Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Through clear eyes

An objective examination of the definition and ethics of terrorism

The article I discuss on this page makes for a long read, and can sometimes be a bit digressive and replete with abbreviations and acronyms that make the reading rather bumpier, but it’s definitely worth the time. In it you will find one of the nearest approaches I’ve seen so far to a wholly objective examination of the meaning and ethics of terrorism.

Bodies stacked for cremation after firebombing of Dresden, Feb. 1945

Stacked like cords of firewood, dead Germans are cremated en masse after the carpet-bombing of Dresden on
13-15 February 1945.
[ Image Source ]

Reminding us that terrorism is neither novel nor an end unto itself, but a quasimilitary tactic of ancient provenance, the author makes the case that it is also quite broad: Not only has no agreement been reached as to a definition acceptable to all parties (one that does not point to their own past or present culpability), but it can, using commonly accepted definitional elements, be applied as a description of such acts as the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the firebombing of Dresden and similar acts of violence directed against civilians on a large scale, by states at war and with a (claimed) moral justification: the saving of lives or self-defense in various forms.

Here’s the moral dilemma. Everyone claims moral justification; everyone claims to be acting in self-defense. This requires us to adopt Noam Chomsky’s prescription: intellectual self-defense. We have to assess those claims, as impartially as possible, and answer for ourselves: Are they true, are they valid, and, if they are valid, do they justify the act?

Atomic shadows burnt into a Hiroshima wall

“Ghost-shadows”: So intense were the heat and light of the Hiroshima bomb that silhouettes of people and
objects were forever graven upon the walls.
[ Image Source ]

One need not accept the author’s ranking of moral justification, in which he finds the 9/11 attacks less defensible than the bombing of Hiroshima but more than that of Dresden — for such questions cannot be easily settled without access to the thoughts of men now dead — to understand that, first, all of these acts can be described as terroristic, and second, that the tactic can be considered ethical in varying degrees depending on circumstances.

Originally published as a review of a article on terrorism.

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