Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What's Wrong with Terrorism, Anyway?

Keith Pavlischek


September 14, 1998

Civilized people everywhere were appalled by the recent terrorist acts committed against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Beyond the moral revulsion, however, there is less agreement on the proper and precise response to terrorism. If, as some have suggested, we have glimpsed the warfare of the future, clear, principled thinking on this matter is critically important.

Before evaluating various recommendations for responding to terrorism (massive retaliation, preemptive strikes, diplomatic efforts, etc.), we must first ask what makes terrorism a particularly grave evil. The answer is so obvious to most people that the very question seems strange. Terrorists are evil simply because they, unlike soldiers on the battlefield, deliberately and intentionally attack the innocent and defenseless. Christians tutored in the just war tradition are likely to denounce terrorism by appealing to the "principle of discrimination," which prohibits the targeting of noncombatants.

But a Christian political and moral judgment against terrorism cannot remain confined to the violation of the principle of discrimination. In fact, to view terrorism exclusively through the prism of noncombatant immunity is to make a dangerous moral and political concession. That's because the prohibition of attacks on noncombatants is part of the "jus in bello," or the right conduct of war. The very distinction between "guilt" and "innocence" is a legal one, which only applies in a state of war between recognized combatants.

To gauge the full evil of contemporary terrorism and hence properly choose a response, we have to turn to the other part of the just war tradition, the "jus ad bellum" (literally, justice toward war). Just war theory prescribes that before a nation can go to war there must be a just cause, legitimate authority, and right intention. Political leaders must then prudentially judge that the use of force will be successful, is a last resort, will produce more good than evil effects, and will secure the peace.

To fully understand the injustice of terrorism we must consider the requirement of legitimate authority. Who has the right to make war? Discussions of legitimate authority often focus on questions such as whether the President can use force without the consent of Congress or whether a nation must first seek international approval for the use of force. These are important, but they fail to address the fundamental issue.

The notion of legitimate authority to wage war mainly developed out of a Christian political attempt to curb violence in the Middle Ages. Confronted with a militaristic Germanic culture in which princes frequently engaged and glorified in combat for private ends, Christian thinkers insisted that warfare was a public issue. War could not be an extreme tool of private parties but had to be a legal instrument, a part of the coercive power of law itself. Historically and theoretically, securing the public monopoly on the use of force was a necessary (albeit not sufficient) precondition for a peaceful and civilized society (Romans 13).

The free-lance terrorism of the late twentieth century is nothing less than a direct assault on the medieval achievement. Left unchallenged, the rise of terrorism may foreshadow a return to the barbarism of private war. Worse yet, a return to private warfare now is even more ominous because vengeance is no longer fueled by distorted notions of private glory and honor. Now the motive is ideological, ethnic and religious fanaticism, which knows no bounds.

The precise political-military response to terrorism will generate vigorous dispute. But we must not fail to respond aggressively to the challenge itself. Failure to do so will result in a proliferation of disorder and barbarism far worse than the private wars of the so-called "dark ages."

—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”