In the wake of the Boston attack, I thought I would share my view of what makes someone a terrorist. Defining terrorism has proven especially daunting. The main reason is that any definition is condemnatory. The word “terrorism” is not a purely descriptive term; it has strong negative connotations. No one says “I’m a proud terrorist.” The definitions offered by writers and legal documents differ, but they converge on two factors: the method of violence chosen by the terrorist, and the fact that his purposes are political. Whatever else he does, the terrorist targets innocent persons in order to further, actually or symbolically, a political cause.

I accept the pejorative connotation of the concept and provide a definition that reflects that condemnation. A terrorist, I stipulate, is someone who (1) outside the traditional war context, (2) uses immoral means (the deliberate killing of civilians), (3) in the pursuit of an unjust political cause. This definition allows us to differentiate categories of violent actors:

1) The War Criminal: Someone who uses violence in the traditional war context and violates ius in bello, for example by deliberately targeting civilians, is a war criminal, but not a terrorist. Example: the Allied bombing of Dresden in World war II.

2) The Unjust Enemy: Someone in the traditional war context who pursues an unjust cause while abiding by ius in bello is an unjust belligerent, but neither a war criminal nor a terrorist. Example: Perhaps the Germans in World War I.

3) The Criminal Unjust Enemy: Someone in the traditional war context who pursues an unjust cause with immoral means. He violates both ius ad bellum and ius in bello. Example: The Germans in World War II.

4) The Freedom Fighter Who is Also a Criminal: Someone outside the traditional war context who pursues a just cause but in violation of ius in bello, for example by targeting civilians, may be considered a freedom fighter who is also a criminal, but not a terrorist. Example: Perhaps the Maqui French Resistance in World War II, or the Roumanian revolutionaries who overthrew Ceaucescu.

5) The Unblemished Freedom Fighter: Someone outside the traditional war context who pursues a just cause using moral means is a fully justified freedom fighter. Example: Hard to find. Maybe the recent Libyan revolutionaries, not sure.

6) The Subversive: Someone outside the war context who pursues an unjust cause with moral means (that is, he does not target innocents) is a  criminal (since he commits insurrection and unjustifiably kills police officers, etc.), but not a terrorist. Example: Perhaps the South Korean sympathizers with the North, should they be willing to take arms against the South Korean government but spare civilians.

7) The Terrorist: Finally, someone outside the war context who pursues an unjust cause using unjust means is a terrorist. Example: the 9/11 attackers.

It follows that if the Boston bombers were justified in retaliating against the American Empire (they had a just cause), they would fall under category (4) above, freedom fighters, but would still be criminals by virtue of the illegitimate means they used (bombing innocents.) If one takes the position (which I favor) that they did not have a just cause, the Boston bombers (like the 9/11 attackers before them) were terrorists, because both their means and their ends were unjust. They were doubly wrong. They were wrong because they targeted civilians. This is enough, of course, to hold them accountable, just cause or not. However, they were also wrong because they pursued an unjustified political objective. This is of course a purely verbal issue, but I think the definition I suggest may help distinguish those categories with more clarity.

There is another reason behind my suggestion that a terrorist should be defined by his advancement of an unjust cause, in addition to his targeting of civilians: A typical terrorist is a principled evildoer. A theory of evil must distinguish between opportunistic evil and principled evil. Most criminals are opportunistic: they act in self-interest. Their goal is to gain something for themselves, wealth, power, or whatever. The ordinary murderer for monetary gain is in this category. But other criminals are principled. They do evil, not out of selfish motives, but because they act out of evil maxims. Terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden and tyrants like Jorge Videla, Adolf Hitler, and the Taliban arguably belong in this category. These persons are typically fanatic and immune to corruption or other temptations. Here, being principled is a vice, not a virtue, because the value of fidelity to one’s principle is entirely parasitic on the validity of the principle. Because the terrorist has an unjust cause, his tenacious efforts to impose divine governance or whatever (to advance his unjust cause) count, morally, against him. The terrorist’s fearlessness (shown by his willingness to die for his cause) and perseverance make him particularly objectionable, fearsome, and difficult to confront. Al Qaeda’s proud admission of their crimes and their firm attachment to the principles in the name of which they commit them make them morally worse than if they acted for personal gain.

Some may think that the fact that they do these things sincerely in the name of Islam makes them less open to criticism. After all, they are principled. I suggest exactly the opposite: we have stronger reasons to fight principled criminals than opportunistic criminals, both because their maxim is evil and because they cannot be easily bribed or persuaded. The only way to stop principled evildoing is, alas, by force.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/jtlevy Jacob Levy

    But alas, that throws us back onto “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”– we must agree on the justice or injustice of the cause before we can agree on the terminology used to describe means. I don’t know what that should be more true of terrorism– a word that is etymologically *about* a choice of means– when it is not true of other parts of ius in bello. And there has been some progress in making “terrorism” a term of criticism regardless of political disagreement about who is on what side; shifting to this definition seems to give that progress up.

    Nor do I think that just any unjust means count as terrorism. Killing soldiers who have surrendered rather than taking them prisoner is unjust, a violation of ius in bello and of the Geneva Conventions; it is not terrorism. The same holds for torture, or for assassination. The same holds for attacking military targets without due concern for the proportionality rule or for minimizing civilian casualties. Terrorism is not an *indifference to* civilian casualties, though such indifference is unjust. It is a deliberate targeting of civilians in ways that are meant to inspire terror in the rest of the civilian population, and so to advance one’s own political cause by weakening the political will (not the material capacity) of the opposing side.

    Most guerilla movements violate (at least some understandings of) the law of war, by hiding amidst the civilian population, not fighting in uniform, etc. But this does not make guerillas in an unjust cause terrorists.

    • Fernando Teson

      Yes, Jacob. My definition doesn’t make these things any easier at the fundamental level. The requirement of proportionality is assumed. I didn’t want to introduce it in the post because the issue is devilishly complicated already. A guerrilla in an unjust cause will be a terrorist, under my definition, if he uses impermissible means; for example, if the guerrilleros take innocent hostages and kill them one by one until they get their demands satisfied. I agree that simply living among the civilian population would not make them terrorists. What this shows is that perhaps the rules of ius in bello are different for armies than for civilian revolutionaries. Not wearing a uniform is part of the definition of “being outside a war context”, so that alone would not suffice to make them terrorists (of course, they are using criminal violence and answerable for that, since they are unjustified in the first place.)

      • http://profiles.google.com/jtlevy Jacob Levy

        “A guerrilla in an unjust cause will be a terrorist, under my definition, if he uses impermissible means”– regardless of whether those means are about attacking civilians in a terror-inducing way? Is a guerilla in an unjust cause a terrorist if he executes wounded enemy soldiers?

        • Fernando Teson

          Mmm..good question. Maybe the impermissible means that make him a terrorist should be defined as attacks on civilians. Executing a wounded soldier is murder, though.

          • Sean II

            Who says civilians ought to be considered off-limits?

            Orwell had it right. There is simply no reason why the mass murder of young male conscripts should be thought morally superior to the mass murder of any other kind of people.

            One can easily argue that the idea of civilian immunity is precisely what gets nations involved in adventures like World War I or an Iraqi Freedom.

            You think those crowds would have cheered so, if the costs of state violence were evenly distributed?

          • Sean II

            Come out to play, my little down-vote warrior.

            I’m aching to know why you think it is right that victims of inter- governmental violence should be drawn only from one group defined by age and gender and bad luck.

          • http://profiles.google.com/jtlevy Jacob Levy

            I’m not your down-voter, but I think the longstanding answer is the right one: in a fallen world that has war in it, enemy combatants are threats, no matter how innocent they are or how that came to be true. The moral harm in slaughtering lots of innocent conscripts is part of the calculation of how morally terrible it is to have wars. But once war is underway, it is rightly not considered a crime for our combatants to kill their combatants and vice-versa.

            In short: blame for the mass murder of conscripted soldiers attaches to the political leadership who didn’t avoid a war. And, as a libertarian, I of course also think that blame for the death of conscripts attaches to their own side’s political leadership for enslaving them in the first place. But it doesn’t attach the soldiers on the other side who pull the trigger (who may well also be there involuntarily and are acting in a kind of self-defense once the shooting starts). Blame for the murder (mass or otherwise) of civilians attaches to the soldier who commits it, in addition to those who brought the whole situation about.

          • Fernando Teson

            Have you looked at Jeff McMahan’s work on this point? He claims that every death caused by a soldier in an unjust war is murder. This is different from whether or not the soldier can be excused.

          • http://profiles.google.com/jtlevy Jacob Levy

            Yes, I have. But Jeff knows that he’s arguing something that runs against the weight of received moral and legal opinion, and I don’t find in his arguments sufficient reason to overturn that accumulated weight, or my own best understanding.

          • Fernando Teson

            Jacob, I paste my response to benrhuges below on why ends matter.

            “But if you don’t talk about the justice of the cause, it turns out that you have no resources to condemn the Al Qaeda attackers who bomb the Pentagon (assuming they hit only military people). This is unacceptable. Al Qaeda is wrong, not only because they targeted civilians, but because their cause (defeating the West, or whatever) is wrong. Unless you insist on that, you will only have their methods to hold them answerable. If they use clean methods, then you must shut up, since you don’t think the “why” matters.”

          • http://profiles.google.com/jtlevy Jacob Levy

            We still have the resources of talking about the injustice of the cause. We don’t need to call an unjust cause “terrorism” in order to say it’s an unjust cause! Moreover, the attack on the Pentagon still qualifies as terrorism by the use of the civilians on the airplane, and the deliberate strategy of spreading terror through the use of hijacked civilian planes as weapons. The Pentagon’s status as a legitimate war target makes very little difference in that case.

          • Sean II

            Lots of problems I see here:

            1) Not all enemy combatants are threats. An Iraqi infantryman cowering in a hole is no threat to a Boeing B-52. Plus, given his known propensity to surrender rather than fight, it can be wondered how much of a threat he poses even to a U.S. infantryman. If combatants can be killed because they are threats, then non-threatening combatants shouldn’t be killed, and non-combatant threats surely should.

            2) Why is it “not considered a crime” when our combatants kill their combatants? What if it turns out our combatants have no right to be in combat? How can the resulting deaths be other than a crime?

            3) The line between combatants and non-combatants is not always clear, so even if you’re right about 2), in practice it’s not terribly helpful. If an adobe hut contains two full-time combatants, two part-time irregulars, one civilian who feeds and hides them, and four civilians who know all about it but just don’t actively help or hinder…you tell me, is it “not considered a crime” to bomb that hut?

            4) What if the hut contains one extremely dangerous combatant and ten innocent kids? According to your standard, bombing it should be okay because the “threat” potential of combatants is what makes them morally eligible to be killed. Yet somehow I doubt you accept that consequence in this example.

            5) “Blame for the murder of civilians attaches to the soldier…” Okay, so that would mean all bomber pilots and most artillery men and a fair percentage of infantrymen who happen not to be crack marksmen are therefore war criminals. Perhaps you mean to say that blame attaches to soldiers who knowingly kill civilians in bad faith? A slightly different and significantly more limited proposition, that.

            6) Even so…have you noticed that soldiers are people? There is a limit – a limit of descriptive ethics, not of normative ethics – to what can be expected of them. Take a scenario:

            The U.S. pointlessly invades Switzerland (maybe to prevent tax cheating or some un-libertarian thing like that). The Swiss have no hope to beat us in an open country campaign, so they form a resistance. The resistance fights back smart, cheap, and nasty. Random mortars, back-of-the-head gunshots to guys on sentry duty, cafe bombs, “honey traps”, port-a-potty frags, etc.

            One day after a particularly gruesome attack kills and cripples a few of their friends, a platoon of Marines – and let us not forget what they are, mostly high school drops outs herded through a program of deliberate brutalization – gets fed up and marches into a village looking for revenge. When they can’t find any resistance suspects, they make do killing resistance sympathizers…which category seems to include everyone they meet.

            As I calculate the blame for that, it seems like state = 100%, soldiers = however much you can blame someone for being human in a situation where only superhuman qualities could serve to hold back the barbarism inherent in the situation.

          • http://profiles.google.com/jtlevy Jacob Levy

            “4) What if the hut contains one extremely dangerous combatant and ten innocent kids? According to your standard, bombing it should be okay because the “threat” potential of combatants is what makes them morally eligible to be killed. Yet somehow I doubt you accept that consequence in this example.”

            You’re right to doubt it. I’m defending the traditional rules of war, in this case including a proportionality constraint on the doctrine of double effect.

            “5) “Blame for the murder of civilians attaches to the soldier…” Okay, so that would mean all bomber pilots and most artillery men and a fair percentage of infantrymen who happen not to be crack marksmen are therefore war criminals. Perhaps you mean to say that blame attaches to soldiers who knowingly kill civilians in bad faith? A slightly different and significantly more limited proposition, that.”

            I said “*murder* of civilians,” continuing the use of the word “murder” from your Orwell quote, and then you offered counterexamples of the *deaths* of civilians. Not every killing is a murder. Again, doctrine of double effect including a proportionality constraint. Blame accrues to soldiers who violate those rules and *target* civilians for death.

          • Sean II

            Ah, but how quickly that proportionality constraint becomes mere wind. They can always claim the desperado in the hut was going to kill more than 10 innocents if we didn’t get him. You can always claim that 10 dead kids is too many for the sake of one desperado. There is nothing to tip the scale this way or that. And this was an easy case, compared to those that arise every day in the fog of war!

            If it wasn’t clear before, let it be now: I was using “mass murder” and “unnatural death in war” as synonyms. I hang nothing on any distinction between those terms. So that point, as they say, does no violence to mine.

            Finally, I put it to you that the distinction between “intends” and “foresees” is very much weaker than you suppose. Whatever type of animal could have that for a moral principle, it isn’t humans. We are far too prone to willfully ignore the logical and probable consequences of our actions. No armed robber ever “intends” to shoot anyone, but every armed robber is able to foresee that as logical and probable consequence of his actions, and in that case (as in so many others) to foresee is to intend.

          • Tedd

            That’s a very good point about conscripts. But it’s also important to recognize that not all soldiers are conscripts. In the case of what we used to call western countries, conscripts are now rare to non-existent, and probably will be from now on. It seems to me that there is a moral difference between killing soldiers who are there of their own volition and killing conscripts, who are there to avoid being imprisoned or killed at home.

        • Tedd

          This distinction between civilians and captured soldiers (or wounded soldiers, presupposing that wounded means no longer fighting) probably seems clearer to someone who has not been a soldier. I think that, from the perspective of a soldier, a soldier who is no longer fighting (either because of capture or incapacity) is morally in pretty much the same category as a civilian. Perhaps not exactly, but awfully darned close.

    • Fernando Teson

      One little thing: that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter doesn’t mean they are both right. I’m not a moral subjectivist, even if the truth is hard to find.

  • martinbrock

    A random, serial killer motivated by politics but not yet or no longer a statesman.

  • les kyle Nearhood

    We need to put things in perspective. We have only faced a very few terror attacks in recent years and should not let it change our laws or methods. The Western nations survived a much much worse and concentrated terror campaign from the years 1890-1914. Anarchists killed five heads of state including a US president, many members of legislatures, and random bombs killed citizens in nearly every major city.

    How did the people of that time deal with it? It would behoove us to study this history.

  • ben

    I see no reason to drop the word ‘terrorist’ in case of an allegedly “just” cause.

    If you want to differentiate, you could just as well say “terrorist, but for a just cause” rather than “freedom fighter, but also a criminal” – the latter sounds far too condoning.

    • Tedd

      Isn’t the point, though, not the alleged justness or unjustness of the cause, but the actual justness or unjustness? Teson is clearly not claiming that it’s easy to make that judgement, only that there is such a thing as just and unjust causes, and that the difference is morally relevant.

  • benrhughes

    This is interesting, but I think you may have missed a core part of the definition of a terrorist: their aim is to enact their desired political change by causing terror within the civilian population. This is, of course, why it is called terrorism.

    To me this is a much clearer definition, because you don’t have to worry about whether or not their cause is just, assuming that’s even possible to assess. If an attack is aimed at civilians with the aim to instil fear, I’m not sure that the *who* or *why* really matters.

    • Sean II

      Trick of it is…scaring the civilian population has been a military objective ever since the 1st Battle of Olduvai Gorge. So if we use that definition you’ve got two problems: 1) It includes way too much, and so fails to denote, and 2) It doesn’t solve the negative connotation problem with the term terrorism. The dam busting raids in Operation Chastise were designed in part to cause political change by making Germans think of Hitler as a synonym for “Hey, the lights are out and my drinking water tastes like air”. Are you prepared to call those raids “terrorism” and pretend you mean the same thing as other people do when they use what has, after all, become a very common term?

      • benrhughes

        I didn’t mean for that to be the entire definition – just a very important part of it. I was thinking of it more as a replacement for part (3) of the definition in the post. So my full definition would be something like:

        (1) outside the traditional war context, (2) uses immoral means (the deliberate killing of civilians), (3) aims to instil fear in the civilian population to facilitate political change

        I shouldn’t have said that the “who” doesn’t matter – it does from definitional point of view, but not from a moral point of view.

        • Sean II

          Hmmm…here’s a hard case for you. Imagine it was possible in a “just” traditional war context, without killing any civilians, to use leaflets and whispering campaigns to make an entire nation of Muslims believe all their food is being laced with pork.

          No actual violence is required here, but clearly we are deliberately causing a whole lot of people to experience a whole lot of subjective suffering to facilitate either political change or…well, you know, just fucking with them for the sheer sake of same.

          Terrorism or no?

          • benrhughes

            I’d say no – that sounds more like psychological warfare to me. I think terrorism always uses violence as its means of instilling fear.

          • Sean II

            Shouldn’t you just call it “violence-ism” then? If one can put millions of people in terror of eternal damnation (as in my pork-poisoning example) without being guilty of terrorism, it seems the time has come to get a whole new word. As you have it, the defining feature is the means of violence and not just the end of terror, so why not?

            It’s worth noting that actual terrorists seem to disagree with you. Their objective is to frighten millions, not to kill dozens. The killing is merely a means.

          • Kevin

            But if they stuck to lawful means like distributing leaflets and whisper campaigns, then they wouldn’t be terrorists. Terrorizing is not the same as terrorism.

    • Fernando Teson

      Yes, after all it is a question of semantics. But if you don’t talk about the justice of the cause, it turns out that you have no resources to condemn the Al Qaeda attackers who bomb the Pentagon (assuming they hit only military people). This is unacceptable. Al Qaeda is wrong, not only because they targeted civilians, but because their cause (defeating the West, or whatever) is wrong. Unless you insist on that, you will only have their methods to hold them answerable. If they use clean methods, then you must shut up, since you don’t think the “why” matters.

      • benrhughes

        Is an attack on an “enemy” military complex necessarily definitionally wrong, just because it happens outside the scope of a formal war? The only reason the attack on the Pentagon counts as terrorism is because it was part of a larger co-ordinated attack and involved civilians on the plane. If it had been a single strike on the pentagon by an empty plane, I don’t think it counts as terrorism.

      • TracyW

        Why would you have no resources to condemn these hypothetical Al Qaeda attackers?

        Sounds quite easy to me:
        “Group A are evil terrible terrorists.”
        “Group B (hypothetical miltiary-only Pentagon attackers, are evil, terrible, violent, religious fanatics.”

        There’s plenty of ways of condemning people without using the term “terrorist”.

  • Ondrej

    I would perhaps go easy with the “unjust political cause”. Think V for Vendetta. Violent protection of moral causes when there is no other means of defence seems a pretty just political reason to me.

  • http://twitter.com/Fair_Nick Nick Fair

    It follows from your analysis that many members of the US and UK (and other NATO countries) Armed Forces are terrorists as they have undoubtedly operated outside of a “war context” in many theatres and in the eyes of millions around the word have pursued unjust causes. How do we all feel about being protected by terrorists rather than soldiers?

  • ThaomasH

    Good distinctions.
    “Some may think that the fact that they do these
    things sincerely in the name of Islam makes them less open to criticism.”
    I
    have not heard this defense but it is important not to let terrorists define “Islam,”
    and even more so in order not to make assimilation of Muslim immigrants into
    our liberal society more difficult.

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  • Dr S T Lakshmikumar

    There is simply no way in which we can “define” anything. It is bets to remember that this is circular. the meaning of the word is after all another word. Most people in the western world would rate terrorism as even worse than personal criminal act. Very understandable. There are two and only two ways of organizing a society. One where the “rules of society” are formulated by common consent and there is no punishment for “advocating a change”. One is punished only for violating the rules. The individuals renounce “personal revenge” in favor of the society. As Amartya Seb pointed out two democracies rarely even go to war! Terrorists represent those who do not agree with this way of organizing the society. Thus the Oklahoma bomber is a terrorist as are the Boston bombers.

  • TracyW

    Why do you think there should be a tight definition?

    Obviously, if one is writing an empirical paper about terrorism, or proposing a crime, one needs a reasonably tight definition. But in ordinary every-day language we get by with poorly defined words all the time.

    Furthermore, when it comes to perjorative language, people do have a tendency to try to expand the definition to cover whatever they strongly disapprove of, no matter how tightly defined the original was. Example, how the word decimate is no longer used exclusively in the sense of killing 1/10th. Or the tendency to call people Nazis or fascists which brought about Godwin’s Law.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9804991 Alexander Flyax

    You can certainly classify anything or anyone into whatever categories you want. For instance, you can say that “terrorists” are only the ones who use home-made weapons (such as pressure cookers), while “paramilitary forces” are the ones who use bona-fide weapons, such as the ones “real military” would use (e.g., real bombs. made in government-contracted factories). Or you can say that “terrorists” have black hair, while “paramilitary forces” have brown hair.

    But any classification scheme has to be useful. You can focus on as many or as few “important differences” as you want. The question is: how does it aid whatever goal you’re trying to achieve in your classification?

    For me, an important goal is morality of action. Or lawfulness of it (from the point of view of natural law; i.e., asking: “is the action X done by person A breaking anyone’s natural rights?”). In that sense, I don’t see a major difference between the immorality of blowing up a major city full of civilians to achieve some political/military goals when done by a “real army” or “rebels” or “paramilitaries” or “private terrorists”. A person who does such an act or commands others to do so is a criminal. It doesn’t matter whether 51% of the country voted him in into some office, or if he is acting on his own private initiative.

    Also, such an analysis as in the post above betrays statist ideology: granting certain legitimacy or independence to a state. Which is fine, if that’s what your cup of tea. But I look at all interactions between humans as just that: interactions between individuals. I don’t grant political leaders some new moral or legal powers or properties resulting from being elected by a mystical emergent phenomenon of a “state”.

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  • Robb Kerr

    If an economist is an expert in the economy, wouldn’t we be safe to say that a terrorist is an expert in terror? I don’t see why it’s an issue to define. Someone who terrorizes someone else, is a terrorist. Seriously, how can this be a hard thing to nail down? American bombs terrorize Iraqi people, but so do insurgent bombs. But the Americans are not terrorists? How can terrorizing people not be considered terrorism? Is someone who travels inside their own country not a tourist? Traveling is tourism… Scaring people is terrorism.. I mean honestly, this isn’t a hard thing to figure out. The simple fact is, we consider terrorists to be the people who fight wars for reasons other than our own. In Palestine, the Israelis are terrorists. In Israel, Palestinians are terrorists. So who are the terrorists, the Israelis or the Palestinians? How is dropping 2 nuclear bombs on Japan not an act of terror when suicide bombing 2 markets in Kandahar is? Read this article…

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2113410/US-soldier-kills-16-Afghan-civilians-deadly-shooting-rampage.html

    US soldier kills 16 Afghan civilians. 9 of which were children, then he burned their bodies! But guess what!? That’s right, he’s NOT a terrorist. Of course, if an Afghani soldier were to kill 16 civilians in Ohio, he WOULD be a terrorist. Why? I could tell you why, but then you would say I’m a racist. However, it comes down to race. This US soldier CAN’T be a terrorist because he’s a WHITE AMERICAN.

    What is a terrorist? A terrorist is someone who terrorizes. It has nothing to do with where they are from or what they believe. To cause terror is to be a terrorist.

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