The so-called "War on Terror" is rightly dismissed, as one cannot fight a war against a tactic. As Yaron Brook is fond of pointing out, this would be akin to calling WWII in the Pacific a war on kamikaze-pilots.
This raises an interesting question, though; can use of this tactic be legitimate in some cases? Is there something about terrorism itself that disqualifies it from moral legitimacy, or is it just one of many options in warfare? Is there historical precedent for legitimate terrorism?
An answer would have to include a definition of terrorism; whether or not the concept itself implies moral judgement, and how it differs from other forms of warfare.
I'm aware that this question does not immediately connect back to Objectivism, but I think an application of Objectivist principles would be very helpful in thinking about this and reflecting on the common rhetoric of the past decade (and presumably this one as well).
Terrorism is difficult to define, and thus one must be very careful when talking about it. One definition is:
Webster's College Dictionary (2001). Its an okay definition, but it seems to imply that there is no distinction between terrorism and your everyday rights violating coercion.
What then distinguishes terrorism from simple coercion?
One feature that might distinguish terrorism from mere coercion is the centrality of terror obviously implied by the concept--you can't have terrorism without terror. Of course, coercion only works because the victim is afraid something bad will happen if they do not comply--you cannot have coercion without fear--and fear and terror are synonyms. Thus, the distinction seems to be merely one of degree: terror is more intense than mere fear. This seems to be the emphasis of the following definition:
Terrorism, Wikipedia. (I know, I know--its not a scholarly source; but the definition seems pretty good to me, so I'm using it).
Others might argue that the "political purposes" aspect of terrorism is what makes the distinction. But that doesn't seem right because people engage in what seems like terrorism for non-political reasons, such as simple hatred of others (e.g., white racists in the post-civil war South). But, people continue to disagree about just what we are talking about.
Going off of either of the definitions above (or any combination of them), terrorism is a perfectly legitimate tactic morally speaking for a government to use in a war. If it is okay to kill a person (which it is in war), then it is certainly okay to coerce them using terror. The fact that the terror may be aimed at civilians does not matter. As discussed below and in the links, it is perfectly acceptable to kill civilians in war. Whether terrorism is good strategically in any given situation is a separate question beyond the scope of philosophy (although it has worked well at times in history, e.g., A-bomb & Japan).
In a legitimate war, one must sometimes kill civilians, and this is perfectly moral. Rand answered questions about the propriety of killing civilians in war on a number of occasions, some of which can be found here. See also this article by Yaron Brook who has spoken extensively on war. The goal of a war is to break the will of the enemy you are fighting so that they are no longer a threat to you. In war you are fighting the nation, not just the small percentage of the nations population that happens to be carrying guns on the front. Those who make it possible for the gun-carriers to fight on the front are equally the enemy. If the best way to break the will of a nation is through killing civilians, then that is acceptable.
This is precisely what the United States did when they used atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki--we killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and it did indeed break the will of the nation. This was perfectly moral, and NOT because we saved more lives than we took(as some would argue). (It may be true that more American's would have died trying to fight on each little island of the south Pacific had we not dropped the A-bombs than died in the bomb blasts, but that is just an added benefit--even if we took more lives than we saved the bombing was still moral.) By any definition, dropping the A-bombs was an act of terrorism. The bombs were intended to (and did in fact) cause the Japanese people to experience terror. This terror coerced them to surrender.
answered Feb 15 '12 at 18:05