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Is Terrorism Ever Morally Justified?

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It is widely recognized that one of the tasks of our century is the challenge to terrorism. The term, continually used by policymakers and journalists, has become part of our vocabulary and daily lives. Anyone is aware of a danger so called, but few wonder if this has any justifiable reasons. Increasingly, individuals, organizations and politicians compete to defining a certain act as “terrorist” and then having the legitimacy to fight it; but trying to be judge in this ‘competition’, I feeling obliged to penalise all participants since everyone uses their own evaluation and measurement rules. For all these reasons, below, I will try first to give a definition that can as much as possible be accepted in accordance with some parameters, and then I will try to answer the question: Is terrorism ever morally justified?

The historical background

The term terrorism was first used in English in 1528, while in the contemporary history we find the term in France to describe the political violence of the Jacobian Party during the French Revolution. Especially after the World War II it was custom to use the expression “Terrorist” in reference to the state terrorism of colonial powers which were opposed to the self-determination movements and vice versa (it depends on the perspective). Indeed, the ethno-nationalist insurrections during and aftter the war had a great influence on subsequent terrorist campaigns.

In the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa, indigenous peoples opposed at the prospect of returning to their pre war colonial status quo, encouraged by promises of independence and self- determination made by the allies during the war and expecially after the signature of the Atlantic Charter which attempted to “impress enemy opinion with the justice of the western cause”. The points of the Charter, principles subsequently included in the Declaration of the United Nation, provided that United States and Britain would not have want «territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned» while the third point of the Charter supported «the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live»1

In Middle East, more precisely in Palestine, between 1936 and 1939 the country was site of clashes in which emerged the Irgun, known for the terrorist attacks on the Arabs and British soldiers, following the government’s promulgation of a White Paper. Begin’s strategy, one of the leaders of the armed group, it was that of operate within the city, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens, and than emerging to strike suddenly, then disappear back into the community. The Irgun’s aim, was not to defeat Britain militarily, but rather to use the terror to undermine the symbols of the British control. The Irgun’s revolt provided a template for subsequent anticolonial uprisings.

Indeed, «the most effective irredentist struggles of the immediate postwar era were those that emulated Begin’s strategy and deliberately sought to appeal to—and thereby attract the attention and sympathy of—an international audience»2 . the tactical “successes” and political victories obtained by groups like the Irgun, EOKA, and the FLN, they were a model and demonstrated that terrorism could work.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 the term was used without any real rigor as to what terrorism is and what its parameters are, leading the so-called civilized nations to focus on a narrow concept of globalized terrorism, and creating the fiction that civilized nations can never be part of terrorist actions. Currently the term terrorism is used to define a wide variety of acts against the law: according to article 421-1 of the Criminal Code lists, money laundering is considered terrorism under the French law3, while U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell said with reference to Assange’s case “I think the man is a high-tech terrorist”4.

The difficulty of defining Terrorism

“Attempted murder, assault, kidnapping, hostage-taking on airplanes, ships, all means of transport, theft, extortion, destructions, and crimes committed during group combat, the production or ownership of weapons of destruction and explosives including the production, sale, import and export of explosives, the acquisition, ownership, transport of illegal explosive substances, the production, ownership, storage, or acquisition of biological or chemical weapons, and money laundering”.

The definition of Terrorism It has always been debated by scholars and journalists, because very often attributed subjectively according to where one’s interests lie. Within academia, the phenomenon is seen as something «in its “pre-theory stage” or to put it more candidly as something that is widely recognized as theoretically impoverished»5. By virtue of this UN High Level Panel in 2004 stated that «the United Nations must achieve the same degree of normative strength concerning non -State use of force» because «a lack of agreement on a clear and well known definition undermines the moral and normative stance against terrorism and has stained the United Nations image»6. Some scholars have suggested that the failure to define what terrorism is, it could itself be a cause of terrorism and as Golder and Williams have argued that «one danger is that if terrorism is not so defined, the powers of the State may extend very far indeed».

The lack of agreement that emerged from the divergent political positions of some states on what constitutes terrorism reveals the political interpretation given to the term, summarized in the paradox coined by Ronald Reagan: “one man’s terrorism is another man’s freedom fighter’. A definition of terrorism should not be articulated by what the adversary is doing in that moment. Indeed, Schmid points out how acts of violence carried out by a so designed terrorist group, might not be all terroristic actions8. Very often the term is used to define reality in order to put one’s own group on a high moral plane; today terrorist is become «the mantra of our time, carrying a similar negative charge as communist once did»9. For some terrorism is an offense, and for others it is a distinctive act of maintaining power pride; again, for some it is an activity assigned by God, and for others it is a justified action against oppression; it is a warfare strategy; an attack on the peace and security; a quest for identity. From this short list it is possible to understand how, according to the personal view and the interpretation given to a determined event / act defined as terrorist, it is possible to stand against or in favour as appropriate.

Reading this statement made by Robespierre in 1794, we would have no problem in standing his side: «Terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs»10.

Terrorism has been described by Western countries as a threat to democracy and civilization, as if western democracy is the only permissible moral practice and other societies should adapt to it. But is democracy the only universal value while the other government practices are not morally justified? Is terrorism therefore violence that we simply do not like or whose motivation we disagree with? In case the term “terrorism” was simply a derogatory way used by western countries to indicate their enemies (that defend themselves) in order to justify an attack, then one might indeed argue that terrorism is morally justified. In this case terrorism could be viewed as part of the game within the process of power appropriation among winners and losers, in order to consolidate or change the status quo. Having said that we may conclude that there is nothing qualitatively distinctive about terrorism compared with other forms of political violence. It is not equally sufficient for the purpose of our analysis the definition given by the League of Nations which defined acts of terrorism as «criminal acts directed against a state and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons, or a group of persons or the general public»11. This definition only refers to acts against state actors and not towards individuals, thereby reducing the phenomenon to a mere problems of safeguarding of national security.

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Terrorism and its forms

Terrorism’s physical manifestation may occur through the use of range of different weapons, suicide bomb attacks, cyber attacks and so on, but these acts of violence are not themselves specifically terrorist act. These physical violence manifestations are not very different from acts committed by common criminals, by psychologically disturbed individuals or acts performed within a conflict among states. Therefore, on the basis of the physical manifestation, we cannot answer the question above because it would mean just answer the question, is violence ever morally justified?

Analyzing instead the political implications of terrorism and identifying the actors as individuals, groups belonging to a given organization until we reach to the ruling class of a given state, even in this case we would give a vitiated response. Under these circumstances we would inevitably be brought, even trying to empty ourselves from any belief, to side with the requests pursued by the individual, group or state concerned that seem more similar to our view of things, with requests we consider morally right or wrong. By virtue of this, we cannot agree with Arafat’s statement before the General Assembly on 13 November 1974 when he affirmed that: «the difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist …lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers and the colonialists, cannot possibly be called a terrorist»12.

This misinterpretation of terrorism brought an accusation for terrorism on last February 5 towards a former Spanish parliamentarian from the Sixth Section of the Audiencial National. Angeles Maestro, former deputy of Izquierda Unida was in fact accused of Terrorism for raising money for Palestinian people after the Israeli military attacks of 2014 and 2015. Here again, we face a partisan accusation following the usual criterion, not ethically correct, which undermines and trivializes the terrorist act by making the word “terrorism” interchangeable with the word “enemy”.

The essence of Terrorism

The definition of terrorism that we want to propose here, it is a definition which consider the intent or purpose behind the act of violence rather than the act itself, independently by the political reasons, the actors who practice the act and the victims who suffer it. This conception of terrorism places at the center the psychological effects, as Schmid claimed: : «there is, in our view, a solid conceptual core to terrorism, differentiating from ordinary violence. It consists in the calculated production of a state of extreme fear of injury and death and, secondarily, the exploitation of this emotional reaction to manipulate behaviour»13. Terrorism is the organized attempt to create fear rather than a tangible and material act; it is the intent behind the violence that determines what is and what is not an act of terrorism.

To achieve this goal, the central instruments of terrorism are not so much weapons as propaganda and communication, in order to reach “a wider target audience”. Indeed, once a group has the attention of a large audience can better manipulate their minds, causing them to behave just as they wish. In this case, sometimes our media can play a fundamental role, inadvertently, helping these to become the powerful forces that they claim to be. « that no partisan struggle had been so publicized throughout the world as was ours. . . . The reports on our operations, under screaming headlines, covered the front pages of newspapers everywhere, particularly in the United States. . . . The interest of the newspapers is the measure of the interest of the public. And the public—not only Jews but non-Jews too— were manifestly interested in the blows we were striking in Eretz Israel»14.

What moral?

According to Bentham, morality can be understood as an exact science. This way of thinking morality as “something scientific”, is placed within the utilitarian conception which put the achievement of pleasure as reasons for the action. The morality act should therefore concretely aim at the pursuit of happiness, or more precisely, in a social dimension, the purpose of morality act should become the maximization of the well-being of the greatest number of people. In this perspective an action is considered good when it is useful, that is when it contributes to common happiness, procuring pleasure or avoiding pain. Therefore, according to this theory is possible, thanks to a sort of ‘calculation of pleasures and pains’, determine which action is morally rightand which politically desirable measure, applying the principle of utility. The right ethical choice is that which produces the maximum amount of utility, the maximum utility not for the person who does it but for all the people affected.

Roughly in the same years Immanuel Kant argued the moral cannot therefore be based neither on a divine command, nor on the own desire for well-being; but only on the ability of the reason to determine the behavior of the human beings. Kant accepted principles that derive from reason, because only reason can dictate rules of behaviour freely. The will to act morally cannot be sacrificed in view of the consequences of actions with respect to other values (such as personal interest, self-preservation, sympathy, happiness). According to Kant the pursuit of happiness, suggested by the senses, is just an individual affair; while I act morally only if I obey reason. In this context, morality must be universal and necessary, otherwise it would not be binding for everyone, but everyone would choose the values that make them more comfortable or close to their culture.

Taking into account Bentham’s utilitarian morality and Kant’s “ethics of the value”, we can assert that neither of these schools of thought would answer “Yes” at the question: “is terrorism ever morally justified?”. Indeed, if on the utilitarian morality seeks at the pursuit of happiness and thanks to a sort of ‘calculation of pleasures and pains’, determine which action is morally right and which politically desirable measure, the “organized and systematic attempt to create fear”, key element of the terrorism, cannot be considered in this case justifiable. Considering a terrorist act as any act carried out by a person, group or state entity against defenceless citizens, the well- being obtained by that particular act (assuming that the terrorist act leads to an achievement of well-being and happiness on the part of those who perform it) is lower (numerically) than those who suffer the damage. This happens because the psychological effects caused by the terrorist act, does not affect only those who suffer the act at that moment, but the spread of fear also affects those who have not been affected and all those who identify with the affected target. «Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instil fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider “target audience” that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, an entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general».

Moreover, the utilitarianism known in the version of the ‘utilitarianism of the act’, recognizes validity only in the principle of utility which has an absolute value: it does not allow exceptions, and solves all conflicts and all other moral rules. For what concerns the Kantian perspective, since the moral cannot therefore be based neither on a divine command (religious terrorism), nor on the own desire for well-being (political perspective), but rather must be universal and necessary; an “organized and systematic attempt to create fear”, it means placing action to achieve self-interests before something universal and necessary.


Chronic anxiety about being victimized without warning can be caused by natural as well as human action, but if the uncertainty caused by nature can be rationalised and contextualized because inevitable, man-made terror has a totally different emotional impact. Those who live in a earthquake zone, they are afraid of a sudden earthquake; but since the earthquake an inevitable event and at the same time “necessary” because only regulated by nature, man have learned to live in fear. Conversely, the fear caused by human action through the instrument of terror cause a chronic and permanent anxiety as in a hostage situation, leading those who suffer it to seek a way to escape because avoidable. In this case, however, the imminent and non-identified violence it does not allow a real escape from the threat, as the threat itself has no clearly identifiable borders, flags and weapons. The terrorist act deletes one of the fundamental human chance, the real or supposed ability to defend one’s person, since the terrorist’s victims are unarmed, non-combatant or simpler, as mentioned above, because do not exist a real battlefield and your enemy is unknown.

Ultimately, we cannot therefore define morally justified, in any case, a strategy of war or propaganda such as terrorism, since this does not allow one’s to equip himself with any preventive measure and instrument of defence. Being the terrorism an organized attempt to create fear rather than a tangible and material act, it is impossible for those who suffer it, and in the same way, even for those who do not suffer it but who recognize themselves in the target, trying to defend yourself. This is not a matter of power disparities neither a question of target (civilian rather than military). My answer is based on the fact that, it can never be morally justifiable who decides to affect someone else, regardless of their reasons more or less shared, through a non- rational and non-material instrument: fear.


  1. Acharya Upendra D., War on Terror or Terror War, The Problem in Defining Terrorism, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2009.
  2. Finlay Christopher J., How to do things with the word Terrorist, Review of International Studies, British International Studies Association, Vol. 35 n. 4, 2009.
  3. Golder, Ben; Williams, George, What is ‘Terrorism’? Problems of Legal Definition, UNSW Law Journal, 2004.
  4. Herbst Philip, Talking Terrorism: A Dictionary of the Loaded Language of Political Violence, Greenwood Press, 2003.
  5. Hoffman Bruce, Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006.
  6. League of Nation, Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism, 1937.
  7. Richards A., Conceptualizin Terrorism, School of Law and Social Sciences, University of East London, Routledge, 2014.
  8. Schmid A. P., The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research, Routledge, London, 2011, 64.
  9. Tiefenbrun S., “A Semiotic Approach to a Legal Definition of Terrorism,” ILSA Journal of International and Comparative Law, 2003. Sitography
  10. CNN, 5 December 2010, available at:
  11. Report UN, 2 December 2004, available at:

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