Defining Political Terrorism

Emeritus Professor Tony Coady’s latest book, The Meaning of Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2021), explores competing ways of thinking about political terrorism and its consequences. In this interview with Associate Professor Dan Halliday, Tony Coady explains how and why he came to write the book, and introduces the ongoing philosophical debates over how to define terrorism.      

You’ve written this book having already produced a large body of work dealing with terrorism and proximate topics relating to just war theory. So, The Meaning of Terrorism presumably represents a development in what’s been a long period of thinking. Can you say more about what led you to write a book with precisely this focus?

Part of my motive was to draw together some of the material that has appeared in very diverse publication sites so that it could be considered together and, I would hope, by a wider audience.

But even more important was to deal systematically with quite a lot of objections and discussions that my previous work has given rise to over the years and, by doing so, clarify my definition of terrorist acts and terrorism, and to draw out its significant implications. That required not only reconsidering, rewriting, updating and upgrading previously published material, but also rewriting and refining quite a lot of previously part-published or unpublished material.

This is most evident in the two chapters discussing the seven proposed philosophical justifications of terrorist acts (in certain circumstances), the chapter on the relevant meanings of ‘innocents’, ‘non-combatants’ etc., which contains a lot of new material, and the final chapter on religion and terrorism.

Terrorism has proven extremely difficult to rigorously define. People sometimes seem reluctant to recognise this, as if we just know terrorism when we see it, and that quibbling about the details is somehow a distraction. How much of this have you encountered, inside academia or outside?

A concept such as terrorism inevitably offers a certain sort of resistance to sharp definition. It has its natural home in a sociopolitical world of controversy, confusion, rivalry, fear and powerful interests. So, it’s not surprising that ready agreement on a definition is elusive and that what definitions do exist (there are about 100 in the literature) are commonly at odds with one another.

In such circumstances, some theorists and non-theorists are prone to reject the definitional task, no matter how flexibly understood, and opt for thinking that we can proceed simply by confronting a few supposedly standard cases. I’ve encountered this reaction in the philosophical literature (for example, prominent philosophers Virginia Held, Russ Hardin, Jeremy Waldron and Samuel Scheffler) and amongst non-philosophers. In the latter category, I recall in my Introduction to the book how I mentioned years ago to my colleagues in the Interdisciplinary Program on Problems in Peace and Conflict that I directed at Melbourne that I was working on a definition of terrorism that would make for better moral and political assessment of the topic, only to find my proposal greeted with puzzlement and a certain degree of scorn by my friends from English, History and Politics.

But I argue in the book that we can avoid definitional arrogance and definition-mongering by seeking a concept of terrorist acts that will inevitably contain an element of stipulation, but will map on to some central features present in most discussions of terrorism and also helpfully connect with both moral intuitions about political violence and with their articulation in just war theory. Such theory has the advantage of a broad degree of acceptance (and of course of abuse) amongst academic and non-academic participants in debate and discussion around terrorism.

Cover of The Meaning of Terrorism. Cover art: Civilised, c1942 by A Lois Smith. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 1992/4/1

In the book itself, you argue that we should define terrorism in terms of types of actions, and not in terms of types of organisations: an organisation is terrorist when it tends to carry out terrorist actions and not the other way around.

Significantly, your approach readily allows that an organisation can engage in terrorism even if most of the time its actions are morally defensible or at least clearly non-terrorist, and that terrorism can be carried out by governments just as readily as ‘sub-state’ organisations, and often with greater damaging effects.

But your approach is unusual among philosophers working on terrorism. Why do you think philosophers have tended to be wedded to the idea that we should think of terrorist organisations first and their acts second?

Well, the first point I’d make here is that my approach in broad terms isn’t so unusual amongst philosophers. Quite a lot of them agree with me to the extent of accepting the primary stress on approaching the understanding of terrorism via a focus on a certain closely specified kind of violent act rather than on a certain kind of group or organisation or some kind of ideology. Like me, they offer what I call ‘tactical definitions’ as opposed to ‘political status’ definitions.

The tactical definitions demarcate those specific forms of violent acts as terrorist and leave it an open question what kind of agents commit them. Political status definitions, however, characterise terrorism and terrorist acts in such a way that only certain groups and their representatives can commit terrorism, and those groups are basically sub-state organisations who are resorting to any form of violence and sometimes other forms of coercion against the state.

The philosophers in the ‘tactical definition’ family have quite a few internal disagreements (just like natural families) and I discuss the complaints they make against my specific definition at some length.

My definition goes as follows: “A political act, ordinarily committed or inspired by an organized group, in which violence is intentionally directed at non-combatants (or “innocents” in a suitable sense) or their significant property in order to cause them serious harm”.

A few examples of the objections from fellow tactical definers that I consider in the book are: that terrorist acts needn’t be political but could sometimes be criminal or religious in primary motivation; that I should have included the intention to create fear in a group wider than that attacked; or that attacks on non-combatant property are not terrorist.

The political status people, philosophers and non-philosophers, focus on what they call radical or extremist groups and their members/affiliates and castigate any form of their violent opposition to the state (and sometimes non-violent behaviour that is deemed potentially disruptive) as terrorist. A major criticism I have of this is that it characterises all forms of violent revolution as terrorist and then treats all forms of terrorism as immoral. This approach is ironic, not to say hilarious, given that so many ‘respectable’ national governments owe their foundation to violent revolution which they continue to celebrate. The United States and France are classic examples of this and their condemnations of terrorism invariably employ an element of the political agency definition so that no other group could have the benefit their founders had.

I argue that the question of whether some resort to violent revolution can be morally justified partly turns on both whether the cause is just and whether their violence is directed at legitimate or illegitimate targets. Revolutionaries cannot be called terrorists if they do not attack illegitimate targets, but of course they can be in the wrong for attacking anyone (including otherwise legitimate targets) if their cause is unjustifiable.

Likewise, as you note, my definition has the implication that state political violence, whether against their own citizens or against other states, will also be terrorist when directed against illegitimate targets. Examples of this include the wholesale city bombings by Axis and Allied powers in World War II, and the Myanmar government’s violent repression of its mostly pacific anti-government demonstrators.

On your question about motivation for such ‘wedded views’, I suspect that the political status advocates have an exalted view of the political health of their own nation and its governance. This blinkers them to an understanding of terrorism that makes it possible (and often actual enough) for governments like theirs to commit terrorist acts. But this issue needs more discussion than we can give it here.

You define terrorism as involving acts of violence against targets who are ‘innocent’, in the sense associated with their having non-combatant or civilian status. The question of how to properly distinguish combatants from non-combatants has, however, proven to be extremely fraught and you are part of a large group of philosophers trying to figure it out. How might you summarise the difficulties?

This is indeed a complex and much-debated issue, and I can only gesture at the problems and my solutions here. The moral prohibition on intentional killing or seriously harming innocent persons is a profound ethical principle and it also plausibly underpins the principle of discrimination in just war theory and in the international law relating to warfare.

The reference to the innocent (and its contrary guilty) is important in allowing that some killing may be morally licit while other killings are not. The most plausible candidates for legitimate killing are killings of attackers in dire circumstances of self-defence or defence of others. This permission can be at home in ordinary contexts such as an individual defending herself against a violent attacker and is then naturally extrapolated from that by a ‘domestic analogy’ to communal and national political circumstances for morally justifying the killing in national self-defence or defence of others by resort to war. But, even so, there are problems with the justification in some versions of the domestic setting and even more so the national one, and many of these problems concern the scope and meaning of innocence and guilt.

Firstly, we are not concerned with all innocence or guilt, since it is only innocence or guilt concerning unjustified violent attacks. Secondly, some theorists and non-theorists take it that the scope of guilt for the violent attacks of unjustified war extends to the whole enemy population, a concept of collective guilt that is embodied in the idea of ‘total war’, but this concept, I argue, is both morally repugnant and conceptually confused.

The concepts of innocence and guilt for violent attacks play important parts in determining the immunity of non-combatants from direct attack and the moral and legal specification of legitimate targets of defensive violence, both in the small scale domestic scenarios and wider scenarios ranging to all-out war. However, they also raise difficult problems which have been at the heart of debates between so-called ‘revisionists’ and ‘traditionalists’ about just war theory. Some of these are:

  1. If a conflict is between an unjust attacker and just defenders (or their supporters) why is it deemed morally and legally legitimate for the unjust (guilty) attackers to kill the just (innocent) defenders? Consider warfare, in which both legal and moral considerations allow for the harming and killing of soldiers on both or more sides of the conflict regardless of who is in the field justly and who is not. Why should we accept the moral equality of attackers and defenders?
  2. Why should those enemy civilians who support an unjust war in varying degrees, and many may do, count as non-combatants?
  3. Some of the enemy troops (perhaps many, in the case of conscription) may have been coerced into fighting in an unjust war, or may be so deluded by political manipulations, as to count as innocent rather than guilty, and hence not liable to be killed. This is parallel to the domestic case when an attacker has been understandably mistaken or profoundly brainwashed about the moral status of his target: he wrongly but perhaps justifiably by his distorted lights thinks that you are an enemy about to attack him.

These problems and others are treated at length in Chapter 4 of the book. I argue that a combination of the notion of innocence/guilt with a number of prudential considerations about their application to complex circumstances can support a category of combatant/non-combatant that can be fruitfully employed in my definition and discussion of terrorism and its implications. I would stress that my prudential considerations should be regarded as themselves a moral supplement to the moral values of innocence/guilt and not merely matters of practicality or legal regulation which some  philosophers regard as non-moral considerations, though unfortunately necessary.

Much talk about terrorism seems to aim at diminishing those behind it to such an extent that they lack the moral status of normal people and, particularly, soldiers. We hear strong claims like “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” (Margaret Thatcher, speaking about the IRA in the 1980s) and even “terrorists have no rights” (US politican Liz Cheney, reportedly said this about the so-called War On Terror in the 2000s).

You argue in the book that the fear of terrorism combined with unclarity about what is meant by the term often induces politicians to persuade their public to swallow misguided and draconian policies in the name of ‘counterterrorism’. But the strong social disapproval of terrorism is (arguably) something already present. What’s your perspective on this?

There is indeed widespread apprehension in most communities about terrorist attacks and, in some Western societies, where dramatic attacks have taken place, that apprehension can amount to an abiding fear, although acute fear frequently abates with time if more attacks fail to occur.

But a constant fear with political rulers is that attacks may occur when they are perceived to have done too little to avoid them. So they make a great show of enacting laws with sweeping powers, involving, for instance, increased secrecy and surveillance. They prohibit and penalise not only terrorist acts (as I define them) but often vague ideas of encouraging, supporting, planning terrorism (where the idea of terrorism is often very broadly understood). And they use the terrorism threat to connect it up to the blanket term ‘national security’ with all its sinister potential for undermining democratic protections against abusive state power.

In Australia and elsewhere, ‘national security’ is often an excuse for furtive efforts at political cover-ups – witness the appalling efforts of the Federal Government to prosecute Bernard Collaery and Witness K for their roles in revealing the secretive ASIS bugging of East Timorese officials to undermine the new nation’s bargaining position with Australia. The whole ongoing prosecution of [former ACT Attorney-General, Bernard] Collaery has invoked dubious national security in support of absurd and dangerous secrecy provisions prohibiting openly revealing evidence in court, even to defendants.

Tony Coady, 2022

Readers of this blog will be intrigued by the fact that you spend many pages considering whether acts of terrorism might sometimes be morally justified. You reject several arguments that might be advanced in favour of this conclusion, and at the end of Chapter 6 you suggest that we should “condemn the resort to terrorism outright with no leeway for exemptions”. Is it fair to say that you regard morally justified terrorist acts as a remote theoretical possibility, but that moral justification has in fact never applied to actual terrorist acts (nor is ever likely to)?

Yes, readers might be intrigued by this just because many normal people have a strong attitude of revulsion to what they think of as terrorism and wouldn’t dream of justifying it. That attitude is however often somewhat unreflective and uninformed by a specific concept of what terrorist acts are.

I am sympathetic to a complete rejection of terrorist acts, but there are serious arguments against that position that must be considered. Most contemporary theorists, especially moral philosophers, are ‘exceptionalists’ in being reluctant to allow that any type of act can be immoral in every conceivable circumstance, so they advance arguments, often aided by the fashionable philosophical device of counter-example, to allow that in some circumstances terrorist acts are legitimate as the only things that will avert some great evil or other.

This is parallel to situations where it gets argued that torture (including perhaps rape) is morally permissible or even obligatory to avert some great evil. I am very sceptical about all these manoeuvres and argue against seven versions of them that have been proposed by important philosophers.

Sometimes the arguments invoke more or less fantastic scenarios; sometimes they refer to historical situations where difficult choices were confronted, and these are analysed in terms of favoured moral theories, but I argue that none of this should be convincing. My response involves analysis of the moral philosophical theories that their proponents rely upon, for example, wholly outcome-centred versions of consequentialism, the tit-for-tat argument, and the self-defence argument, the fighting chance argument, the appeal to collective responsibility, the demands of redistributive justice, and the argument from supreme emergency (initiated in its contemporary form by Michael Walzer).

In addition to the critique of philosophical underpinnings of these justifications, I argue against the reliance upon what seem to me often underdescribed and fanciful counter-examples in many of these arguments. In opposing these ‘exceptionalist’ tendencies, I defend a sort of absolutism about the moral rejection of terrorist acts in all circumstances, which I would apply to some other act types, such as rape and torture. It is worth noting that, although utilitarians are commonly thought to allow exceptions to all moral rules in some circumstances, there is at least one rule-utilitarian philosopher, the American philosopher Stephen Nathanson, who agrees with an absolutist position on terrorism.

The book’s later chapters deal with some of the political and social realities associated with terrorism. One of these is the tendency, mentioned above, for the powers of government (and agencies like the police) to become excessive as a result of being ‘tough on terrorism’. You discuss a number of examples across different countries. Is there one or two that you might pick out as relevant to the Australian context?

I do mention two such episodes in the book.

One is the notorious maltreatment of Mohamed Haneef, who was wrongly and stupidly connected with a terrorist incident in the UK and treated appallingly by our Coalition ministers, and the other is the Bernard Collaery prosecution discussed above.

I also note Australia’s reputation as being among the worst offenders in the Western world for passing legislation restricting significant civil liberties under the rubric of national security, often connected to anti-terrorism anxieties, and I give a reference for fuller discussion of that.

You end with a discussion of how terrorism is often associated with religious zealotry. You suggest that attachment to a group identity can lead people to become – as you say – ‘fanatical’ in ways that lead them to commit terrorist acts. Sometimes fanaticism involves a person’s apparent religious commitments, yet it can easily be secular, as in cases of terrorists who act on motivations more about nationalism than theological conviction. Do you think terrorist acts always stem from some sort of fanatical commitment? It’s not obvious that your definition requires this.

I discuss the role of fanaticism in debates about religion and terrorism because of claims that religion lends itself particularly to fanaticism and this plays a big role in terrorist acts. Against this, I argue that various deeply held outlooks besides religion can give rise to fanaticism that can play such a role, but I don’t want to claim that perpetrators of terrorism must be fanatical in a way that contributes to their acts. Some such perpetrators choose terrorist acts in a cool, calculated way that doesn’t seem to smack of fanaticism.

Incidentally, I argue in the book against the common idea in some quarters that all strongly held and deeply felt beliefs (secular or religious) must be fanatical. Fanaticism is a complex concept that gets flung around a fair bit as simply a term of abuse, though it can be a real enough phenomenon, and in the Religion and Terrorism chapter I have what I hope is a helpful clarificatory discussion of it.

All books have to omit, or at least postpone, some discussion that the author would have liked to include. Are there any themes or questions around terrorism that you think are yet to be properly addressed by moral and political philosophy? Where might future work seek to make progress?

For myself, I would have liked to include more than the brief reference I make to what is called ‘cyberterrorism’. I think that my analysis could treat some forms of cyber attack or warfare as terrorist, partly because it destroys important property of innocent people, and my definition includes intentional causing of damage to significant such property. But there is probably more to be said about this and also about the status and implications of militarised artificial intelligence in the arena of war and political violence generally. Indeed, some philosophers and others have been engaged with this sort of issue in recent times, exploring in particular matters to do with moral responsibility for drones and so on. I can’t see myself writing any more on terrorism, however, since it’s probably time to move on from that, and I have some other philosophy projects that beckon.

Emeritus Professor CAJ (Tony) Coady was formerly Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy and Founding Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Public Issues at the University of Melbourne and later Director of the Melbourne branch of the ARC Centre of Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He is also an Honorary Professorial Fellow at ACU. His 1992 book Testimony: a Philosophical Study (Oxford University Press) was influential in establishing a flourishing new branch of inquiry within the field of epistemology. Subsequent works include Morality and Political Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics (Oxford University Press, 2008). His latest book, The Meaning of Terrorism, was published in May 2021 by Oxford University Press. He has been a regular commentator in the Australian media on philosophical aspects of public affairs.

Feature image: Civilised, c1942 (detail), A Lois Smith. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 1992/4/1