This interview of Ted Honderich by Prof. Chronis Polychroniou appeared in the 1 May 2010 issue of Epsilon, the Sunday magazine of the Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia.

Question: Terrorism has been around for a long time and the word terror itself was apparently first used to describe the Jacobin “Reign of Terror” that followed the French Revolution in 1789. Yet, we do not have as of yet an internationally accepted definition of terrorism and no legal coherent description of terrorism. Why is it so difficult to come up with a consensus about terrorism?

Answer: There is no difficulty of a simply lexicographic, linguistic, definitional, or communicative kind, no difficulty in defining the word for pure inquiry or rational debate or philosophy or just thinking. No difficulty at all. For all these purposes, terrorism is as easy to define as soup.

In The New Oxford Dictionary of English, it 'the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims'. The difficulty about getting an international consensus is that in moral and political debate and struggle, different parties want to express opposing desires or other attitudes in definitions, load them with prejudice, beg questions.

I do a little of that myself, in defining terrorism as (i) violence, (ii) smaller scale than war, (iii) social and political in aim, (iv) illegal, and (v) prima facie wrong because it is indeed killing maiming and destruction. I refuse to stick in something about causing fear or intentionally killing innocents because I want not to influence people into thinking terrorism is different in those ways from our war. War is the great cause of fear, and with full foresight kills innumerably more innocents. Also, I do want to make it easy to see that there is also something you can call terrorist war -- which is just the same except for item (ii).

Q: Is the aphorism “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” an indication of political/ideological differences or, in a Wittgenstenian sense, perhaps merely a  problem of language?

A: As will have guessed already, it seems to me that the aphorism doesn't point to any kind of real problem of language. There's nothing deep or mysterious here. The aphorism just points to opposed principles of right and wrong or to oppositions between self-interest or selfishness and a principle of right and wrong.

It seems to me that the fundamental and general conflict between Left and Right, both of which involve self-interest, is between something like the Principle of Humanity and the conservatism that has no real principle of right and wrong to defend its self-interest. Of course the self-interest is concealed a little from conservatives, such as the New Labour Party of Blair and Brown in Britain, by a lot of self-deception and convention, much of it about supposed impossibilities and necessities, at the moment in connection with banks.

Q: In contrast to acts of terrorism committed by individuals and political organizations,  state terrorism rarely draws attention by the media. Is there a fundamental distinction to be made between the two forms of terrorism?

That ordinary definition of terrorism of mine mentioned above of course covers and includes state terrorism. People are inclined to think there is a fundamental difference, sometimes because the state terrorism is the work of democracies -- who also go in for terrorist wars, such as the war on Iraq. Also, it is easier to pretend that the state terrorism is in accord with international law. My own attitude is that any fundamental difference must be in terms of open and clear argument as to right and wrong, argument resting on an explicit principle of right and wrong.

In my case that is the Principle of Humanity. In brief, in just a few words, that is to the effect that what is right is what is rational with respect to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives, bad lives understood as lives deprived of the fundamental human goods, frustrated in the fundamental human desires -- decent length of life, bodily well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, goods of relationship, goods of culture.

By this principle the terrorist war on Iraq is fundamentally like the 9/11 attack on America. So too are instances of ordinary American state terrorism against peoples in South America.

Q: Just recently, a “terrorist organization” in Greece detonated explosives outside the Greek parliament, clearly in order to send some kind of a symbolic message about its perceived image of the state of Greek parliamentary democracy. Do such actions have any place in a democratic polity, however complicit may be actions of contemporary politicians in the making of a corrupt, unjust and exploitative social order?

A: I have to go back to the Principle of Humanity. In general, what is rational is something that (i) has a certain good probability of achieving an end and also (ii) does not itself go against that end -- say by causing more suffering than it prevents. Deciding what is rational in this sense with respect to terrorism or indeed anything else is hard. It is harder in my view than proving or anyway defending the Principle of Humanity, proving the rightness of the end having to do with bad lives.

But my own inclination here has been to believe that the terrorism that is a rational means to the end of the Principle of Humanity is always liberation-terrorism. It is the terrorism, as rightly called freedom-struggle or self defence, of a people who have been denied their possession and freedom of their own homeland. My inclination about the Greek activity you mention is that it does not pass that hard test.

Q: Research on terrorism has notbeen able to produce a specific profile of terrorists, but many of them were neither uneducated nor poor. Is it surprising that so many terrorists have middle-class backgrounds?

A: That isn't a question I've thought about -- having been concerned with what is right rather than with which else may move men and women to action. One thing that comes to mind is that education is likely to include education into facts of injustice. Another is that middle-class men may actually identify more with their people -- or, very differently feel more deprived than the poor by victimzation of their people. Another thought is of course that the poor are ground down.   

Q: Your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as in the case of other scholars like Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk, to mention just a few, have made you a very controversial figure. What’s your explanation for it?

A: I define Zionism as the project of a homeland for the Jewish people within roughly the 1948-1967 borders of Israel, and neo-Zionism as the ongoing project of depriving the Palestinians of a viable state within what is of course their indigenous homeland -- all of historic Palestine, including Zionist Israel. What has been shocking is the proposition, in which I persist absolutely, that the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism in historic Palestine against neo-Zionism.

I agree that is shocking. It's not puzzling that it is shocking. Part of the explanation is that there is valuable human feeling against defending killing. I support it, but not the idea that it is never right to go against it. Indeed we do commonly go against it. We go against it, sometimes rightly, in the case of the making of war by our states.

Should the judgement as to making exceptions to the rule always be left to states rather than individuals, or anyway democratic states? The best argument for a democracy must be that it is a decision-procedure that produces better decisions -- since, as we say in English, two heads are better than one and more heads are better than two.

But that is only true if what is in the heads is equally and freely expressed. There is nothing like decent equality or freedom in our hieracrchic democracies. So I myself will not leave judgement as to right and wrong in the hands of Bush, Blair and Brown. To speak more plainly, that would be to comply with the judgements of criminals against humanity.

Q: Obama is carrying forward the war in Aghanistan. Why is he not on your list?

A: It is sad or worse that he is not abandoning the war, in fact the war of occupation. But of course he didn't start it. More important, there plainly is a limit in political reality as to what he can do. If he is the most powerful man in the world, he is also a man surrounded in his own country by awful adversaries capable of mobilizing against him the stupidity of ignorance, a stupidity they have manufactured. He has to choose what battles to try to win and when. I continue to have some faith in him as informed and intelligent, at least as much so as an ordinary university professor of law. I also have some faith in him as a black. He has some understanding, not just in theory, of being in the class of American victims in America.

Q: Has your general attitude been affected by the attempted Christmas Day terrorism against America?

A: Not much. I stick to something, which I can introduce by moving back to British politics rather than Greek. After the New Labour Party got elected in 1979, they never stopped saying something about ordinary crime -- mugging, burglary and so on. Their policy, they said, was 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.' Then 9/11 happened, and you never heard the words again. Never.

The reason, of course, was that the deep thinkers in New Labour thought somebody might say 'What about tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism?' I do say that, for many reasons. One is the bestiality of neo-Zionism -- that most salient cause of terrorism. Another is the fear that terrorism is not to be defeated by putting body-scanners in the airports. They can take bombs onto the trains to the airports or forget about the airports and bring them to football matches.

It is the curse of our time, as it has been the curse of many other times, that we are governed by moral stupidity. Moral stupidity is mistake about right and wrong that has at its bottom the keeping of people in the other stupidity that is ignorance about ordinary facts rather than right and wrong.

America is the lowest democracy in this. One ignorance is of facts about Islam. Another is ignorance, despite the economic crisis, of the fact that capitalism is not a necessity. Another is ignorance of the facts of neo-Zionism. One more is ignorance of the fact that France and America made Haiti the place it has been, a vulnerable place whose past victimization is now brought into view for a moment by further tragedy.

Q: Someone of your morals and politics, like Noam Chomsky, who is certain that things are bad, has to answer the old question of what is to be done. So what is your answer? What should be done about all the denials of the great goods, about taking from people what we all desire? What should be done about the monstrous selfishness?

Truth and logic is all we have to rely on, some say. We have to try that, keep at it. But surely it can't be the only hope. It can't be. That would be too terrible.

Mass civil disobedience is an answer. Maybe the real stuff, not a march of half a million or a million against a war where the marchers go home for tea after the marching rather than stay there in the street. Boycott of the market, that pretended necessity that is viciousness. Mass civil disobedience, even when not so persistent, has been working well in quite a few places in the last couple of decades. It was part of what brought down a wall, ended an empire. It has changed governments.

Revolution doesn't seem to be an answer.The epoch of revolution seems to be over -- because according to the best information and judgement it isn't a rational means to the end of the Principle of Humanity. That revolution isn't rational and so is wrong, of course, is the work not only of the revolutionaries but of those who defeat it. Indeed they are more at fault.

But here is some imagining for you, anyway imagining about England, that I went in for the other night in a debate in Oxford University's famous Union.

The British army has some tanks in London doesn't it? Pimlico, I think. Some colonel of the British army might remember something in this day of the bankers and the profitizers, the illusions, this day of Blair being his own judge. The colonel might remember the greatest words in English politics and morals, spoken by another colonel of the British Army. Thomas Rainsborough, 17th Century, at the time of English civil war:
"For really I think the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he....".

Our Pimlico colonel could take his tank to Parliament Square, when Parliament is sitting, and park it there for a while, holding up the traffic. Long enough for the telly to get on the scene, and ask him what he is doing. He could say what he is doing, and then he could go back to the barracks in Pimlico to take his medicine for civil and other disobedience.

It would make our wretched politicians think, as by God they should, to the best of their ability. It might make them think that in our politics money talks too much, and has now dragged down England lower than ever before.

Ted Honderich's most recent book on these matters, of which you can turn to excerpts,  is Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7..., titled Right and Wrong and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... in the United States.

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