|HONDERICH ON TERRORISM
by Felix O' Murchadha
Ted Honderich's article to which you can turn, Terrorism For Humanity, is reprinted in the distinctive and admirable collection Violence, Victims, Justifications: Philosophical Approaches, edited by Felix O' Murchadha, Lecturer in Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway. The collection is published in Bern by Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers. What follows below is part of the editor's commentary on 'Terrorism for Humanity' -- part of his Afterward to the book. The commentary is what real philosophy always is, which is independent.
An Afterword is not a conclusion, it does not tie up loose ends. Rather, it is a word of reflection looking back on the course of a book. The aim is to bring the contributions to this volume into dialogue with one another. This task is all the more pressing because of the different styles of discourse and of approach evident in this volume. Such difference reflects the diversity of voices within the philosophical debate on violence. The task of this Afterword is to show how fruitful a debate between such voices might be.
The contributions to this volume are diverse both in their the-matic focus and methodological approach. Nonetheless, over and over again issues of responsibility, vulnerability, security, belonging and identity arise in these articles. Furthermore, the contributions to this volume can be usefully discussed in terms of the relative emphases they place on the position of the perpetrator, the victim and the witness of violence.
I will begin this Afterword with a discussion of Ted Honderich’s contribution. Honderich offers not a justification of violence, but of a particular form of violence, which – in the Western world at least – is generally considered unjustified and unjustifiable. Starting from his position we may come to see some of the fundamental issues which this interplay of violence and discourse, the use of force and its justification and condemnation, gives rise. I will begin therefore with a fairly lengthy discussion of his article (1) before going on to discuss victimhood and the place of the witness in violence, widening out the discussion to include the issue of the place of the philosopher in respect of violence (2). To be a victim (or witness) of violence is to be vulnerable in some way. Such vulnerability is addressed in many of the contributions, particularly in relation to embodiment. That will form the theme of the third section (3). The final part will draw the discussion to a close by focusing on the paradoxical interrelation of intimacy and impersonality in violence (4).
1. Honderich on Terrorism
Ted Honderich’s recent writings on terrorism have sparked heated debate. This is particularly true in Germany where the leading publisher Suhrkamp withdrew the translation of After the Terror because of charges that it was anti-Semitic in its defence of suicide bombing. The latter charge is without foundation and merely serves to foreclose debate on the position Honderich articulates. The main points of that position are contained in his contribution to this volume.
The key concept which structures this argument is announced in the title ‘terrorism for humanity’. Any meaningful engagement with Honderich’s argument must first consider that notion and the consequent position he articulates on innocent victims. It is only in the light of such considerations that the defence he offers of the actual practice of suicide bombing by Palestinian terrorists can be discussed.
It must be acknowledged at the outset that any notion of ‘terrorism for humanity’ is a provocative one. For one thing terrorism is generally considered to be against humanity, even by those who may defend it in certain instances. Specifically – and this is a point to which I will return – terrorism is considered dehumanising, both to its victims and its perpetrators. Victims in this case do not just include those who are directly injured, but also those who suffer under the terror of imminent attack. Terrorism cannot be identified with revolutionary violence – the fact that it is generally so used is as Michael Walzer puts it ‘a small victory for the champions of order, among whom the uses of terror are by no means unknown.’ The current ‘war on terror’, with its implications that terrorists are the other side, those set on undermining the state (albeit with the help of so-called ‘rogue states’), follows the logic of this ‘small victory’. Honderich clearly rejects this identification and makes no distinction in principle between revolutionary and state terror. Of course the fact that states can act in a terroristic manner does not in itself lead to the conclusion of indifference between the two. I will return to this point later. Important in this context is that whether practiced by the state or by revolutionary groups, terrorism is generally considered as demeaning to humanity in a way that war is not or at least in a more profound way than war usually is. The analogy to war is not accidental as Honderich himself makes use of just war type arguments.
While up to recent times the rules – if not the practice – of military engagement were clear about the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, this distinction has become very blurred with the rise of total war in the past century or more. Terrorism functions precisely through a denial of such a distinction. It is true that terrorist groups do still speak the language of ‘legitimate targets’, but when the field of legitimate targets becomes so wide as to include practically anybody, then we can say that the term has lost all meaning – rarely at any rate are such definitions of legitimate targets commensurate with combatants alone. When we still distinguish between combatant and non-combatant the target of attack is being recognised in terms of his position or his actions. In the case of terrorism the person injured or killed is not a victim due to his or her actions or position, rather his or her suffering is a ‘message’ delivered to the opposing side. That suffering has no other meaning. The victim is reduced to a suffering or lifeless mass of flesh. The aim is to reduce often a whole people to something close to the state of the actual victims: dismembered, confused, disorientated, unfit for any relations of human solidarity or the pursuit of the good. In contrast the aim of a battle commander may be simply the gaining of certain territory, with as few casualties as possible. While we may be sceptical of the glory of wounds of war, those who feel pride in military service do so because they fought bravely in what they understand to have been a just war; the person who loses an arm in a car bomb has no such human values to comprehend his victimhood. We need have no romantic views of warfare to see a difference here and one which per-tains to the humanity of the victim. To kill an innocent person is to kill someone not because of his who she is – her actions and position, but simply because of what her suffering represents. The ‘innocent’ person by definition does not play any active role here, she is useful only for the screams of agony and/or the splattering of her blood and the crumbling of her bones.
Honderich would wish to question the use of innocence here. In one sense this may seem peripheral to his argument as he defends the killing of innocents in the case that the greater good – the good of humanity – is served. But, if I am not mistaken, part of the strength of this argument rests on his account of half-innocents. Half-innocents are in his terms non-combatants, i.e., are not in the army, police etc., but ‘are by choice or consent benefiting or profiting from wrongful killings by their state or their people’. The power of Honderich’s argument for this goes back to a position worked out in his famous essay, ‘Our Omissions, their Violence’ (republished as ‘Our Omissions, their Terrorism’). Here Honderich argues for the moral equivalence of omissions and acts. He further argues that the terrorist’s response of tu quoque, is not without validity. If by our omissions we contribute to the misery against which they are fighting, we are implicated in the violence we are condemning. Non-combatants are thus redefined as half-innocents. They are innocent in the sense that they do not actively engage in acts which contribute to the misery of those on whose behalf terrorism is taking place, but by ‘choice or consent’ they benefit from those acts and omit to take any action to alleviate this misery. It is hard to see how anyone – with the exception of children and people mentally incapable of moral responsibility can escape from this category of half-innocence (except into a more culpable one). Hardly a day passes in the life of a reasonably prosperous citizen of a western country that he or she does not benefit or profit from wrongful killings or at least degradations. To say that one benefits without consent would need a strong quasi-Stoic defence, which I do not think Honderich would accept. If the aim of terrorism is the good of humanity, and this means some degree of equal access to human goods, then all deliberate deprivations of these goods seem relevant in defining half-innocents. In this case as Honderich makes clear most of West falls under the category of half-innocents and terrorist actions on behalf of the peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa would be potentially justifiable on Honderich’s terms.
A half-innocent may respond that he certainly cannot claim innocence, but that his 'guilt' is more a matter of what he is than what he has done. He was born into the prosperous North and benefits from this birth, but this does make him responsible for it. He may or may not play his own small role in helping to change the situation. He cannot be expected however, to give away all the benefits of his birth. To expect this would be to expect an act of exceptional moral rectitude. If we are to take Honderich at his word, then the expectation of such exceptional moral rectitude is the outcome of moral reasoning, specifically the generalizability of such reasoning. But unless we are to throw out the principle ‘ought implies can’, then there are difficulties here. This is so because before any act there is a 'guilt' which no action can undo. So long as to be white for example means to be privileged then nothing short of self-annihilation can undo this situation. A white person might struggle to achieve a global society with equal access to the primary human goods, but until that goal is achieved she remains a legitimate target of terrorist attack. For all practical purposes this amounts to a legitimation of a reign of terror into the foreseeable future, provided that the reasonable chance of success has been demonstrated. But this latter qualification is vague enough to allow for a quasi-permanent terrorist war. Honderich's argu-ment leads to a parallel claim to the advocates of the ‘war on terror’: the justification of a struggle without foreseeable end, poten-tially consisting of a ever spiralling cycle of violence. This is not to place the two positions on the same moral level, but it is rather to suggest that Honderich has grasped philosophically the nature of the present situation in a manner, which points to a horrifying future. All critique of Honderich to one side, there seems to be a truth to his analysis, the full horror of which he himself has not perhaps fully seen.
Honderich has a further argument for the justifiability of the killing not alone of half-innocents, but also of innocents. The argument has I think two components. The first acknowledges the emotional force of the horror occasioned by terrorist (specifically suicide-bombing) attacks. Honderich is clear that such emotional responses are not at all out of place here, in fact they are necessary in making moral judgements. But at the same time he insists that to fixate on such emotions and to ignore the suffering out of which these attacks emerge and the emotional responses exposure to such suffering gives rise to, is a culpable blindness. What the latter emotion teaches us is that inequalities and injustices are outrages, which should be re-sponded to with vigorous action. If terrorist violence is in certain situations the only possible response to this situation, then such violence is at least potentially justifiable. But even assuming that there are such cases, where there is no other option but for physical violence, then we must nonetheless ask whether or not there are limits – quasi-absolute limits – to what violence is justifiable. If there is a logic of retribution, in which misery is to be repaid with equal misery, that seems again understandable, but hardly justifiable or even viable.
The second argument is a more consequentialist one: if the killing of some innocents will lead to greater good then it may be justifiable. It is certainly the case that ‘we ourselves’ (i.e. Western nations) have justified such killings during the first and second world wars (and most recently during the Iraq war) on this basis, as Honderich argues. But it is not clear that even on the terms in which they were made these arguments were correct. Arguably modern terrorism began with the bombings of Dresden and Cologne and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War Two. But for Honderich the argument is deeper. For him it is a question of ends and those ends he attempts to describe in terms of a ‘morality of humanity’. Such a morality is based on the principle that ‘we must take actually rational steps, which is to say effective and economical ones, to get people out of defined lives of wretchedness and other deprivation.’Certain acts of terrorism, Honderich claims, have or may have such an aim. And to the extent to which they do they are at least candidates for being right.
Faced with a choice to kill an innocent person or let hundreds die, the tendency of the consequentialist argument is to say that the killing of an innocent person is or may be justified. In the standard type of consequentialist scenario the killing of an innocent person has a specific and direct consequence of the saving of others. Honderich, however, can offer no such case. In the situation in question, Palestinian suicide bombing, the consequence is a possible alleviation of living conditions, a possible step towards equality of access to human goods, which however is not certain and is definitely not immediate. In other words, not alone does ‘a world go out of existence’, but there is no clear expectation of a new world coming into being with every life taken in such attacks. In fact the immediate consequence is more death, namely the death through reprisals by the Israeli army. Obviously, that is not the direct responsibility of Hamas or whichever group is engaged in the bombing, but it is surely a consequence, which must play a part in the thinking of those who engage in these attacks.
The present, in short, is being sacrificed for an indefinite future. In a sense this is characteristic of much of human action and indeed much political and military violence: in the interests of peace and happiness in the future, war and terror are practiced in the present. The higher the goal being aimed at the higher the threshold of acceptable violence to reach it. This has a paradoxical effect : not alone does the ideal being aimed at justify violence in the present, but the extent of that violence undermines the very possibility of that ideal. This is not an argument that violence never achieves anything, which is manifestly false. Rather, it is an argument to the effect that if that which is to be achieved is understood such as to trump all other con-siderations – as the Principle of Humanity appears to do – then the argument against acts of violence to achieve that goal are progressively under-mined. In that case no level of violence seems too great to achieve this end. But the ideal being aimed at is one of equality and hence of non-violence that, however, requires levels of civility and solidarity, which limitless violence makes less and less possible.
Honderich is claiming that the avowed end of certain terrorist organisations is to bring certain populations up to the level of common human aspirations. In doing so they are depriving others of access to their aspirations, indeed in differing measures to all six of the human aspirations which he lists. This includes those who are innocent of causing suffering or benefiting from it. While a simple equation of violence or suffering ignores the political realities of oppressor and oppressed, at the same time suffering cannot in itself justify the infliction of suffering. Terrorism must both aim to reduce the levels of suffering in the world and be capable of achieving this end, if it is to be a candidate for goodness. Let us accept the first part of the pro-position in the case of at least some terrorist organisations. The second part is much more difficult to defend. By targeting innocent and half-innocent people the terrorist organisation is making a clear statement: nobody is safe. What this challenges is a basic tenet of the state, namely that one of its major functions is to give security to its citizens. The response of the state is almost always to become more repressive. The repression of the state further justifies the terrorist organization and a cycle of violence and counter-violence threatens to spiral out of control. Once this happens the danger of a collapse into a quasi-Hobbesian state of nature is very real. This is so because terrorism does not so much take the killing of innocents as an unfortunate consequence of its actions, it is based on such killing. This is the lesson from Dresden and Hiroshima: for terrorism to work there can be no boundaries between innocent and non-innocent. Once this is accepted then all are guilty and all are targets. To accept this consequence is to undermine the basis of democracy itself.
Elsewhere, Honderich argues for the compatability of democracy and terrorism on the basis that terrorism generally is involved in the coercion of persuasion not of force. In effect terrorism does not force governments to change policy, what it does do is give those who are without influence more influence than they would have otherwise. Certainly Honderich is right to point to the context of inequality of influence in the origins of terrorism, and right also to pour scorn on the defences of our democracies’ claims to fostering equality, it none the less seems to conflate matters to describe terrorism as a force of persuasion. Persuasion Honderich understands as leaving room for reflection and decision. More positively, however, persuasion within a democracy requires a belief in the relative safety of the citizen and the again relative (i.e., within certain limits) freedom to persuade and be persuaded. Terrorist organisations tend to undermine both.
This brings us to Honderich’s comparison of the cases of the Hamas suicide bomber and the crew member in an Israeli helicopter-gunship. He claims that there is no moral difference between the killing of a passer-by in the one case and the killing of an innocent civilian in the other. I think Honderich is right in this, but I think that there is a political difference, which has some moral bearing. Both of these acts I take (with Honderich in the case of the latter, against him in the case of the former) to be morally wrong, because in both in-stances innocent people are killed and in neither case can such taking of innocent life be justified in the interests of a greater good. Honderich is right to deny the relevance of intention here: the helicopter crew-member by shooting a rocket into a crowded street knows or should be expected to know that this act may bring about the deaths of innocent civilians. The suicide bomber brings about such deaths as well. If the helicopter crew member could have brought about the death of the Hamas leader without killing innocent civilians he would supposedly have done so, but so too, Honderich retorts, the suicide bomber would have acted in an other manner to bring about her ends, if they were available to her.
There is a disanalogy here though. The political judgement in one case is that the Hamas leader should be killed, in the other is that suicide bombing of civilian targets should be practiced. Once that political judgement is made then questions arise as to what are the moral constraints on such actions. In the second case those moral con-straints cannot involve not killing civilians, in the former case they can. Is this significant? It cuts both ways. On the one hand, those who ordered the helicopter attack may retain their political judgement and still not on this particular occasion engage in the attack because it would involve the death of civilians. Hence, by going ahead with the attack they are unnecessarily breaking a moral precept. The same cannot be said in the case of the suicide bomber, whose political judgement entails the death of civilians. On the other hand, the political judgement of the Israelis is not necessarily morally repugnant, while in the case of the suicide bomber it is (assuming the death of innocent civilians is prima facie wrong). The political decision to destroy the leadership of Hamas may or may not be either morally right or politically far sighted, but that political decision does not entail the deaths of innocents.
Certain other political decisions of the Israeli state in relation to water, economic develop-ment etc., however do entail the deaths of innocents. Both sides are waging war on innocents, and, to repeat, the distinction must be upheld between the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed. But in waging this war both are undermining the basis of any political order this side of totalitarian terror. This is so because none of us are innocent. But the legitimacy of our security cannot simply be gainsaid. This is not simply in our interests, but in the interests of humanity itself.
I remain then unconvinced by Honderich’s arguments. They represent however a powerful attempt to justify violence and to do so on consequentialist grounds. Furthermore, as I have suggested, Honderich’s analysis is depressingly realistic: the alternatives to terrorist violence, the possibilities of peaceful coexistence seem more remote in today’s world. While Honderich wishes us to re-think our use of ‘innocence’, at the same time he invites us to widen our view of the victims to include the terrorists themselves and the communities which they represent.
2. Victims and Witnesses
If one of Honderich's principal contributions to the debate regarding terrorism is to problematize the notion of innocence and show how it is ideologically employed, in doing so he brings to light the dynamic relation between violence, victims and justifications. In effect the justification of violence rests on the claim to victimization. Violence, it is claimed, is a justifiable response to that victimization in certain circumstances. In this sense the victim plays a pivotal role: while the suffering of the victim tends to discredit attempts to justify it, the suffering of other victims tend to do the opposite. It would be too easy to speak here of vicious circles. The attempts at justification – on the part of the perpetrators of violence themselves and on the part of philosophers reflecting on their acts – are, however, not simply after-thoughts. The act of violence is so rupturing of human relations that its perpetrators, victims and witnesses are driven to discourses of explanation, if not justification. Philosophical approaches to violence are likewise so driven, driven it might be said out of their natural homes in rational discourse to take account of that which ruptures such discourse, which points to circumstances where such discourse is not enough or is not perceived to be enough. There is after all another innocence that of the rational being ignorant of the fury and the despair which may drive someone to acts of great violence. Such an innocence must itself be questioned not alone as a condition, but also as an ideal state to be aimed at. Since the ultimate justification of vio-lence is non-violence, that is the state beyond victimhood to which violence must aim if it is to be anything other than an expression of that fury, the very ideal of non-violent rational agreement itself functions ironically as a justification of, if not a catalyst to, violence.
Bernhard Waldenfels closes his contribution with a quote from the Spanish author Jorge Semprun: ‘There are just wars, but no innocent armies’. Waldenfels cautions against what he terms the ‘over-rationalisation of violence’ through which violence is justified. As he puts it ‘one relies on a felix violentia which, similar to the felix culpa, is on the path towards a non-violent order and derives its justification from this fact.’ Justifications of violence, according to Waldenfels, function by making violence in some sense felicitous because it is claimed it will bring about an ultimately non-violent order. Such justifications increase violence in the interests of non-violence. Waldenfels is here articulating a concern which relates to the very place of the philosopher himself reflecting on violence. Between him and Honderich there appears to be a fundamental difference in the understanding of the place of the philosopher, one which is more or less reproduced in some of the other contributions to this volume cor-responding, perhaps, to the distinction between analytic and conti-nental philosophers. While Honderich understands the question of vio-lence for the philosopher to do mainly with arguments as to its justification or otherwise, Waldenfels sees the phenomenon of violence as already saturated with attempted justifications. For the latter the philosopher's role is not to add to these justifications, but rather to understand them as belonging to the very phenomenon which is to be understood. The philosopher needs to bring out the meaning of this phenomenon to, as Waldenfels himself puts it, ‘question […] how vio-lence appears, how it invades the field of experience and how it is expressed in language.’ There is a clear methodological difference here, but one which is rooted in something more fundamental: for Waldenfels the place of the philosopher is as witness, for Honderich it is the role of the defence or prosecution lawyer as his analogy of the law court makes clear. As witness the philosopher no mere observer. She experiences the harm done by violence as calling forth an account which does not so much try to make sense of the violence as testify to its horror, its disruption, its destruction. This amounts to two different models of engagement one based in a confidence in the power of a justificatory reason, the other suspicious of such reason as constitutive of the very violence that is being investigated. For the philosopher who follows the latter course there can be no clear line between his place as a philosopher and that of the violence he is discussing. Language too does violence, the language about violence can blur into the language of violence. The philosopher can in this respect claim no special innocence.
This difference though is not as clear-cut as may at first appear. Despite Honderich’s appeal to the place of defence and prosecutor, by arguing for a responsibility which knows no degrees, he in effect places the philosopher too in the place of witness. It is striking how continental philosophers such as Levinas, Derrida and Waldenfels on the one hand, and analytic philosophers such as Honderich, Glover and Harris on the other, have thematized the issue of conflicting responsibilities and have come to equally ‘excessive’ conclusions. According to the latter theorists, there are instances where omitting to act is as morally culpable as acting. But in that case what of the philosopher writing his books, say about omitting actions? In choosing the write a book and not say spend that time volunteering for Oxfam, is he not guilty of an omitting act? There is not a clear-cut answer to this question, but the question does raise again the issue of responsibility: how responsible are any of our actions, even those of doing philosophy.
Vitorrio Bufacchi in his contribution attempts also to negotiate the claims to absolute responsibility. Arguing against what he sees as a ‘moral absolutism’ inherent in the positions of Harris, Honderich and Glover, Bufacchi defends a moral gradualist thesis. According to Bufacchi there are degrees of responsibility, which are determined by the nature of the omitting act itself. This in effect means that there are degrees of innocence: while omitting to help someone may in certain circumstances be morally equivalent to harming them, this is not always the case. Where conflicting responsibilities emerge – as (to use Bufacchi’s own example) between my duty as a spouse to provide a holiday for my partner and my responsibility for the starving in the Third World – then I may act in a manner which (by failing to help) actually leads to harm without being morally culpable for that. This is not to say that I am innocent in respect of the starving in the Third World, but it is to say that whatever my actions may be, innocence is not going to be my reward. Although Bufacchi does discuss cases where the omitting act is that of a perpetrator – as in the case of the son withholding medical treatment from his dieing father – his main focus is on the place of the witness. He focuses on the example of by-standers of the holocaust. Bufacchi argues that the level of culpability of bystanders varies in this case to the extent to which they were asked to help Jews fleeing the Nazis or were not asked. There are in short degrees of responsibility and hence degrees of innocence on the part of witnesses.
The intuition which Bufacchi’s attempts to defend is that our responsibilities to those with whom we are in direct relationship may, and in many cases do, outweigh our responsibilities to total strangers (once being asked to help, then the potential victim is not longer an anonymous ‘Jew’, but a particular individual or set of individuals). This is a common intuition. Bufacchi defends it by claiming that while it would be viable for example to spend the money he was going to use to take his wife on holiday on third world relief, to do so would be to fail in his duty of being a good husband. One might of course argue that what he should really do is convince his wife that the need of the hungry for aid is greater than hers for a holiday, but we can see where such an argumentation eventually breaks down: the richness of our lives comes – in part, perhaps in large part – from the intimacy of our personal relations, to sacrifice them would be to sacrifice what makes life worthwhile. But what is the moral standing of such relationships, what makes them – morally speaking – anything other than a form of egotism? ....
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