With the growth of terrorism in the past century, as well as the increase in communicative technology, the public's curiosity about other ideologies has grown significantly. Although terrorist activity has increased as much as it has, the term “terrorism” now carries a negative connotation, so much so that those we perceive as terrorists often blunt the charge by claiming that their actions are morally justified. What would interest the casual Western citizen would be a consideration of the terrorist's statement that terrorism is justified. We might also ask a much more minimalistic question: is terrorism ever justified? This would shift the problem from the general claim that all terrorism is morally ambivalent, or even justified, to particular cases of terrorism. It will be necessary to both define terrorism, as well as have an understanding of a basic ethical theory that would determine whether terrorist activities actually ever are justified.
Bruce Hoffman points out that defining terrorism is quite difficult. Some definitions, however, are more helpful than others. We might think of terrorism as any violence against non-combatants that would serve to intimidate the public. Hoffman lays out some necessary conditions for an act to be considered terrorism. Terrorism is:
“-ineluctably political in aims and motives;
-violent—or, equally important, threatens violence;
-designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target;
-conducted either by an organization with an identifiable chain of command . . . or by individuals . . . inspired by the ideological aims or example of some existent terrorist movement and/or its leaders; and
- perpetuated by a subnational group or nonstate entity.” (Emphasis in original).1
These will be our working criteria for “terrorism.” Now, the question is again raised as to whether these actions are ever justified?
In order to answer this question effectively, we will need to step back and consider the notion of moral obligation. What does it mean to be morally obligated? Are there are absolute moral standards? And, if so, are any moral actions ever necessarily compromised by some state of affairs? The meaning of the last question will become clearer as we continue. Succinctly put, a moral obligation is some behavior that people ought to abide by. This is different from anything descriptive; rather, it is distinctively prescriptive. Whether terrorism is ever morally justified will inevitably center around the claim that there are certain moral obligations that everyone must adhere to at all times.
My own view on ethics will differ from other, albeit orthodox views of moral behavior. I point this out in order to clarify that my perspective is not the be-all end-all of ethical theory. For the purposes of this paper, I will adopt a moderate form of Kant's deontological ethics – that is, the categorical imperative. The basic claim is that every person ought to be treated as an end in and of him/herself, and not merely as a means. The criteria for a determination of whether any action can be considered moral, or morally right, is whether the action itself can be universalized. To provide a rather extreme example, if John does not want to be raped, then John ought not rape anyone else. Putting this in practice, as it relates to our inquiry of justified terrorism, we will need to consider whether exceptions to this rule can be made without compromising the rule to such an extent where it becomes entirely vacuous.
Are there are any exceptions to this principle, then? Does the categorical imperative truly eliminate any possibility of acting differently? I do not think it does. Let us examine a popular illustration. Imagine that you are in Holland during the early 1940's. You are hiding a Jewish family from the Nazi regime, and a Nazi soldier knocks on your door. He asks whether there are any Jews in your home. Now, it is perhaps quite obvious that most people would lie in that situation, unless of course he or she had some secret vendetta against the Jewish people. However, you want to protect this family, but you also know that lying is wrong. The conflict is most apparent; either you lie, or you hand over an innocent group of people to be imprisoned, or possible murdered. What, then, is the correct moral judgment?
My own position is that it is necessary to broaden our scope. For any action X, it is necessary to factor in C (where C = the categorical imperative), along with L (where L = the lesser of two evils). Surely, both lying and a participation in murder are both wrong. But, it should not be a controversial claim that murder is worse than a lie. So, if we take the first scenario and say that one should hand the Jewish family over to the Nazis, we might represent that decision and its axiological verisimilitude by the proposition P. Hence, the claim is that P (C + L) > 1/2. Now, if it is false that murder is better than lying, then P is likewise a false proposition. If, on the other hand, we consider the proposition P', where P' is equivalent to the claim that one ought to lie to the Nazis in order to keep the Jewish family safe, then we have the proposition: P' (C + L) > 1/2.
Under the above view, lying is still wrong, but it's also the lesser of two evils, so it ought to be preferred to murder. Obviously, others may adopt a different approach to ethics; and, it is not my intent to invalidate those other approaches. However, it will also be the case that those who claim that terrorism is wrong, as I do, will also come to the same conclusion, even if the methodology for arriving at that conclusion is different. The basic claim, then, is that even when certain things are the lesser of two evils, they are still wrong, even if preferable. We might now consider the ramifications of a terrorist's claim that their actions are the consonant with this – that is, that their actions are the lesser of two evils, and therefore justified.
One notable example of this type of justification-claim can be found in the writings of Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. He says:
“We don't see ourselves as terrorists because we don't believe in terrorism. We don't see resisting the occupier as a terrorist action. We see ourselves as mujihadeen [holy warriors] who fight a Holy War for the people.”2
Hence, it is Fadlallah's view that the actions of these so-called “holy warriors” serves the purpose of attaining a greater good.
It should not be surprising that outsiders do not find this kind of reasoning compelling, or even rhetorically persuasive. The reason why is fairly simple. The murder of innocent people is not justifiable, no matter what the ideologies' goals are. However, the problem becomes much more complex once we understand that many terrorists, at least many Islamic terrorists, do not consider their opponents as worthy of good will. In their view, the victims are not really victims at all; they are “infidels,” “dogs,” and “devils,” who are not even human persons. Nevertheless, the outsider once again will not be persuaded by this, given the rather plain appearance of question-begging. Why are these civilians not considered human? If it is simply because they do not share their interlocutors' worldview, then the very claim that these civilians are not human is based upon a presupposition. This is not to say that a presupposition is impossible to validate, but the claim that opponents to this line of thinking will make is that the probability of these Islamic terrorists' worldview being true is either low, or at best, inscrutable.3
To go back to our proposition-formula, the Islamic terrorist is essentially claiming that P-I (C + L) > 1/2, where P-I = the actions of Islamic terrorists are justified. We might immediately infer that P-I is low on (C + L), given that a terrorist would not desire that someone else perform a terrorist action upon them. What is key, however, is the claim that their activity is consistent, or even mandatory, on L. In the Islamic terrorist's mindset (and, of course, we could use non-Islamic examples of terrorism, as well), the killing of civilians is justified on the basis that they (the terrorists) are trying to bring about an Islamic state, which will result in the coming of the kingdom of Allah.
Since we are critiquing this perspective, we might ask for a reason why they think terrorism will accomplish their ends. Why do Islamic terrorists believe that killing non-combatants and destroying their enemies will bring about the kingdom of Allah? This view does not appear in the Koran, and in fact the Koran is arguably opposed to such measures. For example, the Koran states in Surah 4:90, “if they [the nations] hold aloof from you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, Allah alloweth you no way against them.” The Koran's position, then, appears quite at odds with the terrorist's agenda of invasion and destruction. A more conservative approach would be to fight when fought against.
Moreover, terrorism does not appear to be recommended in any authoritative Islamic tradition, at least not until fairly recently. It is possible, however, that Islamic terrorists consider their view to be based on a fairly recent revelation. If this is so, then they may find a plausible reason to think that their actions are morally justified. Nevertheless, for those of us who are outsiders, we do not find any reason to think there is a defeater for the claim that P-I (C + L) < 1/2, or inscrutable (note the emphasis on “<,” rather than “>”). On these grounds, the opponent of Islamic terrorism is rationally justified in concluding that terrorism is not morally justified. Further, if the Koran is the Muslim's ultimate authority, then it would appear to be an epistemic obligation to subordinate any additional revelation to the authority of the Koran. If the two revelations conflict, then it would seem that the authority of the Koran ought to be preferred over against the authority of the new revelation.
We might consider non-Islamic form of terrorism, though. Upon reflection of terrorist actions in general, is it possible that any of these acts are morally justified? I am inclined to think this is not the case. As before, the positive claim that a terrorist action is justified by way of a greater good defense is subject to the objection of inscrutability. The terrorist does not appear to have any defeater for the proposition that killing innocent persons is wrong. The counter-claim that these people are not innocent has no positive epistemic warrant; and indeed, any proposed warrant would require the use of some unverifiable conclusion. How would one go about “overriding” the already apparent perception that one should do unto others as they would have others do unto them? This is not to say that only verifiable conclusions are rationally justified, but in the absence of any persuasive reason, or any properly basic belief, it seems to be the case that we are justified in concluding that terrorism is not morally justifiable.
In sum, the conclusion that terrorism has some possible moral justification has seen to be lacking any epistemic support, and is rather undermined by the epistemic probabilities and first principles we are starting with. Nevertheless, what we have been examining is merely a theoretical aspect of ethical theory. What we do not necessarily possess is any way of persuading a terrorist that his or her actions are morally wrong. On the other hand, the question that we have answered does not specifically concern our ability to persuade. As it is commonly put, proof is not persuasion. In fact, we can go further and state that rational acceptability is not persuasion. Given the presuppositions we have started with, it does not appear to be the case that any demonstration of a morally justified terrorist action is feasible. Instead, what we discover is that we have confirmation of our own epistemic and ethical principles in light of our immediate perception of the truth of those principles, in addition to the lack of any rational defeaters of those same principles. As Shmuel Bar concludes, “for every fatwa that promises Paradise to those who engage in jihad, a counter-fatwa should threaten hellfire.”4 Bar's statement is certainly a strong one, but it should remind us that for every claim that a terrorist makes that would justify terrorist activity, an equally strong one (if not stronger one) can be used to counter it. As a result, the terrorist's epistemic status in favor of terrorism is severely weakened.
 Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press, 2006.
 Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, Oxford University Press, 1993.
 Shmuel Bar, Warrant for Terror, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.
1Hoffman, p. 40.
2Hoffman, p. 23.
3Plantinga, p. 228.
4Bar, p. 117.