Justification for Terrorism?

This one is from another paper I wrote for my National Security class, specifically discussing the United States and state-sponsored terrorism (a controversial topic in and of itself), but this bit hit upon the controversial discussion of whether terrorism can or cannot be justified, and an example of this that we should all too familiar with. In light of the terrorist attack/mass shooting in Orlando and the attack in Turkey that recently occurred, I do not mean to justify them by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, I try to provide a scholarly basis on which terrorism MIGHT be justified. Such a position, I do not take myself.

“The literature on the justification for terrorism, especially related to state and state- sponsored terrorism is quite scant, primarily because the state, as an entity, has been thought of as the only group that can legitimately use violence in a legitimate sense, while terrorism is inherently illegitimate.[1] Nonetheless, there still has been some debate in academia of ethical and political research. Professor of Philosophy and Ethics J. Corlett notes that “targeting of the innocent violates the fundamental moral intuition that innocent persons ought not be targets or victims of violent physical attack. How, then, can it be morally justified? What possible role can terrorism have in society besides a negative one?”[2] He later goes onto state that “terrorism is morally problematic to the extent that it targets or results in the harming of innocents. […] But even if terrorism is unconcerned with the harming of innocent persons, it hardly follows from this supposition that terrorism must be directed at innocents. Indeed, most terrorist activity, whether morally justified or not, is aimed at a perceived wrongdoer or group of wrongdoers.”[3] Using Corlett’s definition of terrorism[4], only the Afghan mujahedeen’s use of terrorism in the Afghan-Soviet war is justified against the country’s Soviet occupiers [compared to the other terrorist funding ventures I mentioned in the paper]. Igor Primoratz argues on a similar line as Corlett, but for different reasons, specifically that “recourse to it [terrorism] may be morally permissible, if a people or a political community finds itself in extremis [in extreme circumstances], and terrorism is the only way out.”[5]

Even if a state finds itself in extremis, that still does not legitimize the taking of innocent lives in the process (per Corlett’s model), as the United States’ support for state-sponsored terrorism even went so far as to supporting terrorism within the United States. One example of this was Operation Northwoods, formulated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to respond “to a request of [the Chief of Operations, Cuba Project] office for brief but precise description of pretexts which would provide justification for US military intervention in Cuba.”[6] The document, classified as “TOP SECRET SPECIAL HANDLING NOFORN”, called for, among other things “A series of well coordinated incidents will be planned to take place in and around Guantanamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces. […] blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba. […] develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. […] Hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft should appear to continue as harassing measures condoned by the government of Cuba.”[7] The plan was rejected by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and President John Kenndey, but nonetheless shows the willingness of top military brass to conduct acts of terrorism, even on American soil against American citizens.

[But] as a United Nations co-sponsored international counter-terrorism conference in Tunis concluded, “terrorism has no justification, no matter what pretext terrorists may use for their deeds.”[8] Terrorism can come in many forms, but none of them are justifiable, even if they might have some good intentions.”

[1]: Lamb, Melayna. “Can the Concept of State Terror Be Theoretically Justified?” E-International Relations. October 13, 2012. Accessed March 22, 2016. http://www.e-ir.info/2012/10/13/can-the-concept-of-state-terror-be-theoretically-justified/.
[2]: Corlett, J. “Can Terrorism Be Morally Justified?” Public Affairs Quarterly 10, no. 3 (July 1996): 163-84. Accessed March 22, 2016. http://www.jstor.org.proxyko.uits.iu.edu/stable/40435951?&seq=1.
[3]: Ibid.
[4]: “Terrorism is the attempt to achieve (or prevent) political, social, economic, or religious change by the actual or threatened use of violence against other persons or other persons’ property; the violence (or threat thereof) employed in terrorism is aimed partly at destabilizing the existing political or social order, but mainly at publicizing the goals or cause espoused by the terrorists or by those on whose behalf the terrorists act; often, though not always, terrorism is aimed at provoking extreme counter-measures which will win public support for the terrorists and their cause.”
[5]: Primoratz, Igor. “Terrorism Is Almost Always Morally Unjustified, but It May Be Justified as the Only Way of Preventing a “moral Disaster”.” EUROPP. August 29, 2013. Accessed March 22, 2016. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2013/04/29/terrorism-moral-disaster-justified-igor-primoratz-philosophy/.
[6]: “Operation Northwoods.” Smeggy’s Forums. Accessed March 21, 2016. http://www.smeggys.co.uk/operation_northwoods.php.
[7]: Ibid.
[8]: “Terrorism Can Never Be Justified, Participants at Joint UN Conference Conclude.” UN News Center. November 19, 2007. Accessed March 21, 2016. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=24725.


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