When There is No Other Choice


I have faced an ethical dilemma these past few weeks, having to do with terrorism and how first-world citizens view it.

It’s important to realize that, clearly, not all terrorists or kinds of terrorism are the same. Their are terrorists who want to set off a nuclear weapon to bring about the Second Coming, there are terrorists who bomb abortion clinics, and there are terrorists who want to get a foreign power out of their home and set up their own system of government.

Because such topics are sticky and words and definitions often get in the way, I will go ahead and define what I view as a terrorist for you:

Terrorists are members of, or inspired by, non-state groups who clandestinely use, or threaten to use, extra-judicial violence against non-combatants to terrorize a particular target group into acceding to their demands for political change.

So why do I sympathize with terrorists? There are lots of reasons, but the reason I would like to discuss is the one that is connected with myself as a libertarian (though terrorism is in NO WAY a part of libertarian philosophy or politics).

Among all of the atrocities committed against humankind, all of the massacres, starvation, deprivation of natural and human rights, all of the genocides, oppression of people in mind and body — all of these are crimes of the state. The worst crimes against humanity are done by those institutions put in place to protect them.

This is one source of my mistrust of the state and my desire to decrease its size as much as possible. But for someone like me, sitting here in my well-heated apartment viewing the words I write on my 22″ monitor, listening to my android phone beep in  the background, it’s really easy to sit here and say “Yeah, the state commits atrocities, but there’s no reason to resort to violence.”

But to someone who deprived of their fundamental rights on a daily basis and suffers in life and limb from a government that oppresses them, it is a completely different story. Violence becomes permissible, and I think, perhaps necessary to usurp this power.

Governments should be afraid of their people.

Not too many people would disagree with this — we all love V for Vendetta. At this point, I have justified political violence, but not terrorism. Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

There are usually two key differences between terrorism and other kinds of political violence as perpetrated by, say, a guerrilla group or a militia: the use of uniforms and the attacking of civilians.

It is at this point that we get into murkier waters, and I would like to take a step back to make a bit of a disclaimer. I have a nasty habit of looking at things from other people’s point of view, and I have gotten so good at this that I have slid into the bowels of moral relativism. What this means is that I believe that the vast majority of ethical questions depend entirely on the point of view of the actor. This makes it very hard if not impossible to evaluate the act of someone and say whether it is ethical or unethical. So, rather than venturing to say “I think attacking civilians is morally justified,” I am going to make a case that simply says “I can see how someone can morally justify attacking civilians.” This is the difference, I think, between sympathizing with terrorists and being a potential terrorist.

And now back to the show.

As previously mentioned, states are dangerous. They are dangerous for a lot of reasons, but chiefly because of their relative size and because they have what is referred to as a monopoly of violence. That is, within a society the state is the only entity that has just and legal authority to commit violence against human beings. They do this by forcing you into handcuffs and taking you to jail, and they do this by making sure no one from the outside can come in and kill you. We give them this monopoly of violence, and when you give someone the just means to hurt you, that is a precarious situation (this is also the reason why the 2nd amendment is so important).

But say that you have a state that has been successful in disarming its people, respects few to no rights, and is such a big military power that there’s no way a guerrilla force could do any damage. What is left to you? If you feel that your people are being oppressed and the state is wronging you, what do you do? The point that I am driving at here is that I think many terrorists feel/think that they have no other option — and I think that intuition is largely right. Think about what you would have to do to usurp the United States government — it’s not a pretty sight.

The killing of civilians I think can be justified as a unfortunate but perhaps necessary means to a just end. Additionally, I can definitely see how someone could guiltlessly kill people who are complicit in a system that hurts and oppresses people. In a democratically run country, the line between who is citizen and who is decision-maker is blurred (and for good reason), so if you want to attack the people who are actually oppressing you, I can definitely see how one would see the entire system — including the people entrenched in it — as oppressors. It is actually a pretty common understanding of oppression.

Speaking as someone who supports and desires strongly to see a significant and radical change in the way that my government is run, I can sympathize with the desires. As a member of a ridiculously small minority who honestly feels as if everyone’s rights are being violated, I sympathize fully with the frustration and hardship and anger that comes with watching a super powerful state trample on what I conceive to be the foundation of what we need as a people. Most terrorists and I would disagree wholeheartedly on what we, as a people, need, but that, I think, is beside the point.

Would I, personally, engage in terrorism? No, especially not in the United States. I feel that my cause is not quite that hopeless yet. But perhaps, were my family and friends being hauled off for being “leftists,” or if I was so desperately poor and had no avenue to move up because of my state, nor avenue through which to express my distaste, or if I felt that my life and livelihood were in danger, perhaps I would.

I’m definitely open for argument, though… I have not anchored myself into this position.

~V.A. Luttrell (I don’t think I could be a suicide bomber, though… I’m way to self-centered for that.)