The Philosophy of Terrorism


Violence is immoral in whatever form, and this includes any crime against society. However, some scholars, while emphasizing their repugnance of violence have gone so far as to inquire as to why people sometimes feel a moral imperative to hurt others.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( February 16, 2016, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Recently, United States’ security authorities made public the startling statement that there was compelling evidence that 2016 could well be a year where terrorist attacks would be launched against the United States within its territory. The statement included the possibility of such attacks being levelled elsewhere, particularly in Europe. A terrorist is classified as a hostis humani generis – a common enemy of humanity; and terrorism has been defined in its most simplistic sense as the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. Some of the characteristics of both international and domestic terrorism, as identified by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation are that terrorism appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. INTERPOL (The International Criminal Police Organization) has changed its definition of terrorism from being an act with political motivation to being a crime against society. The modus operandi of terrorist organizations is to make coordinated, simultaneous attacks designed to confuse and overwhelm defenses.

Violence is immoral in whatever form, and this includes any crime against society. However, some scholars, while emphasizing their repugnance of violence have gone so far as to inquire as to why people sometimes feel a moral imperative to hurt others. Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai, in their excellent book Virtuous Violence (Cambridge University Press: 2015) say: “The fact is that people often feel – and explicitly judge – that in many contexts it is good to do…violence (such as exacting revenge and torturing enemies) to others: people believe that in many cases hurting or killing others is not simply justifiable, it is absolutely, fundamentally right. Furthermore, people often regard other’s infliction of violence against third parties as morally commendable”. The authors define violence as action in which the perpetrator regards inflicting pain, suffering, fear, distress, injury, maiming, disfigurement or death as the intrinsic, necessary or desirable means to the intended ends.

The approach – that it is good to exercise violence against others – is philosophically explained by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) who believed that ethically, human beings are either wholly evil or wholly good by virtue of whether or not a person has adopted the moral law as the governing maxim for all of his or her maxims and that the proclivity one has towards committing evil acts is a certain “disordering of incentives”. The move by one towards committing violence against another, Kant opined, was due to depravity as against frailty or moral impunity. Kant further said that depravity was not weakness but an integral part of sensuality. To Kant it was in a way a warped sense of duty brought to bear by an alternative moral law that guided the perpetrator of violence. Kant said: “depravity must be understood as the reversal of “the ethical order as regards the incentives of a free power of choice. The propensity to evil becomes manifest when human beings choose to act in accordance with the incentive of self-conceit, which stands in opposition to the incentive of the moral law”.

Trudy Govier, in her book A Delicate Balance: What philosophy Can Tell Us About Terrorism (Westview Press: 2002) brings up an interesting point on vindication. She says: The word “vindication” previously referred to revenge or punishment, but the dictionary lists those meanings as obsolete ; now “vindication” means justification…in committing serious wrongs, perpetrators have implied that their victims are worthless beings who deserve no more than injury or insult. Victims who seek vindication in the aftermath of wrongdoing are trying to disprove that message”. In the context of terrorism, the question would be, who the perpetrator is, and who the victim is. Does the terrorist retaliate for a wrong that has been committed against his dignity or self or against his family and society? Or does the society injured by terrorism seek vindication?

Govier’s thesis is that terrorism should be treated with hope and not despair. She quotes the Stoics of the first century who, when faced with the tyranny of Emperor Nero, used their inner strength to distinguish between what was in their power and what was not to deal with Nero’s atrocities. She quotes Immanuel Kant as the most acceptable philosopher on the point, who advocated the power of hope against wrongdoing. The issue would be how hope could counter the “evil” of terrorism.

In the ultimate analysis, as Kant said, reason is the source of morality and it all boils down to what the terrorist justifies his terrorist acts. Terrorists are certainly not mentally disturbed. They act in accordance with a certain moral imperative. As Dr. Jerrold Post, Professor of Political Psychology at George Washington University said at an interview conducted by Foreign Affairs: “in fact, terrorist groups screen out emotionally disturbed individuals. You wouldn’t want to have an emotionally disturbed individual in the delta forces or the British SAS commandos – they’d be a security risk. Terrorists don’t want to have an emotionally unstable person in their operational squad”. Their moral imperative is geared toward the philosophy that violence, aggression and devastation is totally justifiable. The underlying cause for this could be their own vulnerability; hatred; revenge; power; a quest for justice; and perspective.

One could well argue that the terrorist might be invoking, as justification for his philosophy, the other end of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative where Kant said: “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. Kant based his categorical imperative on the principle that a person’s rationality of conduct is judged by how that person treats humanity – as an end rather than as a means. Of course, if this were the case, a terrorist, or anyone else for that matter, who kills bystanders or causes collateral damage, would not be able to morally justify their actions. The reality is that it cuts both ways.

The author is an aviation consultant and former Senior Legal Officer at the International Civil Aviation Organization. His doctoral thesis at McGill University and post-doctoral work was in terrorism and aviation.

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