To overcome the kind of relativism captured by the cliché “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”, we need to define terrorism independently of who is employing it. Here is the definition that does the job. Terrorism is violence against some innocent people aiming at intimidation and coercion of some other people.
This definition says nothing about the identity of terrorists. They can be insurgents or criminals. But they can also be members of the military or of some state security agency.
Public debate tends to assume that terrorism is the preserve of non-state agents. But we should resist this assumption. If state agents do what terrorists do – if they use violence against the innocent with the aim of intimidation and coercion – why should they escape moral censure?
Acts of states are no more exempt from moral scrutiny than acts of non-state and anti-state groups. Let us call a spade a spade. States are sometimes guilty of terrorism.
State involvement with terrorism
Some states employ terrorism in a lasting and systematic way against their own population as a method of control of all the main segments of society. Obvious examples are Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time. They were truly terrorist states.
But many states that aren’t totalitarian, including democratic and liberal states, have used terrorism on a more limited scale and for more specific purposes. They have done so directly, or by sponsoring non-state organisations whose modus operandi is, or includes, terrorism.
Some non-totalitarian states have made use of terrorism against their own populations. Some have done so directly, by having state agencies such as the armed forces or security services employ terrorism. Other states have done the same indirectly, by sponsoring death squads and the like. Certain military dictatorships in Latin America provide examples of these practices.
Some states, both totalitarian and non-totalitarian, have used terrorism in the course of waging war, or as a method of maintaining their occupation of another people’s land. The Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities in the Second World War – campaigns that were meant to coerce enemy governments by terrorising civilians – fits perfectly the definition of terrorism.
All terrorism is morally wrong, but not necessarily wrong in the same degree. By and large, state terrorism is morally worse than terrorism employed by non-state agents. This claim can be supported with two arguments.
The scale of mayhem
There is a great difference between state and non-state terrorism in the scale of killing and destruction. This is a result of the amount and variety of resources that even a small state normally has at its disposal.
No insurgency, no matter how well funded, organised, determined and experienced in the methods of terrorism, can equal the killing, maiming and overall destruction on the scale of the Second World War’s “terror from the sky” or the psychological devastation and physical liquidation of millions in Soviet and Nazi concentration camps.
The media portrayed the attacks of September 11, 2001, as “the worst case of terrorism ever”. The number of people killed, believed early to be about 7000, was staggering. Later, more accurate assessments put the figure at about 3000.
But when we discard the assumption that only insurgents engage in terrorism, the picture changes. The Royal Air Force “Firestorm Raid” on Hamburg (on July 27, 1943) killed some 40,000 Germans, most of them civilians. A similar raid on Dresden (February 13, 1945) killed about 25,000 civilians.
To be sure, the asymmetry of resources and of consequent destructiveness between state and insurgent terrorism could change, should a terrorist insurgency get hold of weapons of mass destruction. But that, fortunately, is still a very tall order.
The argument of ‘no alternative’
It isn’t only scale that makes state terrorism morally worse than terrorism employed by non-state agents. The justification or mitigation that insurgent groups are sometimes able to give for their terrorist acts is not available to states.
Insurgent terrorism is sometimes said to be justified, or its moral atrociousness mitigated, by a lack of alternatives. When a people is subjected to foreign rule with all the attendant evils of oppression and exploitation, and that rule is utterly unyielding and deploys overwhelming power, a liberation movement will likely claim that the only effective method of struggle is terrorism. To refrain from terrorism would be to give up the hope of liberation altogether.
This argument invites two objections. Direct victims of terrorism are innocent people, rather than those responsible for the evils terrorists sets out to fight. Thus terrorism is extremely wrong morally. Also, one can’t be confident that terrorist violence will achieve its aim.
These objections to the argument of “no alternative” are weighty and may well be enough to dispose of most attempts at justifying or mitigating particular cases of terrorism. But they don’t show that the argument will never apply. Perhaps persecution and oppression of an ethnic or religious group can be extreme enough to amount to a moral disaster that justifies, or at least mitigates, a terrorist response. Perhaps people sometimes really have no alternative.
And the question of the efficiency of terrorism is an empirical one, so it can’t be settled once and for all. The resources of a state, on the other hand, will virtually always provide some alternative to terrorism.
State terrorism is, by and large, morally worse than terrorism used by non-state agents. And the state is, historically, the greatest terrorist. When discussing terrorism, we shouldn’t lose sight of this.