Excusing Terror

Even before September 11, hardly anyone was
advocating terrorism--not even those who regularly practice and support it. The
practice is indefensible now that it has been recognized, like rape or murder, as
an attack upon the innocent. The victims of a terrorist attack are ordinary men
and women, eternal bystanders. There is no special reason for targeting them. The
attack is launched indiscriminately against the entire class. Terrorists are like
killers on a rampage, except that their rampage is purposeful and programmatic.
It aims at a general vulnerability. Kill these people in order to terrify those.
A relatively small number of dead victims makes for a very large number of living
and frightened hostages.

This is the ramifying evil of terrorism: not just the killing of innocent
people but also the intrusion of fear into everyday life, the violation of
private purposes, the insecurity of public spaces, the endless coerciveness of
precaution. A crime wave might produce similar effects, but no one plans a crime
wave; it is the work of a thousand decision makers, each one independent of the
others, brought together only by the invisible hand. Terrorism is the work of
visible hands--an organizational project, a strategic choice, a conspiracy to
murder and intimidate. No wonder the conspirators have difficulty justifying in
public the strategy that they have chosen.

But when moral justification is ruled out, the way is opened for
ideological apology. In parts of the European and American left, there has long
existed a political culture of excuses focused defensively on one or another of
the older terrorist organizations: the IRA, FLN, PLO, and so on. The arguments
are familiar enough, and their repetition in the days since September 11 is no
surprise. Still, it is important to look at them closely and reject them

The first excuse is that terror is a last resort. The image is of oppressed
and embittered people who have run out of options. They have tried every
legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed
everywhere, until no alternative remains but the evil of terrorism. They must be
terrorists or do nothing at all. The easy response is that, given this
description, they should do nothing at all. But that doesn't engage the excuse.

It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try
everything (which is a lot of things)--and not just once, as if a political party
or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory,
and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder. Politics is an art of
repetition. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by
no means clear when they run out of options. The same argument applies to state
officials who claim that they have tried everything and are now compelled to kill
hostages or bomb peasant villages. What exactly did they try when they were
trying everything?

Could anyone come up with a plausible list? "Last resort" has only a notional
finality. The resort to terror is not last in an actual series of actions; it islast only for the sake of the excuse. Actually, most terrorists recommend terror
as a first resort; they are for it from the beginning.

The second excuse is that they are weak and can't do anything else. But two
different kinds of weakness are commonly confused here: the weakness of the
terrorist organization vis-à-vis its enemy and its weakness
vis-à-vis its own people. It is the second type--the inability of the
organization to mobilize its own people--that makes terrorism the option and
effectively rules out all the others: political action, nonviolent resistance,
general strikes, mass demonstrations. The terrorists are weak not because they
represent the weak but precisely because they don't--because they have been
unable to draw the weak into a sustained oppositional politics. They act without
the organized political support of their own people. They may express the anger
and resentment of some of those people, even a lot of them. But they have not
been authorized to do that, and they have made no attempt to win any such
authorization. They act tyrannically and, if they win, will rule in the same way.

The third excuse holds that terrorism is neither the last resort nor the only
possible resort, but the universal resort. Everybody does it; that's what
politics (or state politics) really is; it's the only thing that works. This
argument has the same logic as the maxim "All's fair in love and war." Love is
always fraudulent, war is always murderous, and politics always requires
terror. In fact, the world the terrorists create has its entrances and exits; we
don't always live there. If we want to understand the choice of terror, we have
to imagine what must often occur (although we have no satisfactory record of
this): A group of men and women, officials or activists, sits around a table and
argues about whether or not to adopt a terrorist strategy. Later on, the litany
of excuses obscures the argument. But at the time, around the table, it would
have been of no use for defenders of terrorism to say, "Everybody does it,"
because they were face-to-face with people proposing to do something else.
Terrorism commonly has its origins in arguments of this sort. Its first victims
are the terrorists' former colleagues, the ones who said no to terrorism. What
reason can we have for equating these two groups?

The fourth excuse plays on the notion of innocence. Of course, it is wrong to
kill the innocent, but these victims aren't entirely innocent. They are the
beneficiaries of oppression; they enjoy its tainted fruits. And so, while their
murder isn't justifiable, it is ... understandable. What else could they expect?
Well, the children among them, and even the adults, have every right to expect a
long life like anyone else who isn't actively engaged in war or enslavement or
ethnic cleansing or brutal political repression. This is called noncombatant
immunity, the crucial principle not only of war but of any decent politics. Those
who give it up for a moment of schadenfreude are not simply making excuses
for terrorism; they have joined the ranks of terror's supporters.

The last excuse is the claim that all the obvious and conventionally endorsed
responses to terror are somehow worse than terrorism itself. Any coercive
political or military action is denounced as revenge, the end of civil liberty,
the beginning of fascism. The only morally permitted response is to reconsider
the policies that the terrorists claim to be attacking. Here, terrorism is viewed
from the side of the victims as a kind of moral prompting: Oh, we should have
thought of that!

I have heard all these excuses in the past few days--often expressed along
with great indignation at the chorus of national unity and determination. But the
last two have been the most common. We bomb Iraq, we support the Israelis, and we
are the allies of repressive Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. What else
can we expect? Leave aside the exaggerated and distorted descriptions of American
wickedness that underpin these excuses. There is a lot to criticize in our
country's foreign policy over the past decades. Many of us on the American
liberal-left have spent the bulk of our political lives opposing the use of
violence by the U.S. government (though I and most of my friends supported the
Gulf War, which ranks high in the standard version of the fourth excuse). As
Americans, we have our own brutalities to answer for--as well as the brutalities
of other states that we have armed and funded. None of this, however, excuses
terrorism; none of it even makes terrorism morally understandable. Maybe
psychologists have something to say on behalf of understanding. But the only
political response to ideological fanatics and suicidal holy warriors is
implacable opposition.