What A "War on Terror" Should Mean vs. What it Has Meant

What A "War on Terror" Should Mean vs. What it Has Meant September 11, 2011

Princeton’s emeritus philosophy professor Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent. He is not a George W. Bush yes-man. But he thinks that “war on terror” is a legitimate concept even as many leftish thinkers oppose it as a confusion. People argue that terrorism is a tactic, not a specific enemy you can target.

In “Terrorism and Just War” (Philosophia 34(1), 2006, pgs. 3-12), Walzer makes profound distinctions which explain why we can justifiably consider it okay to kill soldiers in war and to terrorize them into submission, etc., while also considering civilians “innocent” and morally beyond justified attack:

The central principle in jus in bello, that civilians can’t be targeted or deliberately killed, means that they will be morally speaking, they have to be—present at the conclusion. This is the deepest meaning of noncombatant immunity: It doesn’t only protect individual noncombatants; it also protects the group to which they belong. Just as the destruction of the group cannot be a legitimate purpose of war, so it cannot be legitimate practice in war. Civilians are immune as ordinary men and women, disgengaged from the business of warfare. They are also immune as members of a human community that is not a military organization.


Terrorists attack both these immunities. They devalue not only the individuals they kill but also the group to which they belong. They signal a political intention to destroy or remove or radically subordinate these people individually and this ‘people’ collectively, Hence, while all terrorists are murderers, all murderers are not terrorists. Most murderers intend to kill specific people, terrorists kill at random within a specific group of people. The message they deliver is directed at the group: We don’t want you here. We will not accept you or make our peace with you as fellow-citizens or partners in any political project. You are not candidates for equality or even co-existence.


Of course, terrorists don’t want to be identified and judged by the signal they send but rather by the goals they announce—not the destruction, removal, or radical subordination of a people but rather victory in a just war, or national liberation, or the triumph of their religion. And why shouldn’t we identify them first of all by reference ot their stated ends rather than to the means they employ? I have often heard it said that a war against terrorism makes no sense, since terror is an instrument, not a full-scale politics like, say, communism or Islamic radicalism. But surely one of the most important reasons (not the only one) for opposing communism and Islamic radicalism is that these ideologies have served, in the real world, to inspire and justify terrorism. The instrument one chooses are often morally defining…


Members of the Mafia may think of themselves as businessmen, but we rightly call them gangsters. Similarly, men and women who bomb urban residential areas, or organize massacres, or make people “disappear,” or blow themselves up in crowded cafes may think of themselves as political or religious militants or as public officials and civil servants, but we rightly call them terrorists. And we oppose them, or we should oppose them, because they are terrorists.

If we name terrorists by their actions rather than their supported goals, we are then free to support the goals—if if we think them just—and even actively to pursue them in non-terrorist ways.

My thoughts:

Walzer is very right that terrorism is a distinct evil which should be distinctly opposed and he has characterized the nature of that evil eloquently and insightfully: regardless of statements of more modest ambitions, terrorists inherently and effectively send the message to the population they terrorize that they want not merely concessions or surrender but the annihilation of the terrorized population itself. The terrorist effectively tends towards creating total and complete existential dread in the entire populace, indiscriminately. It is, in this way, as a threat of genocide and a signal that the human rights of the populace will not be recognized.

Walzer has made a great case for distinguishing the justice or injustice of a cause from the means used to advance it. Isolated terrorist actions cannot ruin an otherwise legitimate cause itself merely by taking up terrorist tactics. There should not be guilt by association of supporting a just cause simply because other supporters resort to evil on its behalf.

And, on the other hand, he has properly taken groups which ideologically embrace terrorism and wedded them, from a moral perspective, to their explicit support of this tactic and distinguished that this is their defining evil as a group.

In these ways, he has indicated a way that we could legitimately think about a “war on terror” in that we could oppose on principle groups which are specifically committed to terror as an actual characteristic of their ideology and practice themselves. We are not fighting a tactic, which seems impossible to do in literal combat terms though not in ideological terms of course, but rather we are fighting groups morally definable as evil by their use of that tactic.

I would also add that one could oppose a totalitarian regime for systematically and ideologically terrorizing its own people too.

But, in practice, America’s “war on terror” of the last decade has not been this. Rather than being limited to a literal military attack on explicitly terrorist groups and regimes combined with an ideological opposition to terrorizing people in general, the term has come to mean something more akin to “a war, by any means deemed effective, on anyone who looks at America funny.”

In Iraq we did not oppose the terrorists who attacked us—but we did oppose a dictator who terrorized his own people. Maybe, if we put aside the serious norms against launching the first, unprovoked attacks in a war defended on false and faulty pretexts, we could argue that deposing Saddam Hussein was at least justifiable as an instance of opposing a terrorizing regime and consistent with the ideal of making war with terror.

But in our war on terrorism we have—though not always or in the case of all people—too often sunk to the same indifference or outright hostility to our (perceived and real) enemies’s human rights.

By imposing a torture regime, by detaining people indefinitely with no charges, by excusing government agents who terrorized and continue to imprison those captives, by the callous indifference of our nation’s popular opinion to the hundreds of thousands of civilians left dead by our wars, by segments of our populace opposing the rights of Muslims to have mosques in America, and by allowing the word terrorist to cover any one who dissents from US foreign policy or disobeys the US government (like Wikileaks), America and Americans have been abused the “war on terror” in an Orwellian manner as a tactic for “Othering” perceived enemies and for marking them as undeserving of human rights—which was the evil that, as Walzer so brilliantly explicated, makes terrorism so wrong in the first place.

Your Thoughts?

Browse Our Archives