Morality and History

Between War and Politics

excerpted from the book

The No-Nonsense guide to


by Jonathan Barker

New Internationalist / Verso, 2002, paper

The most common rationale for state terrorism's defense of the moral community that is the nation. In killing Jews, Romas and homosexuals the Nazis asserted they were defending the Aryan nation against racial and moral pollution. Ethnic cleansing in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere has been justified along similar lines. Stalin claimed both Mother Russia and the international working class as communities whose opponents and betrayers ought to be eliminated.

A sense of moral community also colors the response to acts of terrorism. The metaphor of war in defense of a 'good community' is often used to justify extraordinary and arbitrary state powers. US commentators express outrage at the way terrorists abuse democratic freedoms to launch their deadly attacks and portray them as especially vile enemies of civic morality who have lost all claim to the ordinary rights of community members. The US Government has drawn practical conclusions from this moral position. Under the US Patriot Act federal authorities can effectively detain resident noncitizens indefinitely without charging them with any crime. The underlying rationale is that they are not part of the community of Americans protected by the Constitution. Even citizens believed by federal authorities to have worked with al-Qaeda or another enemy can be labeled 'enemy combatants' and imprisoned until hostilities cease. In effect they lose the rights conferred by community membership. By government fiat they are stripped of constitutional protection.

Leaders who believe their state is engaged in a war against terrorists may push their counter-terrorist actions to the point of killing civilians linked to the enemy. Some argue that Israel's attacks against Palestinians have crossed the line that divides legitimate counter-terrorism from state terrorism. The commitment of many Israelis to defend their state is deepened by their belief that Israel was founded to end the vulnerability of Jews that made the European Holocaust possible. Some supporters of Israel's protective purpose reason that it justifies extraordinary measures of defense.

Palestinians make a parallel argument about their right as a people to a protective state in their ancestral homeland. They see their struggle as a response to the theft of their land to create Israel, in effect the cancellation of their right to form their own national state. Families cling to the papers that record their right to land and the keys to houses long destroyed. The desire of the Palestinians living on the West Bank to escape the humiliation and hardship of Israeli occupation adds to the will to struggle. Given the overwhelming superiority of the Israeli army and various security services, many Palestinians reason that all Israelis are their enemies and targeting civilians is fully justified.

Many active political movements today claim that religious belief is the proper basis for a morallygrounded political community. Every religion has the potential of inspiring followers to back their beliefs with political authority. Religions assert grand truths about good and evil and the rules that ought to govern human interactions. The more urgently the claims are felt and the more dangerous the battalions of evil appear to be - the more attractive is the appeal to give their faith a political form. This may include taking armed and deadly action to rout the enemies and preserve the faith. Adherents of political religions that differ profoundly over religious doctrine all agree that the secular political ideal is morally bankrupt. Their descriptions of the materialist, world-dominating enemy can be startlingly similar. Terrorist groups inspired by their versions of Christianity and Islam denounce look-alike conspiracies of Jews, communists, capitalists and freemasons led by the US Government and the United Nations.

In situations of conflict, commitment to moral community is often the main justification for going to war. Such is the justification of the declaration by George W Bush of the right of the US to strike first at rogue states, terrorist states and terrorists. He believes that striking against enemies of the US moral community is always defensive and always justified. Once a government or a group sees itself as engaged in a war to defend the community it represents, it is a small step to employ weapons that will kill many civilians, torture prisoners to gain essential intelligence or send a suicide bomber on a mission.

People who take their political values from Christianity and Islam, religions that claim universal validity, may assert that their rules of morality are valid for all people no matter what they believe. Some fervent believers think that in forcing nonbelievers to comply with the true morality, the are doing God's work. Colonial autocrats forced their subjects to work without pay and expropriated their best land in the name of a Christian civliizing mission - the right of a more evolved community over a more primitive one. The many layered term 'jihad' in Islamic thinking is best translated as 'struggle'. It can refer to a personal spiritual struggle to accept the full truth of Islam. For some Muslims it can also refer to a defense of Islam by violence if necessary against the aggression of nonbelievers and believers in false forms of Islam. During the crusades and inquisitions Christians, too, have defended a conception of their religious community with arms and resorted to terrorism. To the many people standing outside these circles of religious 'truth', the claims to universal validity seem false and intrusive. The values they assert belong to large, but still limited, moral communities.

This notion of moral community tends to confirm a nonnegotiable starting point and to justify extreme measures: If we = good, then any enemy = evil. Any conflict moves into a stark bipolarism pushing for the exclusion of outsiders and often into warfare. There can be no compromise with evil. If you are not with us, you are against us. There is no difference between leaders and followers, soldiers and civilians, instigators and (possibly reluctant or ignorant) supporters. In such a simplified and distorted world, terrorism against those who stand outside the 'true moral community' is absurdly easy to justify. Immoral actions thus are warranted as means for defending morality itself

Universal rights A larger moral framework recognizes that many different and competing claims to a moral community exist. It attaches political authority not to any particular religious or cultural vision, but to the right of anyone to have and to pursue such visions. Moral understanding need not stop at the boundary of one community; it grounds itself in universal values.

A set of influential intellectuals in the United States issued a statement about the evil of the September 11 terrorists and the justice of prosecuting a war against them that put the argument in terms of universal moral principles. The US had to defend such universals as civic freedom, freedom of religion, and protection of the human person. War is morally necessary when it is required to defend innocent people whose rights are under attack and who are in no position to defend themselves. A war so justified must be fought by a legitimate authority employing violence proportionate to the danger. The statement made clear that not all the cultural values, social tendencies and government policies in the US are worthy of support. But it argued that the core US values are valid and universal. A war fought to defend these values against terrorists is a just war. Such a war must never target non-combatants, although unintended killing of innocents may be unavoidable.

In the abstract the argument appears strong: a secular state committed to human rights may have to defend the right to have such rights. In practice the argument comes down to a political judgement. As the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Hartley, put it in the 17 June 2002 edition, the supporters are saying that the US, whatever its faults, is 'a force for good in the world'. The signers agree, it seems, with President Bush's words on 1 June 2002 to cadets at West Point: 'America has no empire to extend or utopia to build. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves - safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life.'

Bush might, however, have lost the support of some of the signers when he announced in the same speech that his government reserved the right to strike first at any government or group that the US believes is about to launch an attack on the US or its allies. Here we see how crucial is the question of who defines and enforces universal human rights. The US has been most reluctant to recognize the authority of any international body to do so.

Yet the very universal rights championed by the US are also the starting point for some of the critics of the war on terrorism, many of them US citizens. These critics accept the same constitutional and moral precepts that support democratic governance and civil and human rights but arrive at different political judgements. They believe that on balance the US is not a force for good in the world. Critics like Noam Chomsky readily marshal the evidence - the overthrow of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia and Chile; the training and financing of the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua; the support for President Suharto of Indonesia in his genocidal take-over of East Timor; the material assistance to President Saddam Hussein in Iraq when he was suppressing Kurdish nationalists with poison gas; and the cooperation with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in training and arming the Taliban to destabilize the government of Afghanistan. Chomsky believes the world's most powerful government uses violence quite routinely and quite effectively to defend its economic interests. In doing so it stands against the 'hope for a better life' of most of the world's people. This position concludes that the most important step that the US can take to decrease terrorism is to stop engaging in it.

The invective in the altercations between these two 'universal rights' positions is especially acrimonious. They agree on the moral premise that humans universally have a right to freedom, security and democracy. They even agree that the record of the US in supporting these rights is not pure. They further agree that the people who brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon are a real menace and must be stopped. The two groups disagree about whether the US Government should be the sole arbiter of who is and who is not a threat to universal human rights. The critics of the US want to strengthen international courts and bodies to make such judgements and enforce them. The supporters of the US record on balance trust the US to make the | correct determination over the long run.

Many who think about the moral meaning of terrorism are less interested in the abstract rightness or wrongness of particular terrorist acts or counter-terrorist measures than in what they accomplish and for what interests. They judge actions in terms of their consequences. Consider the case of terrorist acts by a committed group in the name of a worthy goal such as overthrowing a rapacious dictator. Or consider state terrorist measures employed to defeat a monstrous and clever political sect. Might not the end be worth the means? Would not a few deaths and a time of fear among certain people result in a much safer and freer outcome for the majority? Is that not a good moral bargain?

Obviously we cannot know the future, so consequentialist moral reasoning works better in hindsight than in prospect. The sociologist Barrington Moore argues that the death and suffering of the French Revolution, including the Terror, had the beneficent consequence of destroying social institutions of inequality and exploitation that were day after day grinding millions of lives into pain, despair and death. He judged this a good bargain from a long-term historical point of view. Yet such judgements are hard to make, even historically. Judging events and actions before their consequences are known is much trickier still. The value of a judgement based on highly uncertain predictions is obviously compromised. Yet political leaders have to make such judgements all the time.

Political leaders are powerfully drawn to consequentialist moral reasoning on many policy issues. Damming a river harms some people and even destroys ways of life, but it helps others. The politicians in charge evaluate the balance of benefits and costs - no doubt giving special weight to influential powerholders and to the impact on their own careers. The same kind of reasoning can be applied to the distribution of violence. War planners try to deliver damage and death to enemy forces in the most efficient and effective pattern. They can and do also consider the benefits and costs of doing violence to civilians. Bombing Dresden will cause fire storms and kill tens of thousands of civilians. But perhaps it will demoralize the German high command, shorten the war and save the lives of allies and Germans alike. A suicide bomb in Tel Aviv will kill dozens of ordinary Israelis and trigger an Israeli attack on a West Bank refugee settlement that will kill Palestinians. But it will also recruit more suicide bombers and strengthen the radical Palestinian faction against the moderates and further the cause of restoring what is now Israel to the Palestinians. This is the way reasoning about the consequences of killing civilians justifies terrorist actions.

Consequentialist reasoning is used effectively against terrorism as well. Even in the case of terror or state terror that seems to promote benefits such as enhancing the power of a democratic state or weakening an evil government, opponents can argue that the consequences will be the creation of more enemies and the use of valuable resources needed elsewhere. This argument has been used by the Palestinian critics of suicide bombing and by opponents of the war on terrorism.

The consequentialist version of the terrorism debate often turns on the moral importance placed on enhancing state power. Machiavelli argues that the end of enhancing state power justifies the means of state violence against enemies and opponents who might otherwise weaken the state. For him state power is more than an end in itself; it alone makes civic order and social morality practically possible. Those who support the power of a given state often follow Machiavelli's reasoning. They back the use of state terror as a regrettable necessity for achieving the benefits the state brings over the long run. Those who oppose the extension of state power are often less critical of the terror of groups that attack the state because the damage people suffer looks small compared to the suffering the state inflicts.

Three big ideas

Debates about terrorism are colored by historical ideas as well as by moral standpoints. The ideas used to explain terrorism often turn out to be connected to a vision of one of the big themes in our current history. There are three major themes here. Some familiarity with them helps in finding a way through the commentaries and debates that swirl around the war on terrorism. Each is in its own way too general and too weakly linked to any actual terrorist act to provide a full explanation of terrorism. At best each can give a partial insight into the context out of which terrorism emerges, But these ideas have another kind of importance - despite their weaknesses they guide the thought of planners of terrorist acts and of shapers of counter-terrorism policies.

Failed modernization The most frequently-encountered big idea is failed modernization. The core idea here is that some societies have been unable to achieve the promise of growth in material wealth in a secular, science-based and democratic society. Two variants of the theme give it quite different interpretations. The neo-conservative variant argues that the opportunity to modernize is there for any society to seize. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore provide examples of transformation into productive, relatively high-income market societies in a couple of generations. Failures are the responsibility of rulers and populations who did not take advantage of the opportunity to emulate the West by leapfrogging to the latest technologies. Persistent corruption, the wrong ideology, ancient conflicts or other misadventures have kept societies off the globalization train. Some fall into the abyss of failed or collapsed states unable to discharge even minimal government functions. The poverty and political instability that ensue breed frustration, calls for change, violence and even terrorism. They create conditions of urban anarchy and rural warlordism in which terrorists can gather, hide and prepare.

These neo-conservatives believe that even the richest of the developed economies and the most powerful political and military establishments cannot reverse or resolve all the failures of modernization. The best response is an agenda of self-protection - keeping the dangerous places under close scrutiny and going after terrorists when they appear. The governments of all countries, including those where terrorists gather, have a duty to crack down hard on these dangerous people.

The left-wing variant of failed modernization locates the weakness in the modernization model itself which benefits rich countries at the expense of the poor. It simply does not fit the real possibilities of many countries, including large parts of Africa and the Middle East. The worst of the inequality, instability and poverty that breed and hide terrorists is remediable. The rich and powerful should reform the model of modernization and invest the money and effort needed to bring substantial benefits to the countries and regions most in need. This step will reduce the anger and frustration that breed terrorism, but action may still be necessary to deal with existing terrorist organizations.

Failed modernization, unfortunately for its proponents, itself fails to find the particular causes behind many episodes of terrorism. What about terrorism in paragons of modernization like Japan (Aum Shinrikyo) and Germany (Red Army Faction). Why has Sri Lanka in recent years suffered from separatist terrorism and not Malaysia? Why are the crisis-ridden economies of the Caribbean less troubled by terrorism (state and group) than those of Central America? Modernization is in serious trouble, no question. But as a theory of terrorism it is too broad and vague. It stands in the way of understanding.

Clash of civilizations
A second way of seeing the big picture from which terrorism arises is the Clash of Civilizations, a phrase made famous from the titles of an article (1993) and a book (1996) by Samuel Huntington. The collapse of communism, according to this perspective, shifted the major lines of conflict in the world to the cultural. Supporters of this perspective find verification in Europe's Middle Ages when Muslim rule expanded into Spain and attempted to push into France, or when Christian crusades attempted to wrest control of Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers. But their main interest is the future: 'The dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic [Chinese] assertiveness', says Huntington. The theory is elaborated from a frankly pro-Western perspective and designed to shape policy. The implication is that Westerners should expect recurring conflict with Islamic and Asian political powers. No amount of modernization will make 'them' more like 'us' and our observance of values we regard as universal will not end the major differences.

Unfortunately, accepting the clash of civilizations as an organizing idea obscures insight into the actual variety of bases of terrorism. Cultural differences are without doubt an important source of conflict; but, so too are competition for resources like petroleum, water and land. Moreover, citizens, whatever their culture, are still stirred to vigorous opposition by experience with self-serving and corrupt concentrations of power that torture citizens and deny them basic rights. Differences of identity within the global cultures Huntington names, especially those stirred by nationalist claims, remain potent. The growing disparity of incomes within and between countries keeps ideologies of right and left alive in social movement. Among recent terrorist episodes, many have nothing to do with a clash of civilizations: the leftist claims of the red groups in Europe; nationalist claims within a cultural zone of Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka; the obscure rural revolutionary goals of Sendero Luminoso in Peru; and the defense of the unborn by anti-abortion militants in the US. Cultural differences feed into political conflict, but to see terrorism through the lens of a clash of civilizations is a dangerous and blinding simplification.

Primary and secondary terrorism
A third perspective, put forward most coherently by Edward Herman and Gerry O'Sullivan in The 'Terrorism' Industry focuses on state terrorism and downplays the importance and danger of group terrorism. It locates the problem of terrorism in a large historical dynamic: the 'primary terrorism' of Western colonial expansion and continued economic and political domination provokes a 'secondary terrorism' of desperate response to the suffering and injustice inflicted by this primary terrorism. This analysis does not excuse or condone secondary terrorism, but it places historical responsibility for terrorist problems squarely in the hands of the Western perpetrators of primary terrorism. The historical causal force stimulating terrorist activity is Western expansionism and Western efforts to retain worldwide economic and political dominance. This perspective credits the claims often put forward by popular movements in the global South that the political settlements ending colonial rule were unjust and that post-colonial government is often the tool of Western economic and political interests. Its core equation is that the elimination of the injustices and relations of domination perpetrated by Western industrial powers will remove the raison d'etre of terrorism.

This perspective captures one of the great waves of modern history that is too often neglected by writers looking at terrorism: the fundamental and often extreme violence of Western colonial expansion and the continuing resort to violence to retain post-colonial domination. It tends to ground itself on a few cases where evidence of US involvement in terrorism is strong, such as the mining of Nicaragua's harbor in support of Contra terrorism. But it makes no survey of a cross-section of terrorist acts and groups since the Second World War to see how well they fit the theory. It ignores the terrorism inside Europe from ETA in Spain to the Red Army Faction in Germany, but is markedly Euro- and US-centric when it comes to weighing the causes of terrorism in Latin America, Asia and Africa. It sees state terrorism in Brazil, Chile and Argentina and the Indonesian army slaughter in East Timor as the responsibility of the US. Is there no responsibility of those governments for their own actions?

Where the US failed to oppose state terrorism - even where it supported a security apparatus that engaged in such terrorism with money and training - there remains room for some moral and political autonomy on the part of 'client' governments. Governments that are in no way simple clients, like Myanmar (Burma) or Zimbabwe, are quite able to engage in state terrorism. Most former colonies and dependencies inherited an autocratic government and severe economic and political difficulties from their colonial experience, but terrorist regimes are prominent in only a few places. Nor can group terrorism automatically be traced to colonial violence and injustice. The idea of primary and secondary terrorism falls short as a general explanation of terrorism. Holding it too tightly stands in the way of understanding the many cases it fails to illuminate.

A less comprehensive theory of Western action and terrorist response is much more convincing with respect to specific cases and gives insight into the origins of state terrorism, a topic carefully ignored by many terrorism experts. It takes the name 'blowback', as noted in chapter three) from the term used inside the CIA for the unintended consequences of initial interventions. The US gave Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq support to make it a stronger counterweight to Iran, but then President Hussein turned that power both against Iraq's Kurdish population and toward the invasion of Kuwait. The US gave assistance to the Taliban via Pakistan's intelligence agency (and perhaps more directly) in order to strengthen a promising opponent of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban succeeded admirably and turned its success to support of al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations. In these cases the 'blowback' resulted in an increase of terrorism turned against US interests.

Beliefs about identity and ideology can move government leaders just as they do group terrorist leaders. Their moral compass may justify attacks against both internal opponents and external enemies. Doctrines of national security, Nazism and communism can be shaped to persuade the rank and file of the need for terror tactics. One of the most common justifications for perpetrators of state terrorism is that they act in the name of counter-terrorism to defend the dignity and power of the state. Beneath the rhetoric, simply hanging onto power is often a major motive. The revered leader is often invoked as the 'great explainer' who assumes responsibility for the 'necessary' politics of terror.

The art of shaping cadres of young people, usually men, into willing torturers and killers is well honed and well known to military establishments. The key is to unite a sense of larger mission (defending the nation) with a sense of group loyalty and interdependence (fighting for one's comrades). Armies have long been adept at such training, isolating the trainees from family and society and using boot-camp techniques to reinforce obedience to the chain of command and loyalty to a team of soldiers. The military and civilian managers of military operations are imbued with a belief in the strategic value of aggression and violence in the pursuit of certain national or regime interests. The very same combination of strategic aggression and group dependence has often been turned to purposes of state terrorism. The commander of a special unit need only declare that certain people are enemies of state security and the soldiers' license-to-kill can be directed against that group. Philip Zimbardo's famous psychology experiment at Stanford University in 1971 that placed students in the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison showed how rapidly ordinary young men could be turned toward torture. The experiments had to be ended abruptly after only 6 days because the 'guards' subjected the 'prisoners' to sadistic treatment.

Intelligence sources familiar with information about al-Qaeda often compare it to a transnational corporation with active branches in many countries, some of them independent franchises. Moreover, just as McDonald's inspired Burger King, al-Qaeda's example, they believe, is prompting the formation of look-alike organizations. Local cells and regional centers are loosely linked through interpersonal and ideological networks. The network is reinforced by meetings and training camps and by channels for collecting and transferring funds.

The US as the leader of the war on terrorism tries to globalize counter-terrorism by drawing governments into a common policy of military and police action against terrorists of all stripes. Governments are pressed to enact tough security legislation and to crack down on groups suspected of international connections. Often, as in the case of Indonesia, they are offered military assistance and military training.

Sometimes, as in the Philippines, the US supports cooperative governments with troops as well as economic assistance.

The war on terrorism gives al-Qaeda, and terrorism in general, a strong global image. States facing any kind of insurgency claim they are fighting the global terrorist enemy. Russia puts Chechen separatists in this category, in order to garner international support and legitimacy, especially from the US. Some Chechen insurgents find it useful to adopt the garb of radical Islam and deliver videotaped messages to al-Jazeera television. Like other local movements they are drawn to represent themselves as part of a global endeavor in order to gain publicity and international support for their cause.

What the war on terrorism does

For governments the war on terrorism fills a void that appeared with the end of the Cold War and the spread of neo-conservative views that governments should shrink and scale back their programs. It gives governments something important to do and supplies a ready reason to strengthen instruments of internal security and to monitor or restrict potentially troublesome political movements.

The fight against communism or imperialism was reason enough in Cold War days for governments to expand their power. With the demise of state communism the US reduced support for repressive anti-communist regimes. Democracy movements and competitive politics spread widely in the unipolar world. Democratic movements are often disrespectful of sitting governments and they can generate conflict that brings political order itself into question. Many governments discovered reasons to fear democracy. The war on terrorism gives them the opportunity to play on the widely-felt sense of vulnerably to reinforce their power. Governments the world over are beefing up police and intelligence agencies and implementing legislation that curtails political liberties and reduces protection against arbitrary arrest.

The war on terrorism draws attention away from issues of global inequality and degradation of living conditions that are important in their own right and remain important causes of conflict. Instead international bodies are swamped by issues of security. The global movement for economic reform finds its scope for action more limited. In the industrial North it finds governments are less open to discussion about economic justice. The public is encouraged to see the South more as a source of danger than a region in need of international economic and social reform. Activists have to commit energy and resources to defending human and civil rights and opposing the worst of the new security legislation. A coalition that might come together on many aspects of global economic reform and environmental defense is more divided when forced into dealing with issues of security and terrorism.

Debate about globalization is being choked off at a time when a new generation of activists is responding to the changing constellation of power and wealth in the world and participating in vital cultural changes and conflicts. Lively debates are under way on fundamental issues such as the political role of Islam, Christianity and Judaism; appropriate political structures for multicultural states and alternatives to orthodox market solutions to issues of stalled development and income maldistribution. These debates need wide publicity and broad participation. Liberal secularists need to debate why modernization is failing so many of the world's people. Instead they are caught up in arguing about the morality of putting huge amounts of money into weapons. Religious believers need to discuss how they can adapt their beliefs to a pluralism of faiths but instead are forced to defend their religion's basic morality. The politics of fear and power replaces a politics of intellectual challenge and practical give and take.

The war on terrorism includes a well-funded and skillfully-directed information component that raises the fear level and keeps attention on security. It sucks energy from other discussions and forces basic issues to the margins of public dialogue. The way the war on terrorism enables the US to shape the political agenda within the US, in international discussions and in many other countries may be its most impressive quality.

The war on terrorism also draws attention away from arms control and arms elimination projects. Efforts to reduce the availability of land mines, light automatic weapons and explosives might have a direct effect on the frequency and deadliness of terrorist actions. Control of the production and distribution of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (NBC) would lower the chances of terrorists making use of such weapons. These efforts are weakened and displaced by enlarged military budgets and accelerated production of I weapons systems for possible counter-terrorist use.

No-Nonsense guide to Terrorism

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