Monday, September 13, 2004

Justice, War, and Terrorism

The following passage from London's Daily Telegraph (reg required) caught my eye:

The US air force has claimed repeatedly since the invasion of Iraq in March last year to be hitting hostile targets identified by US intelligence. During the war it made 50 air strikes to kill senior members of Saddam Hussein's regime some of which caused many civilian casualties. Only after the war did US Defence officials admit that all the air strikes had missed their target. On Sunday US helicopters fired rockets into a crowd in Haifa Street in central Baghdad killing 13 people including an Al-Arabiya television correspondent killed as he was reporting.

I was thinking about this passage, as I read Norman Geras's recent postings on the moral horrors of terrorism. The gist of these postings, as I understand them, are to assert the following: (i) terrorism is always morally wrong, because (ii) terrorists deliberately kill innocents; and (iii) those who favor a more restrictive or non-moralized definition of terrorism are apologists for evil.

Disagreeable though it is to take issue with one of the few intelligent bloggers still around, I think that this line of argument is deeply flawed and, in the present context, suspiciously self-serving.

A pacifist can condemn war and terrorism alike, on the grounds that they kill people. Pacifism is a coherent, if practically untenable, position. A realist can permit war and terrorism on the grounds that they are means to worthy ends. Realism, is a coherent, if morally untenable, position. Geras and others are in a more difficult philosophical position than either the pacifist or the realist. They seek to draw a distinction between "war"--which is OK when undertaken for worthy ends (such as removing Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party)--and terrorism--which is never OK no matter what its end.

The difficulty with Geras's position is that the criterion he identifies for distinguishing war and terrorism simply does not work. War, no matter how precisely waged--and the Iraq War, as the passage above makes clear, was not precisely waged--deliberately kills innocents. Lots of them. So does terrorism. Viewed solely as means of political violence, there is substantially less moral difference between war and terrorism than the Iraq War Party likes to think.

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