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Just war and terrorism

August 06, 2012

THE theory of ‘just war’ is a widely used paradigm for analysing the morality of international relations, specifically warfare.

The just war theory maintains that warfare must meet certain criteria to be legitimate. It can also be used to gauge the morality of violence other than warfare, enacted by entities other than states. Like warfare, terrorism can be a strategic decision, following a deliberate cost-benefit analysis, to engage in violent struggle.

The just war theory has two categories: jus ad bellum which comprises six criteria that justify going to war, and jus in bello, two criteria that govern the conduct of warfare.

The moral requirements for embarking on war are: 1) a just cause (e.g., national self-defence, self-determination); 2) a country or other entity must be the legitimate representative of its members; 3) good intentions (i.e., acting in accordance with the cause that prompted war); 4) war as a last resort (i.e., all reasonable non-violent options have been reasonably exhausted); 5) the probability of victory is sufficiently high to make going to war worthwhile; and 6) proportionality (i.e., the predicted costs of going to war must not surpass the anticipated benefits).

The requirements for the conduct of a just war are: 7) proportionality (i.e., the methods of winning a war must minimise the loss of life); 8) discrimination (i.e., warfare must specify legitimate targets, including combatants).

Each of the eight criteria for entering and engaging in war must be satisfied if that war is indeed just. The criteria for a just war are often ambiguous, however. Some criteria permit substantial variation in their application, such as determining when a threat becomes clear and imminent (e.g., weapons of mass destruction), or discriminating between legitimate and illegitimate targets. Likewise, the evidence required to evaluate whether criteria have been met is often unavailable, such as the many stated and un-stated intentions that frame a decision.

Terrorists may claim or be presented as morally choosing violence and violent means in keeping with the just war theory. They may assert that their cause is righteous and their intentions noble, that they have a constituency and their use of terror comes after exhausting non-violent options, or that terrorism will bring about needed change and that its cost is outweighed by the benefits that will accrue in victory.

Terrorists may also allege that their methods minimise death and destruction relative to other forms of violence, and that their targets include legitimate — albeit non-traditional — adversaries.

Nevertheless, the moral justification of terrorism tends to be wrapped in highly polarised rationalisation. The decision to wage an asymmetric war against oppression with weapons of the weak is a generic explanation, often staged with rhetorical flair and emotion, but usually with little regard to statistics or civilian casualties. An examination of specific acts of terrorism reveals that the causes involved and the instruments used typically fail to meet the criteria for a just war.

Of the six requirements needed to legitimise terrorism, only one — a just cause — comes close to being met, primarily in cases of ethnic terrorism in which a people seek self-determination. However, even ethnic terrorists have not succeeded in cloaking their violence in the mantle of self-determination (e.g., the Provisional Irish Republican Army).

Moreover, the fact that many peoples are denied their right of self-determination, yet do not pursue terrorism, suggests that self-determination does not justify such violence.

The legitimacy of the causes espoused by ideological and state-based terrorists are not compelling. Religious terrorists, especially those with an apocalyptic vision (e.g., the Aum Shinrikyo cult), argue that the venality of the world justifies its destruction. Does it?

As for the remaining criteria needed to justify terrorism, terrorists are hard-pressed to show that they represent a particular constituency (e.g., Euskadi Ta Askatasuna Basque separatists). This applies even to terrorists who have achieved a measure of popularity (e.g., Hamas).

Examples of the ignoble intentions of terrorists abound (e.g., Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, originally a communist insurgent group, now tied to narcotic trafficking). Terrorists seldom fulfil the aims set forth in their platforms. Few have envisioned a better future or have the capacity to effect change beyond obliterating the present or punishing their foes (e.g., Black September). In most cases, terrorism is undertaken before reasonable efforts to find non-violent solutions have been exhausted and terrorists tend to be ambivalent at best toward peaceful approaches to transformative justice.

It is highly unlikely that terrorism will fulfil its objectives. Although some terrorist campaigns have led to national liberation, as in Algeria (the Front de Libération Nationale) and Kenya (the Mau-Mau uprising), the vast majority will never reach their aims. Finally, the notion that the physical, economic, and psychological toll exacted by terrorism is justified by prospective gains is fiction (e.g., the Khmer Rouge); it is virtually axiomatic that terrorists believe that their ends justify any means they adopt.

The writer is a security analyst.