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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).

asked Feb 13 '12 at 15:31

FCH's gravatar image


edited Sep 10 '12 at 17:04

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

Didn't the original American colonists use tactics that could be labeled as terrorism today (Destruction of property by a shadowy group)? I would add that destruction of property is very different than the willful destruction of innocent life but even that is a tough one since during wars many countries have willfully killed civilians.

(Feb 13 '12 at 17:08) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

That's why I'm asking how to define the concept of terrorism, to see whether or not it inherently includes moral evil or not.

(Feb 13 '12 at 17:43) FCH FCH's gravatar image

It seems to me that the usefulness of the concept of "terrorism" is to distinguish it from other types of criminal behavior for the purposes of criminology, sentencing, etc. As such, I think the word is best defined as a subset of illegitimate behavior, and not to include legitimate behavior.

Terrorism is never legitimate, just as murder is never legitimate.

(Feb 16 '12 at 17:02) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Terrorism is difficult to define, and thus one must be very careful when talking about it. One definition is:

"the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes."

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 is the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion."

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

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

Hmmm... so if the Iraqis who were bombed by the US in Baghdad (based on faulty intelligence or neocon overreach, depending on what you believe) declared "war" on the USA and then quickly detonated terrorist nukes in US cities in retailiation against the "cowardly first attack" on them, would you call this legitimate? By your calculus, how many people does an enemy country have to kill of yours in order for you to commit "moral, legitiamte genocide" in "retailiation" ?

(Feb 15 '12 at 20:51) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I do not accept your premises. That the war in Iraq was not a good idea strategically is likely true. That it was immoral or unjust is absolutely not true. The fact that the reasons our government actually went to war with Iraq were faulty does not change the fact that there are other legitimate reasons for us to have gone to war with them. So in the scenario you describe, Iraq is not justified--they are the original agressor, and their attacks would be immoral. If it were true (which it is not) that they were innocent and we attacked them, they would be justified in attacking us.

(Feb 15 '12 at 22:17) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

What were the logical "other legitimate" reasons for the USA to bomb (and therefore) kill people in Baghdad ? I fully realize that Iraq was a local bully but then so are many other countries. Does the desire for unfettered access to other countries' natural resources justify killing people in order to get said resources? Clearly the excuse that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction has been shown to be a more or less either a massive chain of errors or a cynical, evil lie (depending on your political view).

(Feb 16 '12 at 08:42) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I am hesitant to get into a debate in the comments, and therefore I encourage you to ask as a separate question about whether the war in Iraq was justified. You could then get input from more people, and without the word constraint of the comments.

As a brief answer though, the war in Iraq was justified for at least the following reasons:

(1) Iraq was a financial and moral supporter of Islamic terrorists who had attacked, and planned further attacks on, U.S. citizens,

(Feb 16 '12 at 10:31) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

(2) Iraq had demonstrated it is willing to disregard individual rights in general (e.g., gassing thousands of Kurds) and to invade a peaceful neighbor country—while these instances do not represent attacks on the U.S. they are evidence of the nature of the Iraqi regime and of the objective threat they posed,

(Feb 16 '12 at 10:32) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

(5) Iraq repeatedly violated its obligations under the Gulf War cease fire to allow weapons inspectors to inspect for WMD, and

(6) Saddam was a madman and a killer—once again, not evidence of an attack on the U.S., but more evidence of how dangerous the regime was.

Was it a good idea to attack Iraq? Was it in our rational self interest? Probably not—at least not before dealing with larger threats. Was it justified, however? Yes.

(Feb 16 '12 at 10:33) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Thanks for your answer. I know this is not a debating forum so I will leave it at this. Suffice it to say, I am not convinced by the 6 statements above that an attack on a civilian population center was totally justified. I do appreciate you taking the time to answer.

(Feb 16 '12 at 13:38) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Danneskjold, you might also ask a question about warfare in civilian population centers. It's related to the question here, but I think it's enough of a topic of its own to merit separate answers.

(Feb 16 '12 at 13:50) FCH FCH's gravatar image

I have asked variants of this. The answers have been unclear and generally align with Eric's answer. The issue of proportionality in war is quickly dismissed by Objectivists. The conclusion seems to be if Country A sees some [indeterminate] number (6 of these listed above) of threats from Country B, it is rational and desirable to declare war, take off any gloves and bomb Country B's cities and kill innocent men, women and children to "break the will" of Country B. In some sense, the enemy is de-humanized and then one freely annihilates them until one is satisfied that no threat remains.

(Feb 16 '12 at 14:34) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I encourage you to ask another question anyway, even though you have asked similar ones, so that we can hone in on what is unclear. Perhaps your questions have been misunderstood--try distilling what the root of your concern is.

For example, many Objectivist have a more nuanced view on proportionality in war than you give credit for (in a nut shell: the notion should not stop us from effectively defending ourselves, but it should stop us from doing more than is required to defend ourselves and gratuitously killing--not that different than personal self-defense).

(Feb 16 '12 at 15:39) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Also, be careful not to conflate "justifiable" with "rational and desirable." Your description of the Objectivist position on war does just that.

(Feb 16 '12 at 15:42) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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Asked: Feb 13 '12 at 15:31

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Last updated: Sep 10 '12 at 17:04