De Standaard, Brussels, 19 February 2006


by Gilbert Roox, translated by Jeremy McKenna
photo by Mart De Wale


Ted Honderich (73) is a renowned British philosopher of Canadian origin. Among other distinctions, he was Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London. Shortly after his retirement, his fame rapidly spread to wider circles through controversial books on political violence such as After the Terror (2002) and Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (2003). Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: 9/11, Iraq, 7/7..., a book predominantly focused on the moral justification of Palestinian terrorism, is due to appear later this year.

There are few professors for whose lectures the riot police have to be called in. It happened to the Brit Ted Honderich after the publication of After the Terror in September 2002. The book not only held the West jointly responsible for the attacks of 9/11, it also defended the Palestinian people’s moral right to terrorism. “Anti-Semitism,” cried the director of a German institute for the Holocaust, and all of a sudden the philosopher, Honderich, to his great bewilderment, found himself in the middle of a media storm.

 There were no riot police to be seen at the lecture given by Ted Honderich, by invitation from the research group Political Philosophy, on Tuesday evening at the Catholic University of Brussels. It’s Valentine's Day and Honderich, as tall as a tree and despite his 73 years conspicuously combative, philosophises about ‘democratic violence’ and the suicide terrorist in all of us. There is a great deal of critique from the audience. “Children are sacred,” says the Leuven philosopher, Herman De Dijn. “There’s no single conception of morality that can justify the killing of innocent people.”

 “And yet, every day there are children who are killed, not just by the terrorists but by us as well,” Homberich later argues during our interview. “Pure souls swear by an absolute morality that is blind to reality. We are quite rightly concerned about the three thousand American dead during the attacks of 11 September 2001, but on the same day 25 000 people worldwide died of starvation. Condemning terrorism is all too easy. You have to dare to see the causes and our own involvement. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the champion of passivity, thought that violent resistance was preferable to accepting an unjust fate.”

Q: Since 9/11, our world has begun to look a bit like Star Wars: it’s democracy vs the terrorists, the forces of light against those of darkness. You would consider this too simplistic an account.

 “To begin with, our democracies are not perfect: there is enormous inequality of wealth and power. And far from everything we do in the world is good. I’m thinking of the war in Iraq, which is a form of terrorism in itself, but on a much greater scale. Secondly, not all terrorism is reprehensible. There is even such a thing as democratic terrorism, which fights for democracy and human rights. I am thinking of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa; of the Palestinians, who have fought for decades for their own state. The Charter of the United Nations explicitly recognises the declarations of national freedom movements. But at the same time it also condemns terrorism. Hence the perpetual war of words.”

Q: Is terrorism not predominantly a term of abuse? What for one person is a terrorist is for the other a freedom fighter? Israel calls the Palestinian resistance terrorism. But for the Palestinians, Israel is itself a terrorist state: the pot calling the kettle black.

 “That is of course true. In their struggle for their own state, Zionist groups were guilty of ethnic cleansing and extreme acts of violence. Was that terrorism? Most certainly. Was it nevertheless a just struggle? Yes, because of the Holocaust in Europe. The greater good of a homeland for the survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald compensated for the injustice of the Palestinian expulsion. Even though many Palestinians, with equally just cause, would say that the Holocaust was a European problem and why should they have to pay for it? But that doesn’t mean I deny Israel’s right to exist.”

 “To my mind, Israel only became a terrorist state later, after the war of 1967. The Jews denied the Palestinians the homeland they claimed for themselves. The UN has condemned Israel for this on dozens of occasions, but the neo-Zionists still refuse to withdraw from occupied territories. And they can get away with it because of the support they have from the American superpower. Israel itself is a nuclear power, it has one of the strongest armies in the world. What could the Palestinians hope to achieve against it? They have lost everything and have lived under military occupation for decades. As with the Jews before 1948, there remains but one avenue of political action open: terrorism. And the international community has to accept that, in the absence of a negotiated solution, that is their moral right.”

Q: Not everybody seems to agree with you. In Germany, after the translation of After the Terror, you were even accused of anti-Semitism.

 “That seems to be part and parcel of criticising Israel’s neo-Zionist politics. After the Terror only contained six pages on the issue of Palestine, but it caused a terrible row. It was all the more painful for me because my first wife was Jewish. And even I, as a right-leaning left-wing academic, never wanted to give lectures in Germany on account of the Holocaust.”

 “But all of a sudden I was a Jew-hater and an apologist for Muslim suicide terrorism. All because I dared to say that the US may have been partly responsible for the attacks of 9/11, among other things because of their support for neo-Zionism in Israel. My book was banned in Germany which meant it could not be reprinted and in Great Britain, Oxfam even refused to accept part of the royalties as a donation. I thought that was going a bit far. It was the greatest day of my life when After the Terror resumed publication in Germany -- by a Jewish publisher I might add.”

Q: Nevertheless, you must have a taste for controversy, otherwise you would never have brought a book with the provocative title, Terrorism for Humanity onto the market. Do you see terrorists as some kind of humanitarian aid workers?

 “Far from it. The title refers to the Principle of Humanity. For me, that determines whether acts of terrorism deserve moral justification: do they contribute to the greater good of a better life for many people? Terrorist violence should only be used if there are no other alternatives. There must be a reasonable chance of success and the means used should also be in proportion to the end or objective. For the record: this was not the case with 9/11, nor with the attacks in Madrid and London. I utterly condemn those acts. To be even more clear, I even reject Palestinian terror campaigns outside Israel.”

 “But, to reiterate, that doesn’t make me blind to Western accountability. Terrorism doesn’t just appear out of thin air, there is always a context. The attacks in Madrid and London have to be seen in the contexts of the tens of thousands of civilian deaths in the Iraq war.  Do they justify those attacks? No. Do they make them more understandable? Yes. The bombs in the streets of Iraq are no less real than those in Russell Square.”

Q: Sympathy for the Palestinian intifada is one thing. But you also justify suicide attacks on Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv restaurants. That’s going pretty far.

 “Do you think so? If you accept that the Palestinians have a right to their own viable state, and not just bantustans, as was promised them at the time at Camp David, then you have to accept terrorism as well. Because that is the only means of struggle that has any chance of success in measuring up to Israeli military domination. The fact that they blow themselves up during the attacks is for me all the more proof of the moral legitimacy of their resistance. Who amongst us is prepared to die for democracy? And unlike the Israeli fighter pilots, who kill from a distance, the Palestinian suicide terrorists at least look their victims in the eye.”

Q: You don’t see any difference between the Palestinian suicide terrorist who blows himself up in a restaurant and the Israeli fighter pilot who fires a rocket at the car of a Hamas leader in Gaza, because, you say, in both cases civilians are killed. The only thing is that in the case of the rocket attack, that is collateral damage and not deliberate.

 “For me it’s not so much a question of the intentions, but the consequences. Look at Tony Blair: the man is full of good intentions and nothing else (laughs). I am very sceptical of the concept of collateral damage. If you believe the soldiers, almost every death is beyond their control. In this concrete case, that simply is not so. Whoever fires a rocket over an overpopulated area such as the Gaza Strip, knows in advance that there is a significant risk of civilian casualties. But the Israeli pilot just accepts that, because they are only Palestinians and don’t they all support terrorists?”

Q: Your comparison doesn’t stand up. The suicide terrorist has but one objective: create as many casualties as possible, whether they be children or pensioners.

 “If he could, he would obviously prefer to instigate an attack on Sharon or on the Israeli soldiers at a check point, but that’s not possible. People fight as they can.”

Q: That sounds like sophistry. 

 “No, the reality is that since the beginning of the second Intifada, three times as many Palestinians as Israelis have been killed. And the majority of those Palestinians were civilians. The Israeli army has killed more children during their retaliation campaigns than the terrorists themselves. But that’s just a side remark. The moral point is not whether there are innocent victims. There will always be, on both sides. Think of the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths during the allied terror bombing raids on German cities during the Second World War. Nobody shed a tear for them, because we were engaged in a struggle of life and death with Nazism, the most abominable regime of the 20th Century. And that ‘higher end’ even justified the killing of women and children.”

Q: Does the end always justify the means? In Albert Camus’ play, Les Justes, a Russian terrorist refuses to throw his bomb because the Tsar’s brother’s children are with him. “If being a revolutionary means I must sacrifice children, then the revolution can be taken from me,” he says.

  “That sounds rather lofty, but I fear it is sentimental nonsense. Because children are killed on both sides. The question is simply which side’s cause is just.”

Q: In the meantime the question arises whether the Palestinian suicide bombings aren’t simply counter-productive. They bring the Palestinian case into international disrepute: even Human Rights Watch has called it ‘a violation of human rights’. And they only strengthen the arguments of those in Israel who swear by a military solution. A Palestinian state seems further away than ever.
 “I’m not entirely convinced of that. Sharon has after all withdrawn from Gaza, because the settlement became too expensive. And with Hamas’s victory in the elections, we’re headed for even more confrontation. Is that suicide for the Palestinians? At the time, the same was no doubt said about the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. But they didn’t die for nothing, so it later appeared, as they paved the way for the Jewish state. Most likely we also have to see the Palestinian struggle for freedom in the longer term. Palestinians today may not be fighting for themselves, maybe not even for their children. The goal lies much further in the future.”

Q: Palestine is no longer hot news. For the Muslim terrorists, everything revolves around the war in Iraq.

 “Ironic isn’t it? Bush and Blair claimed to be fighting a ‘just war’: remove the dictator, Saddam Hussein and bring democracy to those poor Iraqis as an example to the whole Middle East. Shame that wasn’t exactly what they were waiting for and the reality today is a country in complete chaos: between 26,000 and 100,000 civilians dead, we don’t even dare count them anymore. Under Saddam, Iraq had nothing to do with international terrorism, today it’s an absolute hotbed, as was Afghanistan during the Russian occupation.”

 “Bush and Blair are not only moral criminals, their entire war against terror has been a blunder. As former British Minister for Foreign Affairs, Robin Cook said, ‘We would have made more progress in the war on terror if we had brought peace to Palestine instead of war to Iraq.’ I have little to add to that. In the final analysis, there is only one thing worse than terrorism and that’s war. The war in Iraq has claimed more victims than all the Islamic terrorist attacks put together.”

Q: We’d be forgiven for forgetting it, but terrorism isn’t exactly your area of expertise, professor, but rather the philosophy of consciousness. How on Earth did you end up in the hornet’s nest of political violence?

 “It was coincidence, as with most things in life (laughs). And with the row in Germany it has all gotten a bit out of hand. I retired in 1998 and I’ve never been so stressed or involved in such heated dispute. Not just with the Israelis and the Palestinians, but with Tony Blair as well – even though I’m still a member of New Labour. I’m a prosecco socialist, I’ve once said, as opposed to the much more fashionable champagne Left. All this stress almost has me pining for my academic ivory tower.”

 “I admit, I’ve never really left it completely. This summer, an issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies will be devoted to my theory of consciousness, and that gets me going more than 9/11 or the Palestinian cause. Philosophers of consciousness these days are divided into two camps. For the one, consciousness is just electricity in the brain, for the other it is a kind of transcendental stuff divorced from space and time. My theory is called ‘radical externalism’ and disagrees with both sides. For me there is no difference between the appearance and reality of consciousness. Consciousness cannot exist without the world and vice versa. This room here only exists because I am conscious of it, if you get what I mean?” 

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