Defining “Terrorism”

There’s been a bit of skirmish between Andrew Sullivan (on the conservative side) and Glenn Greenwald (on the liberal side) about whether the beheading of a British soldier in London should be labeled “an act of terrorism.”

As best I can tell, Sullivan’s clearly in the wrong here. (My ability to tell is somewhat limited by Sullivan’s pay wall – despite the fact that he had earlier claimed that the pay wall wouldn’t block those clicking in from other sites. I’m hesitant to subscribe to Sullivan’s site precisely because of episodes like these. Greenwald’s voice is far more important than Sullivan’s, and if I’m going to pay pundits, I’d rather support people who are more consistent in pushing in the right direction.)

Sullivan asks whether Greenwald thinks that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were “deliberate attempts to kill Muslim civilians” (which is an example of poisoning the well, since Greenwald obviously does not think this) and accuses Greenwald of claiming that Western military actions in the Middle East “legitimize” the murder of a British soldier in London, which Greenwald not only didn’t do, but he repeatedly went out of his way in his original piece to emphasize that the murder was horrific and completely unjustified.

So, pretty bad on Sullivan’s part. Greenwald takes him down here

But I’m not interested in the petty gossip.

I am, however, somewhat intrigued by Greenwald’s question of whether there is any reasonable definition of “terrorism” that would include the London murder but exclude, for example, U.S. drone strikes against suspected “militants” who are sleeping in their homes with their families.

It’s a question of natural kinds and concepts; and that’s the sort of things that can get a philosopher’s ears to perk up.

As Greenwald emphasizes, one feature that is frequently invoked to say that an act of violence is “terrorism” is the fact that it is directed against civilians. That’s inapplicable here, since the London murder victim was a soldier. Of course, he wasn’t engaged in combat at the time or even in uniform, but (and this is one of the points Greenwald wants to highlight) the U.S. and its allies have maintained that it’s OK to kill “militants” no matter where they are, what they’re doing, or how they’re dressed.

I was surprised when looking at some responses to Greenwald’s piece (e.g., here and here) that it seems common for right-wingers to focus less on the manner and motivation of the attack, and more on who is doing the attacking. You’re not a “terrorist” as long as you’re an official member of a nation state’s military.

Of course, there’s something to this, insofar as we wish to contrast terrorism to “legitimate” military action. An important reason that soldiers wear uniforms is so that combatants can be distinguished from noncombatants, thereby encouraging the safety of civilians. Likewise, it is true that the term “terrorism” typically is not applied to the war crimes committed by soldiers, even if the crimes are in fact intended to terrorize a populace.

But if we want the term to carry normative, rather than merely descriptive, force, then there seems to be no good reason to differentiate the very same sorts of activities (setting off bombs in crowded markets, for example) just because one was performed by soldiers and another by someone who isn’t acting on behalf of a nation state.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that it’d be best to valuate the (im)morality of these actions independently of the question of whether they count as “terrorism.” One of the many intellectual and moral errors of the post-9/11 era is the attempt to have the concept of “terrorism” and “terrorist” do a lot of work in our legal and ethical frameworks.

That’s just a bad idea.

Terrorism is really, really messy as a natural/social kind. As Greenwald rightly points out, it is very often used in practice only to label what “they” (the bad guys) do. It’s implicitly treated as an analytic truth that “we” (the good guys) could never be terrorists.

That’s bad philosophy, bad politics, and . . . Well, it’s just bad.


One response to “Defining “Terrorism”

  1. Pingback: I got Sully’s attention. | Physicalism

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