Warfare, Stuff Happening and Terrorism

Nothing is so robustly American as the condemnation of terrorism. Here is something that Chomsky and Donald Rumsfeld can agree on:

“I understand the term “terrorism” exactly in the sense defined in official US documents: “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.”

“In accord with this — entirely appropriate — definition, the recent attack on the US is certainly an act of terrorism, in fact, a horrifying terrorist crime. There is scarcely any disagreement about this throughout the world, nor should there be.”

There is something oddly insular about this last remark. (The 9-11 reference seems inessential; elsewhere Chomsky portrays terrorism in general as the object of world condemnation. 1 ) Outside America, excoriating terrorism is, like polo, a sport for the well-heeled. True, there are few public defenders of terrorism; the tendency is rather to excuse it as a desperate descent into madness, a political crime of passion. But if you go down a few income brackets, to the inhabitants of refugee camps and shantytowns, terrorism is often celebrated without reserve or qualification. Millions more, not quite so destitute, share their sympathies. Don’t these people count? Aren’t their views to be tabulated in the assessment of agreement or disagreement ‘throughout the world’?

The question is not rhetorical and the answer is, as far as both Chomsky and Rumsfeld are concerned, no. For them, it seems, the best you can say of such people is that they are addled, perhaps by hardship, perhaps by strange ideologies or religious fanaticism. This diagnosis, which imputes mysterious or repugnant mentalities to others, is itself at least as mysterious. As propaganda it makes perfect sense, but its implicit moral claims make none at all.

Terrorism is entirely compatible with Western morality. It is brutal, but we are quite accustomed to brutality, quite at home with it. And this is not the false ‘we’ of a sermon designed to inspire shame and contrition. It is a genuine ‘we’ that joins nearly all of us, the world over, in a moral consensus. It excludes only a very few determinedly, unapologetically impractical, stubbornly high-minded people who reject all warfare and political violence–even, say, resistance to Hitler, or an uprising in a concentration camp.

To see this requires no realization of anything, no further or deeper understanding, no willingness to adopt unconventional moral thinking. It requires nothing more than acknowledgement of what our conventional moral thinking is. The path to acknowledging how morally comfortable we are with terrorism might as well begin with a more serious definition of the term.

Defining “Terrorism”

The definition borrowed by Chomsky–as he undoubtedly knows–is nonsense. It implies that uncalculated use of violence against civilians–the spur-of-the-moment, unorganized torching of randomly selected immigrant houses, for instance–is not terrorism. It implies that threatening intervention in East Timor or Rwanda would have been terrorist. It implies that those who flagellate themselves in a religious procession are terrorists, as are those who threaten sinners with hellfire. It implies that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and invasion of Normandy were terrorist campaigns. It implies that virtually any attack against terrorists is also terrorism. (The same can be said of threatening any such attacks.) And it also implies that the Buddhist monks who set themselves ablaze to protest the Vietnam war were terrorists.

Terrorism is not any old violence or threat of violence, for any old political purpose. This is clear if we go back to a time before the word had become quite such a battleground. When, in 1957, the Algerian rebels set off bombs in at bus stops, in cafés, in a casino, and in a stadium, hardly anyone denied that this was terrorism. Nor did anyone, except perhaps some French colonialists, deny it when the OAS set off bombs in Algerian shops, or rolled a gasoline truck down on an Arab quarter. Airline hijackings were considered terrorism by virtually everyone except some of their perpetrators.

‘Terrorism’, when polemics are set aside, normally involves attacks against civilians. The attacks are, if not utterly random, in some sense arbitrary. The particular victims may be carefully selected; years may go into the planning. But the victims were selected because they were representative members of some large group, not because of their individual traits or positions in society. Anyone in the café or stadium, and in many other cafés or stadiums, would have made just as suitable a target. In fact the point of the exercise was to transmit just this message: it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, as long as you belong to the relevant population. In some cases, that population may include everyone in a country, because the idea is not so much to attack a particular group as to show that one is incapable of protecting its citizens. (Even several populations of several countries may be the target.) But some element of randomness used to be thought central to the tactic. If a particular individual was targeted, a police informer or government minister, that was assassination, not terrorism. And you could not commit terrorism against soldiers, unless perhaps their army was entirely uninvolved in operations against you.

Some attacks on civilians strain against this definition, because they don’t seem random enough. What if there is an attack on dormitories for defense industry workers, or housing on an army base? How about the attack on the USS Cole, where it is a stretch to suppose that the victims were in some way fighting a war against their attackers? But a definition is not to be discarded simply because there are problem cases: we wouldn’t discard a definition of “car” because it didn’t tell us enough about Ford Rancheros or three-wheeled vehicles like the old Isetta or Messerschmitt. Terrorism, at its core, seems to involve ‘random’ attacks against civilians, for any purpose, even apolitical. If the aim is to take the heat off the coke business, or scare people away from competitors’ products, does that mean we’re not dealing with terrorism?

One of the few mistakes Chomsky’s definition doesn’t make is insisting that the goal of terrorism is to instill terror. What the word tempts us to think would be obvious is instead false. Suppose you plan a random attack on civilians who don’t scare easily, who will respond instead with righteous indignation. You might not intend to terrorize the population; maybe you simply want them to make rational calculations about the success of their government’s policies. You would still be a terrorist. Terrorism does not presuppose any political or psychological objectives, much less particular ones.

“Terrorism”, on this account, can be defined as random violence against non-combatants. “Non-combatants” need not be civilians, but must designate those not involved in hostilities against the attackers: workers in defense industries are one of many borderline cases. “Random” means only that the victims are selected, not because of their importance as individuals, but because they are representative of some larger population.

The old-fashioned definition works quite well. It covers most airline hijackings, the bombings in Israel, Chechnya, Bali, and elsewhere, the campaigns of the Mau Mau, the Algerian revolution, and the contemporary revolt in that same country. No doubt some ideologues may for various reasons want to stretch the term, but it will be quite enough to show that in its old-fashioned sense, it designates practices that fall well within the scope of our morality.

State terrorism

States certainly can commit terrorist acts. They can do so, not only by police and paramilitary repression, but also in wartime. If airstrikes are called down on randomly selected schools, housing projects, or hospitals, that’s terrorism.

State terrorism was once a standard element in warfare. Gradually, and for a while, it became a bit less acceptable. From roughly the end of the 17th century, when it became bad form to take cities and slaughter the civilian population, on through the end of the First World War, it was by no means inevitable that war involved the indiscriminate murder of civilians. As H.G.Wells predicted in The War in the Air (1908), this would change, and really it was the Nazis who changed it. The world was shocked when, in 1937, Nazi aircraft dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs on the Spanish town of Guernica, killing 1,500 people, about a third of the population. This is sometimes considered the defining moment of modern state terrorism. But in the course of the Second World War, allied governments and their populations alike decided that these tactics were really quite a good idea: hence the saturation bombings of Germany and, of course, their incendiary and nuclear equivalents in Japan. And so it came to pass that the burning children alive was once again reinstated into warfare.

Do we still consider state terrorism acceptable? It’s not clear. Many people disapprove of the saturation bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, and of the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, in the first place, much of this disapproval depends on the belief–as far as I know, correct–that the bombing campaigns were based on mistaken assumptions about the effectiveness of such actions or their alternatives. What then if the assumptions had been correct? what if the bombings were essential to ending the war without even greater loss of life? In the second place, if virtually no one has advocated state terrorism regarding any post-World-War-II situation, it may be because never, since then, have Western powers been seriously threatened. (The Chinese may have been a formidable opponent in the Korean War, but no one saw them as a threat to the American mainland.) So it is not at all clear that we do reject, in principle, state terrorism, and with it the deliberate targeting of civilians for political ends.

On the other hand, leftist accusations of ‘state terrorism’ often stretch the expression far too much. If, as I suspect, Israeli raids on Palestinian cities and camps disguise deliberate but arbitrary killing of civilians as “collateral damage”, that too is terrorism. But no amount of genuinely collateral damage indicates terrorism, nor does destroying civilian infrastructure in order to cripple an enemy’s military capacity, nor is it terrorist simply to wage unjustified war. Though the US may have engaged in terrorism during the Vietnam conflict, it is not clear that it has done so since then. It is not clear that it ever actually wants to cause civilian casualties, that it intentionally targets civilians at random. Why should it? The US sticks to easy military objectives. It hasn’t fought without crushing air superiority since at least the Second World War, in other words, ever since air power mattered. It has no military reason to kill civilians, and it probably doesn’t want to. It leaves that sport to the individual initiative of its lower ranks.

But let’s suppose we are so moral that we will always reject state terrorism, even if it proves the only way to stop the triumph of some future Hitler. (Would that be the moral choice?) Does that mean we are indeed in another moral universe from those exotic folk who cheer terrorist attacks? Not at all.


Obsessing about terrorism creates a serious moral imbalance. It obscures the plain fact that ordinary, legal warfare typically produces horrors with which terrorism can rarely if ever compete. The most respectable actions of the most respectable nation may be utterly free of any terrorist taint. They may conform to the laws of war, international law, and the Geneva convention. They may show impeccable respect for the strictures of human rights organizations, the resolutions of United Nations, and the wishes of Lady Di. But conventional, squeaky-clean, NGO-approved, UN-sanctioned, Geneva-Convention-friendly high explosive frequently turns human beings into a bloody mist, or blows off half a face, or empties its eye-sockets. And it is not just that this can happen to innocents, including children. It is also that we know this will happen to them. All of us know it when we support or participate in a war.

These should be recognized as trivial truths. Instead, it is beginning to seem as if any ‘standard’ military action must be above reproach, as if the proverbial old-school Wehrmacht officer who plays by the book, who hates Hitler, hates “ziss shtinking varr”, should bring tears to our eyes. Presumably in less sentimental moments we realize that the most scrupulous warfare is an atrocity when the cause is unjust. But we still, sometimes in an agonized Wehrmacht-officer way, congratulate people who kill and mutilate when we think it’s all in a good cause.

Though we should stop trying to convince ourselves that we have gentler attitudes, we shouldn’t change them, either. It is indeed sometimes wrong to kill and mutilate, but it is also sometimes right. It matters whose side you’re on, whether you’re a Wehrmacht officer or his opposite number in the allied forces. We may believe that there aren’t many worse things than inflicting the horrors of war on other human beings, but certainly there are a few: letting Hitler win would have been one of them. You can say that, in such situations, ‘there are no right actions’, or ‘this is a lesser evil, but still an evil’, or ‘killing is never justifiable’. But the last one just doesn’t seem to be true. As for the first two, if we ought to have fought Hitler, how is that–lesser evil and all–not right? Common sense suggests that our morality, at least, approves of such warfare.

So our conventional morality, even restricted by the concerns expressed in international conventions, does sanction horrible violence. Does it sanction violence against civilians? Before answering this question, it might be worth considering whether it should really loom as large as it does today. Of course it suits those who possess powerful conventional armed forces to suppose that killing other soldiers somehow can’t count. But this is a bit odd: if it is bad to kill a civilian, can it be so much better to kill that same person once he is conscripted to fight, perhaps in a hopeless cause against an enemy he has virtually no chance of threatening, much less harming? It’s all very well to say that the guy’s rulers are to blame for his broken limbs and torn flesh, but blame is generous. The people who actually inflicted the injuries could also be to blame. Certainly it’s hard to see much difference between an impotent conscript soldier forced to fight a hopeless battle, and a civilian human shield. We can say, with a shrug, that these people shouldn’t have been put in harm’s way. Yet we knew they were, we knew they had no choice, and we decided to inflict the harm. You would think this would at least give us pause, even when the civilian becomes a soldier.

But suppose soldiers are, for some reason that has escaped me, fair game. What then about deliberately targeting civilians, not as an act of state terrorism, but as part of a ‘strategic’ bombing campaign with a military objective? Most people would allow that war industries can be attacked, even if they employ civilians. When the US bombed a ‘germ warfare factory’ in Sudan, the objections centered on the claim–as far as I know, correct–that it was no such thing, not that it would be wrong to bomb a real germ warfare plant. And the strategic bombings of German war industries are almost never considered some sort of war crime. Since such industries almost always have a civilian workforce, civilians must sometimes be considered fair game as well.

Is this a side issue, a small matter? It’s not clear why–thousands of civilian lives could be lost, and quite possibly the people working in these factories, the people we think it ok to kill, are just trying to feed their families. Many thousands more may die when military objectives necessarily involve the destruction of a country’s infrastructure. But suppose these are trivialities. What then of the civilians, including young children, we kill “by accident”? What do we really think we’re doing in these cases?

Stuff Happening

When we put our stamp of approval on the mutilation of children, we place a great deal of weight on good intentions. What matters isn’t that children were mutilated; what matters is that our hearts are in the right place. We aren’t bloodthirsty like the other guys. But you would think that good intentions get us only so far. Past a certain point, as the law itself affirms, you are responsible for being a dumbass, for believing your own lies, for ignorance and negligence. This is a responsibility that American neo-cons, for all their chirping about “moral compass”, take pains to evade. And leftists are eager to help them, to look for evil motives with a desperation that suggests, should such motives be lacking, everything is ok.

To put it in official language, American officials tirelessly explain collateral damage with statements like this:

“It was inevitable there would be regrettable civilian losses. Our forces made every effort to minimize innocent casualties, often to the point of putting their own lives at risk.”

Doesn’t a good effort, after all, make all the difference? Americans and Israelis alike are baffled: can’t the “towel-heads” understand this?

They understand only too well. “Collateral” means secondary or subordinate. Well, to what were the civilian losses secondary or subordinate? Why, to the military ones. Does that mean the losses accidental or unintended? No. If you go to the supermarket and buy what turns out to be a package of contaminated powdered milk for a food bank, that’s an accident: though the outcome may have been in some sense ‘inevitable’, no one had any reason to suspect it. But everyone knows for certain that in a war, some children will find their limbs are now bloody stumps: it is not only ‘inevitable’, but expected. It may be an accident that any particular child is maimed, but far from purely accidental that children are maimed. At most it is accidental in the sense that, if I use drift-nets, I catch dolphins: I don’t intend to catch dolphins, I don’t intend to catch any particular dolphin, but I know damn well that dolphins will be caught.

Or, to give an example using humans: suppose Joanne decides she wants to kill Jack by running him over in her Lincoln Navigator. She knows he goes to a movie at the Paramount every Friday night. She plans to drive into that movie line at high speed. She will hit him and, as she knows full well, some of the people standing behind and in front of him. She also knows full well that, when she hits them, they will be killed. She executes her plan. Well, guess what? She is guilty of homicide, not only of Jack, but of anyone else she kills. It’s literally collateral damage, but it’s not accidental. Both morally and legally, it counts as deliberate.

Collateral damage fans will repeat that their forces make all efforts to avoid civilian casualties. But this claim distorts the real situation. Joanne may make all efforts to avoid killing the other people in line, too, but she knows damn well that she will kill them all the same. And this isn’t like a car manufacturer who knows that, despite his best efforts, he will produce defective cars in which people will die. The car manufacturer doesn’t kill anyone. He doesn’t even impose a risk on anyone; he sells risky cars. The government and the public, individually and collectively, decide how to manage this risk. The victims of collateral damage have no such choice. A much greater risk is forced on them. And someone is killing them, knowingly killing them, because it would be a bit inconvenient to do otherwise.


You would think that, if we accept this sort of brutality against civilians, it is only when we think there is excellent reason to do so. Not at all. We’re pretty relaxed about standards for killing and mutilating civilians. For one thing, we don’t seem to require great certainty that the acts in question really are necessary. Take for example the great American meditation on the Vietnam war. It is conceded–not universally, but widely–that the war was some sort of mistake, involving too much fear of communist expansion, or too much faith in various South Vietnamese saviors, or too much confidence in air power, or misguided schemes to win hearts and minds. Few people claim that these mistakes were unavoidable, that America had no inkling its policy was headed for trouble. Yet most American critics of the Vietnam war see it only as a ‘tragic mistake’. And for most of these critics, the tragedy was primarily the loss of 50,000 American lives, not the loss of one to four million Southeast Asian lives. There is no hue and cry to punish those who made what–were we speaking of a plane crash or a tainted food scandal–we would think of as criminal errors. Instead, we hear that it’s not easy to be a president, or a general, or a state department analyst, or a commanding officer, or a marine. Give the guys a break.

This attitude is not peculiar to the Vietnam War. If you look at analyses of World War I, there is almost a general consensus that it was the work of idiots. But they’re just idiots, and the whole era is often seen through a pleasantly misty veil of indulgence for bygone naïveté. (The returning soldiers were not so forgiving, but their indignation doesn’t come down through history.) In short, we don’t really feel that you simply must not make mistakes when it comes to reasons for war. On the contrary, we are very charitable about such mistakes. A few million innocent deaths? Life is full of uncertainties…

It’s not just that we countenance the death and mutilation of innocent people on the basis of foolishly mistaken factual beliefs. It’s also that we don’t require a very serious reason for such actions. Opinions about the Korean war illustrate this. We scarcely know the circumstances that led up to it. We do know that it concerned, well, Korea, not an invasion of California. Why did the US have to fight there? We’re not sure; according to MASH, there didn’t seem to be much of a reason. But that’s good enough. The war may have been ‘senseless’ in some vague way, and it’s important that Our Troops had to endure the mud and cold and ‘Chinese human wave attacks’. But war is war. A terrible thing, to be sure, but no crime, even when the objective is nebulous. There may be strategic reasons not to have nebulous objectives–this is an important post-Vietnam strategic doctrine–but not moral reasons. When it comes to justifying the mutilation of innocents, nebulous reasons will do.

Lest this account seem too cynical, compare our wooly moralizing about war to the crystal clarity of our moralizing about, say, raping an eight year old girl. Now that provokes real anger, an outrage which brooks no blather about mistakes or intentions, no shrugs about the vicissitudes of life. It’s something we take very seriously. Why the difference?

It’s not that a sex crime is somehow a matter of ‘private morality’; a government which inflicted child-rape would be hated beyond imagining. But we do lower our standards when it comes to politics: because we expect countries to act like vicious beasts, the mutilation of children in war does matter less to us than a single mutilated child found in an empty lot. And it’s not simply that the brutalities of war affect us less. It’s also that we cannot help thinking they are sometimes, under not very stringent restrictions, justified. The other guy’s atrocities horrify us, not our own.


In short, here’s where we stand on mutilating children:

1) If it’s deliberate, part of a bombing campaign to demoralize a civilian population, its morality is perhaps somewhat questionable. We shouldn’t do such things when we’re not fighting a really big war against an enemy who seems to threaten our survival. But if we are, it might be ok.

2) If it’s not deliberate, it’s fine. It’s ok in any war we have any fairly good reason to fight given possibly false but not too ill-founded beliefs about the world. In such circumstances it’s quite acceptable to take actions which we know with moral certainty–certainty for all practical purposes–will mutilate children.

In other words, the crucial point about collateral damage is not that it mutilates children and is therefore wrong; it’s that it mutilates children and may at times be right. There really isn’t any question about this. Even if every war the US has fought since 1945 was wrong, we can easily conceive of wars that are right, or at least in which we were right to participate. Most of us think that such wars have actually occurred. And such wars involve just the sort of collateral damage we’re talking about.

This is why there can’t be any serious issue about justifying terrorism. Yes, it sometimes mutilates children for political purposes. This is clearly wrong if done in an obviously bad cause, or for very stupid reasons. But–I am not in a position to change or judge almost universally accepted moral principles–otherwise it can certainly be ok. That’s why we so often cause it to happen.

Why then, would any of us, even Chomsky, feel entitled to find terrorism morally repugnant? Imagine trying to make such a claim. You say: “To achieve my objectives, I would certainly drop bombs with the knowledge that they would blow the arms off some children. But to achieve those same objectives, I would not plant or set off a bomb on the ground with the knowledge that it would have that same effect. After all, I have planes to do that, I don’t need to plant bombs.” Ah, the mysterious West.

Like war and killing and playing soccer, terrorism is sometimes justified, sometimes not. One would hope that it would be justified only on the strongest of reasons, but, if our attitudes to war are any guide, this isn’t the case. Pretty good reasons will do fine. Perhaps Bin Laden’s reasons for 9-11 were so very stupid that he committed a great crime. Perhaps the terrorists who ravage Algeria today are so insanely, profusely brutal that their evil is patent. But there are very few other cases as clear-cut. What is absolutely clear, clear beyond any shadow of a doubt, its that we all accept the mutilation of children as a suitable means to certain political ends. No self-induced, self-serving revulsion against terror will change this.

The Palestinians have often said that, given an army like Israel’s, they would never engage in terror. Perhaps they would be as scrupulous as we are, or ten times moreso. One thing is certain: could the Palestinians trade terrorism for conventional, legal, approved warfare, thousands more innocent human beings would be reduced to bloody lumps of flesh. Why this would be morally preferable is not entirely clear to me.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.


(1) “Some [problems with anti-terrorist strategies] came up in December 1987, at the peak of the first war on terrorism, that’s when the furor over the plague was peaking. The United Nations General Assembly passed a very strong resolution against terrorism, condemning the plague in the strongest terms, calling on every state to fight against it in every possible way. It passed unanimously.”

— ” The New War Against Terror” October 18, 2001,

Chomsky’s strategy is to proclaim the whole world agreed that terrorism is a plague, and then to portray the United States as terrorist: “Everyone condemns terrorism, but we have to ask what they mean. …i [sic] use the term in the literal sense, and hence condemn all terrorist actions, not only those that are called “terrorist” for propagandistic reasons.”

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com