I often hear people say that while war is sometimes a necessary evil, terrorism against civilians is categorically wrong. I think this is a mistake. As a utilitarian, I do not believe anything is categorically wrong. However, I understand that most people are not utilitarians, and that they will need some convincing.
Let me start by pointing out something that is much milder than terrorism but still considered usually impermissible: violence. I can’t think of a single person who would go so far as to say violence is always wrong. Hurting someone else is usually wrong, but we can easily think of mitigating circumstances that would make violence just. Violence to save your own life or someone else’s does not seem wrong at all.
At this point, think back on your life on all the times you used violence against someone else. I did this exercise earlier today, and what I remember is using violence as a child against my younger sisters, and also a few times against other boys on the playground. Since adolescence, however, I have no recollection of harming someone else (my friends can correct me here if I’m misremembering the past). What struck me about this exercise was the fact that many if not most of my violent acts almost assuredly made the world worse. And yet, despite having a poor record on the use of violence myself, I don’t hesitate to advocate violence in very select circumstances.
My attitude toward violence parallels my attitude toward terrorism: that it is almost always wrong, except in unusual circumstances. In the case of terrorism, perhaps we should add very unusual circumstances, because terrorism is a particularly ghastly kind of violence. Just as most of us believe violence to save life and limb is justified, I believe that terrorism that prevents an even greater level of suffering is also justified.
I hesitate to list an example of justifiable terrorism, in part because I don’t know of any that is obviously just, that despite its huge cost in human life, increased utility more than available alternatives.
Rather than name a specific attack, I will simply say that terrorism is most forgivable when done by a group of people whose civilization is under siege by a much larger, harshly repressive military. This seems to be true of the Palestinians suffering under the Gaza blockade, the Algerian war of independence against France, the National Liberation Front in Vietnam against the South Vietnamese and American governments, the Chechen war of independence against Russia (mentioned in the previous post), and the African National Congress’s campaign against apartheid in South Africa, just to name a few.