep things as clear as possible, and not introduce vagueness by muddling distinct concepts. Contrary to popular belief, vagueness only makes it easier to convict the innocent, and harder to know what’s off-limits in the first place.

      You’re free to differ, though! And I fully welcome dispute and debate here, both with me and with each other. So if any reader thinks I’ve got it wrong, then by all means say so!

      • Times like these I wish these kind of comment boards had upvote buttons as standard (downvote buttons optional)

        • It’s not hard to add them, and I considered it. But I decided it’d be better to let people’s thoughts stand on their own, without giving them artificial authority based on popularity.

          Then again, that’s an entire type of reader engagement that I’m now excluding. If enough people really want them, I could always add the feature.

  1. Conan says

    I personally would delete “physical” from “physical violence”. It exchanges the idea of pure brutality for the general “use of force”. Realistically(and historically!) there are more kinds of force used to perpetuate fear and terror in the populace that shootings, bombings, etc.

    A more easily agreed-upon instance is the idea of “cyber-terrorism”. Nobody is physically hurt, and often any wrongdoing can be reversed comparatively easily. But ultimately the hackers are using a method of force they have available to create fear.

    Using that as a launchpad, I wish to submit the idea of “nonviolent terrorism”, somewhat of a parallel as “state terrorism” is going to be included separately. This would generally include any politically-motivated use of force that is not intended to result in the destruction of person or property.

    Specifically(and I can’t think of any other examples at the moment), this would include hate and fear-mongering on the part of NGOs(and there would also be a cross-section with “state terrorism”, I guess). Propaganda, yellow journalism, focus and exaggeration of negatives, all targeted directly at the audience rather than indirectly. Organizations which attempt to create a worldview in their listeners that promotes hate or fear as the motivating factor.

    Fear of Islam, fear of blacks, fear of gays, fear of Marxists, etc. The resulting panic is just as real and damaging as violent terrorism, but the inception just involves less loss of life.

    • You’re not alone in thinking this!

      There are many, many kinds of extortion, however. To force someone to do something against their will, you can threaten embarrassment, loss of money, loss of employment, eviction, deletion of all their files — all sorts of devastating consequences that nonetheless do not involve the use of physical force.

      Terrorism is one specific form of extortion. It’s one that uses physical force. Other non-violent threats can be equally severe, but they are other concepts, because they don’t involve physical violence.

      It’s important to draw the distinction in order to have a meaningful discussion. Think of it this way: All bluejays may be blue, but not all blue things are bluejays. If we’re supposed to be having a discussion about bluejays, but I’m talking about the sky instead (because I call all blue things bluejays), there’s going to be a lot of confusion and frustration all around. We’re talking about separate concepts, but I’ve muddled things because I’m using the same word for both.

      That’s why we’re identifying these elements up front. If it doesn’t satisfy all of these elements, it may be awful, and it may be devastating, but it’s not “terrorism.” It’s some other awful devastating thing.

      As with any concept with requisite elements, there will be just as many “not all X” statements as there are elements. So:
      1) Not all physical violence is terrorism, but all terrorism involves physical violence…
      2) Not all extortion is terrorism, but all terrorism is extortion…
      3) Not all non-state violent extortion is terrorism, but all terrorism is non-state violent extortion…
      4) Not all violent extortion to attain a political goal is terrorism, but all terrorism is violent extortion to attain a political goal…
      5) Not all violent extortion to attain a larger group’s political goals is terrorism, but all terrorism is violent extortion to attain a larger group’s political goals.
      It’s only terrorism when all five are met — when it’s violent extortion, not committed by a state, to attain the political goals of a larger group.

      • You’ve just written a lot on the importance of making distinctions, but I don’t think you did much to clear up why we should make THIS SPECIFIC distinction rather than the infinity of other distinctions we hypothetically COULD make (but aren’t making).

        .

        It does seem odd to me that you say depriving someone of their property by DESTROYING it is potentially terrorism, but depriving them of that same property by moving it someplace where they can’t get it (i.e. stealing it) is NOT, even if all other circumstances are identical.

        Isn’t that kind of like saying that cutting off someone’s head with a sword is murder, but cutting off someone’s head with an AXE is some other equally-awful yet completely distinct thing?

        It seems to me that the important part of the threat ought to be how it affects the victim, not the means by which you carry it out.

        • In my opinion, he is making the physical distinction because it is the clearest. Ultimately violence toward a person is an willful physical action that was taken to cause harm to a person’s well being. This muddies up the terrorism claim a lot because it adds an interpretation of intent.

          I’d say that the intent to cause fear is more important then the actual action. The debate can be made to exempt speech from the action, but ultimately intent to cause fear overrules that.

          That being said, being afraid of an action does not impose the intent to cause fear. So being scared of a person’s political ideals does not mean he has the intent to make you fear him and comply with his ideals.

          Under this framework, If an entity was to hack all of one groups personal information, and then threaten to release it to the world if the group did not act accordingly, that would classify as cyber-terrorism.

          Theft of monetary objects becomes harder to identify as terrorism, because the intent gets muddied. Was the item stolen to further the cause, that needs money, or was the main intent to scare a group of people to act in a certain way. I feel if ISIS was to steal a bunch of money from bank accounts in the USA, it would be difficult to claim that is was a terrorist attack, and not just a theft by a terrorist group, unless they posted a message afterwards with intent to terrorize. The intent is key.

          Ultimately I like the distinction. It allows you to very quickly discern a terrorist action. For instance, the white supremacist in Charlottesville that drove his car through a crowed is hard to label a terrorist action. I there is no proof his thought process was, “I’m going to plow into this group of protesters to make them scared to come out and protest in the future”. It seems more along the lines of the Dylan Roof motive of “I HATE this group of people!” It was probably a rash snap judgment that happened in the moment. So a hate crime, yes, terrorism, no.

    • I agree with you that coercion intended to affect political change can still be terrorism without resulting in the destruction of person or property, as per your cyber terrorism example. However, including propaganda that is meant to instill fear of scapegoats, or whatever the propagandist is afraid of rightly or wrongly, is completely off-base. The point of terrorism is not to make people fear what the terrorist fears, or what the terrorist pretends to fear. The point of terrorism is to make people fear the terrorist. Terrorism is not “Do what I say because you fear the other.” Terrorism, is “Do what I say because you fear me.”

  2. I dunno, Nathan.

    Terrorism has an inescapable moral sense; even with an explicit disclaimer, the word will always connote not just illegitimacy but depravity, even a uniquely bad depravity. And that which is not terrorism thus connotes at least not quite as depraved as terrorism.

    I know you personally don’t think that, and you say so explicitly, but the intentions of the writer are at best only half the meaning.

    I was married to a lawyer, and I spent a year reading Supreme Court decisions in college, so I understand why a lawyer is interested in delving into the precise definitions of words. But for those of us who will not be litigating criminal cases, what’s the value of any precise definition, and what’s the value of your specific definition? Even if you could untangle the normative and positive meanings of terrorism — I’m convinced you cannot — so what?

    War is war: both sides are willing to kill and injure other human beings to win. Making fine distinctions seem pointless. There are only three responses: pick a side and do whatever you have to do to kill everyone on the other side until they give up, kill everyone on both sides, or try to resolve the underlying conflict. Arguing about precisely how we should kill and injure other people achieves none of the above goals.

    No matter how you slice it, trying to say that the other side is bad for killing people in its particular way, but our side is good, so the particular way we kill people is justified, is just self-serving hypocrisy. Of course, self-serving hypocrisy has been a tool of the powerful since before recorded history, but there’s no reason sensible people like you and me have to buy into it.

    • Here’s one.
      Language is bent to warp the minds of the listeners. George Orwell was completely correct.
      A semi-auto rifle with a detachable magazine becomes an “assault rifle” because those who wish to see their end want to equate them with assault.
      On the flip side, someone has limited use of their legs, and needs to park somewhere close where they can drag out an awkward folding chair on wheels. There was a word for that, “gimpy”. That word took on unwelcome connotations, so it went to “crippled”, then “handicapped”.
      Handicapping is something you do to horses and golfers so you can have a competitive match with otherwise unmatched competitors.
      Now it’s “Differently Abled”

      In one case, shaping the use of language to borrow an existing negative connotation, and in another to avoid it.

      By tying everything under the sun to the same word, the speakers hope to borrow the hate, fear, and disgust already associated with that word, for whatever it is they wish the public to hate, fear, and be disgusted by.

  3. ubiquitous says

    Yeah, you lost me at denying state terrorism.

    I realize it’s a thing, but this to me seems too much of a blinder.

    Hope the comic goes well though, cheers.

    • He didn’t say that “state terror” is less evil than “terrorism”, just that it is useful to separate them for the purpose of this discussion. He also said that he’d discuss it further later, presumably comparing and contrasting the two. At some point, we need to settle on a definition.

        • I haven’t edited the page, but I can see how it might have been read one way or the other.

          Either way, welcome back! Because the next two pages deal specifically with state terror, and you might have some good thoughts to contribute there.

  4. NN1 says

    I wonder if “cyber-terrorism” that indirectly (but intentionally) causes physical harm or destruction of valuable digital data (basically property) should be considered terrorism, but less damaging vandalism, like hacking an official twitter account to spew propaganda, shouldn’t be.

    I don’t think all politically motivated hacking should be considered terrorist. If you destroy the DNS system, causing a massive internet blackout then maybe, but there are plenty of hacktivism that just embarasses organizations.

  5. NN1 says

    It might be useful to test this definition by pointing to specific cases that are widely considered terrorism, but don’t fit the full definition, and cases that fit the definition yet many would not consider terrorism.

    Some of these qualities might be ambiguous in some cases. How explicit must the threat of physical violence be? What constitutes “physical violence”? How explicit must the extortion be? What if a terrorist group is doing an attack to, say, free a leader, rather than demand broad political change? How does one determine if the perpetrator is working to further a cause, especially if they died in the process? If a government isn’t recognized by some or many nations, is it an insurgency or government?

  6. SeanR says

    Question.
    What do you consider the Fort Hood shooting?
    On one hand, it’s a single actor, working to forward a groups agenda by using violence.
    On the other hand, it’s a military base.

  7. Bill says

    I noticed that the definition used here is not limited to civilian targets. I would say that the targeting of civilians is the main difference between terrorism and guerrilla warfare. The Fort Hood shooting is tricky, though. The soldiers were not currently involved in the conflict. If the base had been in Iraq, it would be easier to classify it as guerrilla warfare. I consider it a grey area.

    • …but I hope that we can agree that the current classification of “workplace violence” is completely wrong and ***remainder of comment deleted to avoid offending any lawyers present***

    • I think that is a good question. If we are talking about civilians attacking military targets (one would assume, in order to convince that military to retreat), then that is not Extortion, that is a straight up military conflict (war) with the purpose of achieving a military goal, not political change. However, if the attack is a small raid against a target on a different continent it is hard to see how that could accomplish any military goal. That makes it seem more like terrorism to me. In that and some other cases however, it is not clear to me that it isn’t suicide using the forms and methods of a terrorist attack.

      • I agree with the addition of civilian targets to the definition. The military, no matter what branch, is a legitimate target of any revolutionary group and anyone joining the military accepts the risk of physical attack. Civilians, on the other hand, do not willingly accept that risk in most cases. Along these lines, any attack on police facilities, including jails, should be considered non-terroristic unless they involve an intentional acceptance of civilian casualties.

  8. NN1 says

    By this definition, any rebel group would be committing terrorism, even if they confined all violence to military targets and had the support of most of the region, as long as they weren’t recognized as a government. What about rebellions that grow out of a local/regional government or colony? England obviously didn’t accept the United States during the Revolutionary War, but it was formed by existing colonial governments.

    • Would you really call attacking only military targets “Extortion”? One doesn’t defeat an army to convince the leadership to do what you want, you defeat it so they can’t stop you from doing what you want. That being the case, I would say that a rebellion that limited itself to military targets would not meet this definition of terrorist. I would go so far to say that even collateral civilian casualties would not qualify. Although, if someone makes an attack that is likely to kill as many or more bystanders than military personnel/equipment, you really have to suspect that it is considered a bonus and they are in fact terrorists.

  9. I have followed the discussion carefully, and I am still unconvinced that carefully defining “terrorism” is at all useful.

    • Well, I disagree.
      Defining a problem is the second step to solving a problem, immediately after identifying that there is a problem.
      The problem comes when you have multiple definitions.
      A second problem, in my opinion, comes when someone decides to have their agenda ride on the coattails of another agenda, diluting the discussions on how to solve the first. This exacerbates that first problem

      By defining a problem, as narrowly as practical, you can begin to see what options you have which will address the problem, hopefully without causing more of the same problem.
      If your definition is not both as narrow as possible and shared, then you will invariably have people point out that your solution for your definition does nothing for all or part of their definition, often while they assume their definition IS your definition, because they share the same name.

      There have been many things casually labeled terrorism that have nothing to do with this definition, just as there are many people who have been labeled nazis, or racists, who don’t fit the definition of nazism, or whose words or actions aren’t racist. Or, how every moderator of a private forum eventually gets accused of censorship when they choose to remove comments they can not tolerate, for whatever reason. What they share is the speakers desire to equate the one with the other so you’ll loathe the one the way you already loathe the other, but often at the cost of making actually combating the other more challenging.
      Heck, I recall hearing someone refer to boycotters as “economic terrorists”.
      A quick google also turned up protestors, at least those that include vandals in their mob, as terrorists. How’d you like to be labeled a terrorist, because you carried a candle in a cup down main street while singing church hymns, and a block or two behind you, someone was setting Lexus’s on fire and breaking windows while wearing a black bandanna?

      • Well, I disagree.

        Good! If two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

        Defining a problem is the second step to solving a problem, immediately after identifying that there is a problem.

        But have we really identified that there is a problem in the first place?

        I think it’s not particularly controversial to say that violent conflict is an issue, and that whatever “terrorism” actually is, it is part of that issue. I also think it’s uncontroversial to assert that all Right Thinking People™ do not like violent conflict, and that anyone who does like violent conflict is mad, evil, or both.

        I respect pacifists, but I do not agree with them. I am not a pacifist: I think there are things worth using violence and killing to get or prevent. But that puts me in a bit of a dilemma: if I am a pacifist, violent conflict as a whole is a problem, and it seems pointless to single out one specific use of violence. If I am not a pacifist, then some violence is justified, so violent conflict is not by itself a problem, it is the solution to whatever underlying problem is worth killing for. So I have either found a much bigger problem than “terrorism”, or I have not yet found any problem at all.

        I think the crux of the biscuit is Nathan’s framing in the first panel:

        (One hallmark of civilization is the extent to which ONLY the government is allowed to exercise force. “I have a monopoly on violence as they say.” Terrorism strikes that in the face — it’s not just un-civilized, but anti-civilization.)

        If we accept this frame, then the necessity of defining “terrorism” follows directly, but this frame deserves close critical examination.

        The first assertion needs a justification: why should we believe that the state system per se is a “hallmark of civilization”? To a certain extent, the state system has some benefits: I would much prefer managing serious conflicts with my neighbors using the state, i.e. with police, sheriffs and courts — even if the state might resolve the conflict unjustly — rather than shooting it out. But this justification by itself does not extend cleanly to the idea that all political conflict should be managed by the state.

        There are anarchists, libertarians, and other anti-statists who argue that not only is the state not a hallmark of civilization, but an element of uncivilization, in precisely the same sense that slavery used to be considered a hallmark of civilization (read the Southern state governments’ justification for secession) but is now generally considered uncivilization. Anarchists et al. argue that to become civilized we must do away with the state. I don’t buy their arguments, but they are strong enough that I do not take the state system to be at least an obvious or unquestioned element of civilization.

        And we have very obvious examples of uncivilized states. If, like me, you don’t like Hitler, then the Nazi state, which had a definite monopoly on the use of violence, was hardly civilized, and deserved to be struck in the face, by any means not only necessary but possible. If you don’t like Stalin, then the Soviet state was hardly civilized. If you don’t like Kim Jong-un, then the North Korean state is hardly civilized. Even if a state is necessary, it is not hardly sufficient for civilization. Thus, it is reasonable to ask: is it possible that a state is so uncivilized that it requires undermining? If it is, then the argument that “terrorism” undermines the state is at least sometimes not a criticism.

        Which brings up a larger question. Nathan uses only part of Weber’s definition: a state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. But which comes first? Is violence legitimate because the state uses it, or is it a state because its use of violence is legitimate? If I use violence politically, i.e. to intentionally oppose the wishes of an organization that calls itself a “state”, am I not simply declaring that organization is not legitimate, and therefore not a state?

        We have institutions that formally recognize states, but again we have to ask: do those institutions create legitimacy, or do they recognize legitimacy? If the latter, we must, I think, admit that they can be mistaken, self-serving, or both. It seems clear, for example, that the recognition of the “government” of Afghanistan has no basis in anything even vaguely resembling legitimacy; the formal recognition is either the stupidest mistake possible or completely self-serving.

        As I said before, I strongly dislike violence, but I admit it is justified. So when I see a violent conflict, I care that it is violent, not how it is violent. I see that two groups of people consider some issue important enough to kill to win. I don’t care if one group is a government and the other is not. I want to know why they are killing each other. Is one side justified? Then I will support that side. Is neither side justified? Then I will try to end the conflict, and I consider stopping unjustified violence a justification for violence, if there is no nonviolent solution.

        • So the split comes from your ideals vs the writers. Your outlook is more philosophical, and outlines the problem from a sense of ethical behavior. And your argument is not wrong. But he is defining the legal difinition of terrorism. From an ethical standpoint, the definition of terrorism does not matter. As you said, only who doing the violence is justified by the rules of ethics. But society does not operate on ethics, it operates on rules (aka laws). Hopefully the laws are writen with ethics in mind, but ultimately rules rely on definitions to have power.

          Thou shalt not kill. What does it mean to kill? Is self defence killing? What if it is an accident? These distinctions matter when writing a law. And laws give government power.

          Say we define terrorism as any violent act that causes fear, and we atribute 20 years in prison to the act. Down the line, people start to say that speech they don’t like is defined as violence, because it causes them to fear that their way of life will be challenged. The government under this defined law can jail the offending party under terrorism laws for 20 years. But if a barrier is placed on the definitions of speech that prevents it from being called violence, then that power can not be used.

          This comic is not an exercise in ethical discussion, it is a legal one. No weight has been put on the goodness or badness of each act of violence. It serves wholly to define a specific act so that we can remain clear on it and how it relates to how we act to it leagally. And in a world where the word is being thrown around freely and governments have given themselves vast powers over the word, it is important to define it.

  10. Another thing: Why should we believe that terrorism, however defined, undermines the state system in a way that ordinary criminal murder does not?

    The state is predicated in part on the actual existence of “illegitimate” (non-state-sanctioned) violence. Murder is wrong* not because it undermines the state’s monopoly on violence; murder is wrong, state or no state. Instead, the state justifies itself because we don’t like murder, and one way to prevent it is to give the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence: it is legitimate to arrest and imprison murderers, and to injure or kill them if they resist.

    *If you’ll permit me to speak very loosely and metaphorically about ethical philosophy, which I’ve given more detailed attention elsewhere.

    So why should “terrorism” be different? If an act of “terrorism” were unjust per se, then the state does not clutch its pearls in dismay: it does its job and uses violence to suppress and punish the offenders, not because they have “undermined” the state, but because they acted unjustly. Contrawise, if an act of terrorism were actually just, then the state has already failed at a much deeper level.

    So I don’t see how “terrorism”, however define, is bad because it undermines the state.

    • Terrorism is terrorism, rather than state-sponsored terror, because it’s not the state doing it.
      If you’re attacking institutions of the government, to make it too costly for the government to function, as I understand the above definition, that is NOT terrorism.
      If you’re attacking the citizenry, threatening them with death if they don’t join you in overthrowing the government, that IS terrorism, dependent on the other conditions, such as it’s not just you, and it’s not another government using dirty-war to force the nation to submit.

      The solutions to the problem of dealing with some outliers who insist on everyone else following their Way, Or Else, is different from the solutions of dealing with another country trying to conquer a country by making its citizenry afraid for their very lives. It is also different from the solutions for dealing with a single crazy who insists everyone follow HIS (or her,) Way.

      If you wish to roll police brutality in under the heading of terrorism, you can, but I won’t, because you’re basically saying the state also fails point 5.

      • The solutions to the problem of dealing with some outliers who insist on everyone else following their Way, Or Else, is different from the solutions of dealing with another country trying to conquer a country by making its citizenry afraid for their very lives. It is also different from the solutions for dealing with a single crazy who insists everyone follow HIS (or her,) Way.

        I’m not convinced that you’ve carved the problem at the joints, or that precisely defining “terrorism” is crucially important in dealing with violent conflict in general. I suspect any definition of terrorism will categorize the WTC bombing and 9/11 with the IRA and PLO, but these actions seem almost completely different.

        I’m also not convinced that a definition of terrorism has any purpose other than delegitimizing violent resistance to states without regard to the underlying issues.

        • “I’m also not convinced that a definition of terrorism has any purpose other than delegitimizing violent resistance to states without regard to the underlying issues.”

          I think the big difference between legitimate and illegitimate violent resistance to states lie not in the underlying issues but in the targets chosen. If the violence is directed at state institutions like the police, courts, or jails then it is legitimate. When it is directed against civilian targets, it is not. Hence, the twin towers attacks were completely illegitimate terroristic attacks; the attack against the Pentagon was partially legitimate, although the hijacking of a civilian airliner puts in into a mixed class. The Fort Hood shootings were legitimate acts of violence against the military arm of the State, not that I agree with the shooter but I acknowledge the legitimacy of the target.

          On the internal side of the coin, the storming of the Bastille could be considered a legitimate act of violent protest; the riots in Ferguson or Baltimore, being directed against civilian targets, were not.

          • Mike, I’m trying to get at the reasons we want to make some distinction. Why should the targets chosen be an effective or useful distinction? Is there a substantive philosophical distinction, or are we at best giving a post hoc rationalization that targets we have are illegitimate and targets they have are legitimate?

            I will restate my position a little more carefully: violence is justified if it effectively ameliorates some injustice and there is no practical and less violent alternative. I claim additional parsing adds no value.

            There are three paths, I think, in response. First, a proper definition of terrorism will show that what is so defined cannot be used to ameliorate any injustice, possibly because its inherent injustice exceeds any other injustice it intends to ameliorate.

            Second, a proper definition of terrorism could show that it is categorically ineffective at ameliorating any injustice.

            Third, my claim is just so out of whack that it is useless as a frame for discussing the issue.

            I would argue against the first path: “civilians” are in fact routinely targeted in all political violence. A crucial distinction Nathan seems to make is not just the target but the actor. A state killing civilians is not terrorism; non-state actors killing civilians is terrorism. If it is not inherently unjust for a state to kill civilians (which is not to say that some instance of a state killing civilians might be particularly unjust), why should it be inherently unjust for non-state actors to kill civilians? I think I’ve at least raised adequate questions about Nathan’s own justification from the first panel.

            The second path is an empirical criticism, and I don’t have any specific evidence either in support or in contradiction.

            If I could imagine an adequate claim in the third path, I wouldn’t have made my own claim in the first place, but I do not believe that the limits of my imagination are the limits of reality.

            • Someone who voluntarily associates himself with the State, especially with the coercive arms of the State such as police, military, or the judiciary, has placed themselves in the line of fire for those opposed to the State. A civilian who just resides in the State, or even supports the policies of said State, has not done so. That is, in my opinion, a substantive philosophical distinction between the two.

              • Mike, if you feel the need to add “in my opinion”, you probably have, well, expressed your opinion, and have not yet made a substantive philosophical distinction. There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion — I have no small few of my own — but they’re not really something we can discuss. Since we’re not presently discussing what movie to see or where to eat dinner, I’m not really interested in what your opinions are, I’m interested in why you have that opinion. If your only answer is just, “Well, that’s just what my opinion is,” then there’s nothing left to discuss.

                I can give some actual reasons why your opinion strikes me as unhelpful, however.

                The idea that people who “put themselves in the line of fire” are legitimate targets of violence is completely inverted in ordinary non-political violence. If Alice kills Bob, that’s just an ordinary murder, but we treat the murder of a police officer or judge as not only not legitimate, but as especially heinous. At the very least, your standard fails to generalize, so I’d like an account as to why it fails.

                Second, states exercising political violence routinely target civilians. Again, why should states’ targeting of civilians be not automatically or inherently unjust, but non-state actors’ targeting of civilians be automatically or inherently unjust? Again, your standard seems to fail to generalize: why?

                Third, you put yourself in a dilemma. Suppose arguendo we agree that there is some injustice so egregious that it justifies violence against some human beings. And suppose further that we could in fact ameliorate or end such injustice by using violence against civilians. (Note that if you disagreed with the above, we would be arguing a different point.) You are in the dilemma that you must either tolerate the grievous injustice or suborn killing civilians.

                Again I ask: is this a philosophical, principled distinction or a self-serving distinction? (I’m not trying to characterize you personally; this question is standard in ethical philosophy.) Do you adopt this distinction just because you personally face no injustice that might require the killing of civilians? Do you profit from such injustice, which is protected by the unassailable strength of soldiers and police? If you personally suffered such injustice, could you say with confidence that you would tolerate such an injustice, allow yourself to remain in slavery, so as not to injure those who had not put themselves in the line of fire, even those who profited from your slavery?

                • What constitutes a substantive philosophical distinction will always be a matter of opinion, as there is no mathematical quantification of substantive. That being said, I will attempt to answer your points.

                  In the matter of law, it has been considered that the killing of a policeman or a judge is a direct assault on the entire legal system and is therefore more strictly punished. I, however, totally agree that as a point of philosophical consistency this is not the way it should be. The point of my distinction is that when one becomes a soldier or a police officer, one voluntarily assumes certain risks that the typical civilian does not, in exchange for certain benefits the civilian does not receive. One of these risks is that of being the target of violence against the state.

                  I am not excusing state sponsored violence against civilians while condemning non-state sponsored actions, I am simply stating that state sponsored violence is not within the definition of terrorism, which is the topic of the discussion. The actions of a state against civilians comes under the category of war crimes, a topic for a different time.

                  Philosophically, I have never said that terrorism is inherently evil. Therefore, the question of my allowing injustice to continue if it can only be ended by terrorism does not arise on a generalized basis. If the situation were sufficiently intolerable and could only be ended by a terrorist campaign, I would support such a campaign. I would still define it as terroristic, however. Questions like this need to be answered on a case by case basis.

                  • The point of my distinction is that when one becomes a soldier or a police officer, one voluntarily assumes certain risks that the typical civilian does not, in exchange for certain benefits the civilian does not receive. One of these risks is that of being the target of violence against the state.

                    I don’t know what it means to accept or not accept a risk in this context. In my ordinary understanding, If I accept a risk, that means that I promise not to seek restoration or retribution for the consequence at risk. For example, when I park my car in the parking garage, I accept the risk it might be vandalized or stolen; i.e., I indemnify the garage owner for damage to or loss of my car.

                    Police officers certainly do not indemnify civilians for causing the police injury or death, so I’m not sure how the concept of assumption of risk applies. We can squint and tilt our heads to see an indemnification in war: enemy soldiers do face legal consequences for making war (but they do for crimes against humanity), but civilians do in fact face legal consequences for attacking soldiers.

                    I am not excusing state sponsored violence against civilians while condemning non-state sponsored actions, I am simply stating that state sponsored violence is not within the definition of terrorism, which is the topic of the discussion. The actions of a state against civilians comes under the category of war crimes, a topic for a different time.

                    My argument is that because terrorism is morally loaded, defining certain acts as “terrorism” does have the effect of excusing state-sponsored violence against civilians. And I fear that “a different time” will come late enough so that the underlying justification for defining “terrorism” is forgotten and the distinction between state and non-state violence becomes simple hypocrisy.

                    You also mention “the definition of terrorism” [emphasis added] as if there were some Platonic category we are trying to recall. But I don’t think definitions work that way. Definitions are pragmatic, not metaphysical. I always want to ask not what the definition is, but what do various definitions do.

                    Philosophically, I have never said that terrorism is inherently evil. Therefore, the question of my allowing injustice to continue if it can only be ended by terrorism does not arise on a generalized basis. If the situation were sufficiently intolerable and could only be ended by a terrorist campaign, I would support such a campaign. I would still define it as terroristic, however. Questions like this need to be answered on a case by case basis.

                    Fair enough, and close to my own substantive position. My argument, though, is that “terrorism”, like “murder”, are deeply normative. We label some homicides as murder precisely to convey that those homicides are wrong, even especially wrong. To say that murder (in the common meaning, not the legal meaning) is sometimes justified is contradictory. Thus, everyone knows exactly what I mean when I say, “The killing of Eric Garner was murder.” I’m making a moral judgment, not giving a legal opinion: (IIRC, legally, Garner’s death was ruled justifiable homicide).

                    Hence my objection is not that this or that definition is “objectively wrong”; my objection is that “terrorism” has a strong moral sense, so I want support for the idea that some objective definition matches the moral sense.

            • Lawrence, I feel like you are being deliberately obtuse. Distinguishing between “enemy agents” and “innocent bystanders” is not a rare or esoteric concept. You might disagree with how Mike has sorted people into those categories, but claiming that you can’t see any reason why such a distinction might be considered substantive is not credible.

              I believe it is a commonly-accepted ethical principle that deliberately attacking innocent bystanders is usually unacceptable, even in cases where using force against your direct enemies is justified, and even if attacking bystanders would somehow be effective at accomplishing your goals. The general reasoning being that certain kinds of bad behavior reduce the actor’s rights to be protected, and that in most cases this weakening of their rights is the only way your attack on them can pass ethical muster.

              For instance, if someone starts punching you, it’s generally considered OK to try to make them stop by punching them back. It’s generally NOT considered OK to try to make them stop by punching their kids.

              I don’t think this principle is compatible with a strictly consequentialist ethical system (unless you count the violation of abstract principles as a quantifiable harm, in which case I think “consequentialist” no longer has any descriptive value).

              But I also think that hardly anyone is a strict consequentialist.

              • You say “deliberately obtuse”; I say “philosophically rigorous”. 😀

                Distinguishing between “enemy agents” and “innocent bystanders” is not a rare or esoteric concept.

                You are introducing value-laden terminology. Why should we consider “terrorists” to be “enemy agents”? Why should we consider their targets to be “innocent bystanders”? Especially when, ex hypothesi, these “enemy agents” are fighting some injustice, and the “innocent bystanders” have at least some value in ending that injustice, and might be substantively benefiting from that injustice?

                But my core argument is not that this distinction is generally invalid, it’s that it’s hypocritical for the distinction to earn the morally laden label “terrorism” only for non-state actors.

                The general reasoning being that certain kinds of bad behavior reduce the actor’s rights to be protected, and that in most cases this weakening of their rights is the only way your attack on them can pass ethical muster.

                But why? This is the core of the philosophical method: I care most about why anyone thinks what they do.

                You can make all the assertions you like about what is generally thought, and I’ll probably agree with you, but that’s not what I care about. I care about the actual reasoning behind what you think. If you just think that because it is is generally thought, I’m unimpressed because I think what is generally thought might be completely mistaken and has definitely been so in the past.

                I don’t think this principle is compatible with a strictly consequentialist ethical system (unless you count the violation of abstract principles as a quantifiable harm, in which case I think “consequentialist” no longer has any descriptive value).

                But I also think that hardly anyone is a strict consequentialist.

                I definitely agree that “count[ing] the violation of abstract principles as a quantifiable harm” deprives consequentialism of descriptive value. However, I generally object to oversimplifying consequentialism and utilitarianism to short-term expediency. I think we can reject consequentialism only by saying that an action with definitely good consequences must always be rejected or an action with definitely bad consequences should nonetheless always be accepted. Otherwise, we’re just arguing over what the consequences actually might be, not whether an action is desirable for its consequences.

                • My primary point is not that you should necessarily accept some moral precept just because it’s popular, but that it is unreasonable for you to expect everyone you speak with to explain it from first principles as if you’ve never heard it before. This is well-trodden ground.

                  It would be reasonable for you to say something along the lines of “it sounds like you are essentially arguing X, which is sometimes justified on the basis of Y, but I think that justification is inadequate because of Z.”

                  I do NOT think it is reasonable for you to say something along the lines of “I refuse to acknowledge your obvious attempt to express a common viewpoint unless you first derive it from your most basic moral axioms with no assistance from me, and until then I’m going to talk around you.”

                  The former attempts to advance the conversation. The latter tends to stymie the conversation in an attempt to score points.

                  Furthermore, I don’t think it’s fair or helpful for you to respond to every moral statement with “but why?”, without articulating any positive argument for an alternative. You can say “but why?” to literally ANY claim and trap a conversation in an infinite regression–especially in philosophy and ethics, where there is no standard accepted set of axioms.

                  Even in mathematics–commonly considered the most rigorous field in all of human knowledge–experts can’t agree on whether we are playing a game with formal but arbitrary rules or talking about fundamental truths of reality. When someone tries to prove a specific mathematical theorem, we do not expect them to address that question.

                  If you want to champion an unorthodox position, I think the burden is on you to develop it, not simply to demand impractical levels of rigor from your opponents until they give up on talking to you.

                  Side notes:

                  – I never said we should automatically consider “terrorists” to be “enemy agents,” and I don’t think Mike did either. I believe he was developing an argument that people who solely target enemy agents should NOT be considered terrorists, regardless of other factors.

                  – Regardless of the wisdom or righteousness of applying the morally-laden term “terrorism” only to non-state actors (a topic on which I have not yet expressed any opinion), I fail to see how it can be *hypocritical*, unless someone in this thread is a state actor.

                  – In your final paragraph, I object to the word “always.” If a particular thing is recommended by consequentialism, then we reject consequentialism if we decide we should EVER do otherwise (in circumstances where consequentialism still recommends it). It is not necessary to ALWAYS do otherwise.

                  – An esoteric but completely-different objection to consequentialism you might find interesting: consequentialism is typically described as looking at the total sum of all good/bad effects stemming from a particular action (through the end of time) and recommending the highest sum. However, most *infinite* sums do not converge to any specific value. Therefore, hypothetically, if humanity survives for an infinite length of time after an action, then consequentialism will probably not give any coherent answer AT ALL about which action is “right” (let alone a “correct” answer), even for someone with perfect foreknowledge.

                  Whatever argument you have in mind for believing that consequentialism is correct: can you argue with a straight face that that argument ALSO proves that the sum of all future human history (including afterlives, if any) must be finite?

                  • [I]t is unreasonable for you to expect everyone you speak with to explain it from first principles as if you’ve never heard it before. . . . The latter tends to stymie the conversation in an attempt to score points.

                    Being a bossy jackass is not going to advance the conversation. I have been polite and respectful throughout. If Nathan objects to the tenor of my remarks, he is free to correct me. That I have annoyed you personally bothers me not in the least; that you have annoyed me probably bothers you equally.

                    I ask the questions I do because I think they’re important; I argue the way I do because I think it’s the most effective. If you find my questions and arguments unproductive, you are not compelled to address them.

                    ‘Nuff said; like I said, it is not yours or mine, it is Nathan’s prerogative to manage the tenor of the conversation.

                    You actually make a couple of substantive points in your side notes.

                    In your final paragraph, I object to the word “always.”

                    Fair enough. “Sometimes” is more accurate than always.

                    An esoteric but completely-different objection to consequentialism you might find interesting: consequentialism is typically described as looking at the total sum of all good/bad effects stemming from a particular action (through the end of time) and recommending the highest sum. However, most *infinite* sums do not converge to any specific value. Therefore, hypothetically, if humanity survives for an infinite length of time after an action, then consequentialism will probably not give any coherent answer AT ALL about which action is “right” (let alone a “correct” answer), even for someone with perfect foreknowledge.

                    I know a bit of mathematics. We are capable of forecasting the actual effect of specific actions only to very short terms, trying to actually forecast to infinity is presently infeasible. When we can reasonably forecast to infinity, your objection will become direct.

                    Because we are operating under conditions of risk and uncertainty, consequentialism relies on heuristics and general principles. However, the difference between consequentialism and deoticism lies precisely in the different ontological categories. Deonticism considers these heuristics and general principles ontologically primary: they exist, and the project of the moral philosopher is to discover them and urge their readers to comply with them. In contrast, consequentialists consider human welfare to be primary, and we construct and evaluate heuristics and general principles according to whether we have reason to believe they actually do advance human welfare.

                    Whatever argument you have in mind for believing that consequentialism is correct: can you argue with a straight face that that argument ALSO proves that the sum of all future human history (including afterlives, if any) must be finite?

                    I don’t understand this request. As noted above, except in special cases, I can’t forecast more than a few hours into the future. Also, I don’t really think I need to “prove” consequentialism: it’s more like a religion, not an objective truth. I just personally think it’s a nifty religion, and one that relies the least on brute ethical facts.

              • You can exclude “attacking enemy agents” from Nathan’s definition without resorting to questions of legitimacy. Attacking a military target as part of a rebellion is not an attempt to extort anyone, it’s an attempt to disable the enemy’s ability to operate; likewise, attacking other government targets, police, or factories producing military goods. In that context, it’s therefore not terrorism.

    • As far as I can tell, you are the only one talking about undermining the state. It sounds like a chunk of your argument is against a claim that nobody made.

      • Allow me to direct your attention to the first panel:

        One hallmark of civilization is the extent to which ONLY the government is allowed to exercise force. “I have a monopoly on violence as they say.” Terrorism strikes that in the face — it’s not just un-civilized, but anti-civilization.

        • Okay, I’ll grant you that one. It does kind of beg the question of what constitutes “civilization” which seems like a word that has an imprecise definition. I do think, however, that it is not central to the main focus of the pages up to this point, namely a working definition of terrorism. Civilization was not mentioned in the 5 point summary, so I claim that it is not really part of Nathan’s definition.

          • I claim that it is not really part of Nathan’s definition.

            I agree. However, it seems to be explicitly motivating his definition, which I think is more interesting than the definition itself.

  11. I want to add that we seem to be considering a morally relevant distinction. Hardly surprising: Nathan is a lawyer, and the law is all about making morally relevant distinctions, assigning individual situations to those morally relevant categories, and then the state acting in response to the morality of the action as designated by those categories. At least that seems to be at the core of it; judging from the original comic, the implementation details sometimes seem to overwhelm the underlying core.

    Thus we distinguish between murder, manslaughter, accident and self defense because these are categories are morally relevant. We do not distinguish between homicides committed by short people vs. tall people, even though we can objectively distinguish between short and tall people. We should not but actually do distinguish between homicides committed by black people and white people.

    Perhaps the distinction between terrorism and not-terrorism is an implementation detail: perhaps an unjust terrorist act is sufficiently different from an unjust non-terrorist act that the state should implement its responses to the respective injustices much differently. But I don’t yet buy that interpretation: “terrorism” is simply so morally loaded that I cannot yet see any distinction that does not have profound moral impact.

    • I think that is exactly it. The appropriate response depends on whether it was Terrorism or something horrible in a different category. For the same reason that it is important that you don’t try to put people in jail when another country goes to war with you, and you don’t launch a bombing campaign in response to a drive-by shooting. If you aren’t clear on what constitutes Terrorism, you can’t say what is or is not an appropriate response.

      • Perhaps. But then it becomes a less interesting discussion on appropriate legal and public policy. And unlike TIGtL, Nathan does not seem to be exploring the nitty-gritty legal underpinnings. He is, for example, defining “terrorism” without citing any legal authority, which leads me to believe he has a philosophical rather than a legal interest in the topic.

  12. Also, I think there’s a strong presumption that states are entitled to use whatever force they want against whomever they want; states have not only a monopoly on force but also legal sovereignty. So talking about non-state violence tends to automatically categorize it as bad. However, we do know that states can act immorally, so there must be moral resistance, and resistance without at least the threat violence is just opinion.

  13. Also, I think there’s a strong presumption that states are entitled to use whatever force they want against whomever they want; states have not only a monopoly on force but also legal sovereignty. So talking about non-state violence tends to automatically categorize it as bad. However, we do know that states can act immorally, so there must be moral resistance, and resistance without at least the threat of violence is just opinion.

    • I have to disagree with the presumption. The category of war crimes mitigates against states having the right to use unlimited force against external enemies and the various genocide trials put the same sort of limits on internal warfare (while i am not going to get into my usual rant about the misuse of the term genocide here). Ask the ghost of Eichmann if there is at least the threat of violence for such actions.

  14. KW says

    1. If you’re going to talk about “the Fort Hood shooting”, you should clarify which one you’re talking about; there have been two, both of which were on national news.

    2. Real terrorism scares the crap outta people. “Cyber-terrorism”, etc., doesn’t.

    3. If you could somehow eliminate war for reasons other than pure self-defense, I suspect you’d have a lot more true peace.

  15. grinvader says

    Friendly typo reporter:
    “Federal Burueau of Investigation” in the last panel.

  16. Scott McNay says

    Can someone more suitable than I come up with a poem which includes the phrase “watery bowels”? We can use that poem as the definition. 🙂

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