Terrorism polarizes people, whether you’re talking about the acts themselves or just fighting over the word. President Obama was on television last night trying to set out a coherent and defensible strategy for the U.S. to follow in its endless confrontation with jihadism, hard on the heels of the gruesome slaying of an off-duty British soldier on a London street by two men who shouted Allahu akbar as they hacked and slashed him to death and then stood with bloodied weapons in hand, haranguing witnesses in justification of the act. Muslim organizations rushed to condemn the crime while the polemics heated up in the media.
In a commentary in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald questioned the use of the word terrorism, asking, "How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners?" and asserting that "… the term [terrorism] at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states."
You have to deal with these issues, even if it angers you that people like Greenwald are rude enough to raise them at a time when all you feel is horror and outrage. Most of us are aware that the ethical issues involved in warfare are tangled and uncomfortable, but faced with savagery like this, we need to have our outrage validated before we can have a civil discussion. We are entitled to our outrage, aren't we?
I'd say that we are, but I'd also say that outrage isn't a policy, and we need to confront the issues Greenwald raises if we're going to come up with a policy in response to the deep-rooted hostility to the West that seems to prevail among Muslims. So let's try to make some distinctions that will answer Greenwald's question and point to an approach that might help President Obama steer us out of the impasse we seem to be in.
I don't propose to waste a lot of time arguing about the meaning of the word "terrorism." Like other emotionally loaded words, such as “racism”, it denotes something real but is often used as an incantation in an attempt to short-circuit debate. It’s a trump card that is supposed to ace any argument you may have. It's not much of a guide in making policy. The question to ask in a moral or political debate is not whether a certain action conforms to a contested definition but whether that action is justified.
So let's ask: is there any way of justifying the killing of Lee Rigby? He was, it is true, a British soldier. He was not, however, in uniform or engaged in a military operation; he was unarmed. His attackers wore no distinctive uniform or emblem, as required by the 1949 Geneva Convention, which also, incidentally, prohibits the infliction of “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds” on “persons taking no active part in the hostilities.” If you’re going to call what happened to Lee Rigby an act of war, then I’m going to call it a war crime.
But it’s not clear whether the laws of war apply in the struggle against terrorists, however defined; the so-called War on Terror is taking place in a legal gray area which is tying the lawyers in knots. Barack Obama found out how hard these issues are when he became President and actually had to take charge of the thing; his prosecution of the war by drone strikes and his failure to close the prison at Guantánamo are evidence of the difficulties he has encountered in balancing our security with the rule of law.
A better guide for most of us than legal theories is simple moral intuition. At the level of common usage we know what people mean by terrorism: intentionally targeting defenseless people in order to advance a political agenda. The defenseless part is important; we know that when a heavily armed American unit on patrol is shot at by Iraqi or Afghani insurgents, that’s war, not terrorism. If a man is willing to expose himself to enemy fire, he’s not a terrorist. The element of cowardice in terrorism is definitive: terrorists know their targets are not going to shoot back. There’s a reason Lee Rigby’s attackers didn’t pull their knives on armed sentries at the gate of a British military base.
And we know there’s no justification for the killing of defenseless people, even if we sympathize with the cause for which the act is committed. A person of sound moral intuition cringes when a cause he favors is “supported” by an act of terrorism. Sound moral intuition has a way of being smothered by emotion, and emotions run high in violent conflicts. But moral integrity requires that we condemn the killing of defenseless people whenever and however it occurs.
Which brings us to the next point: none of the above is to justify the “many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners” that Glenn Greewald decries. The people under the rubble of shocked and awed Baghdad were just as dead as the people under the wreckage of the World Trade Center. But there are distinctions to be made if we are to find our way through the fog of ideological war to reasonable policies that will protect us without victimizing others. The grounds on which we condemn an action matter in shaping policies to prevent its repetition.
The actions I presume Greenwald is referring to are not terrorism but, rather, either war crimes or what is delicately called “collateral damage.” The distinction matters because it clarifies how these offenses are to be remedied. You can argue till you drop about the definition of terrorism, but there is a legal definition of war crimes and a procedure for prosecuting them. Let’s call things by their names: the dead children in My Lai were victims of a war crime. And even if not enough war crimes are duly punished, they are recognized as crimes. The U.S. Army is not proud of My Lai. And the U.S. Army is currently prosecuting a sergeant who carried out a massacre of unarmed combatants in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. Terrorists do not prosecute themselves; only legitimate powers do that.
Collateral damage is harder to assess morally, but we have to make the effort. Most everyone recognizes that warfare is a messy business and that non-combatants will occasionally be caught in the fray. Allied bombing killed seventy thousand French civilians in the wake of the Normandy invasion, and nobody considers the Allied campaign against Hitler to have been delegitimized as a result. But even a single civilian death is too many, and a consistent pattern of civilian deaths has to call into question the strategy that produces it. Here is where our moral intuition has to kick in. To object to civilian deaths as a result of military action is not to concede any moral equivalence between legitimate powers and jihadist cutthroats. It is merely to recognize that an Afghan farmer whose child has been killed by an American missile has suffered as much as Lee Rigby’s loved ones. Some collateral damage may be inevitable in warfare, but carelessness toward collateral damage is indistinguishable from malice.
President Obama appears to be aware of this, and we should support him in his efforts to make the struggle against jihadism more just and less wasteful of innocent life. We are entitled to be horrified and angered by the killing of Lee Rigby, but we should also be outraged any time American munitions kill non-combatants, intentionally or not.
Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com