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The author, a retired U. S. Foreign Service officer, sets forth a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the terrorism phenomenon, one that repays a careful reading. Without defending terrorist acts in moral terms, Nicolson raises questions about their efficacy and coherence, and about civilian responsibility therefor. —Ed.

An Essay on Terrorism

Terrorist movements have rarely, if ever, succeeded militarily; when they succeeded, it was by bringing a superior power to the bargaining table. . . .

We reflexively condemn terrorism after each new outrage —- in Northern Ireland, Israel, Indonesia, and elsewhere —- without a real attempt to understand and dissect it. Dissection is clinical, stripped of emotion, and does not imply approval: I emphasize the point lest any be tempted to view this essay as an apologia. It is not. It is an attempt to examine how some terrorists pursue a political goal beyond pure malice; why their tactics, if bloody, may be the most effective path open to them and have worked on occasion; how the familiar Western distinction between civilian and military combatants is ethically questionable in the modern age; and how, above all, we must distinguish in the future between movements we may be able to address by negotiation and those which we must annihilate.

Do terrorists’ means justify their ends? That is a moral question with an answer that differs little in practical context from the decision by a national state to wage war. Such a state decision entails the unintended but wholly predictable consequence of the deaths by “collateral damage” of many civilians, as well as the equally predictable demise of enemy and friendly soldiers who are no less human than the civilian targets of terrorism.

It is a moral fiction to draw a sharp distinction between resort to force by states and employment of force by sub-national, including terrorist, groups. Both cases bring death and entail the use of violence. The chief distinction is a surface legitimacy to the state premised on little more than its greater longevity and organized control of territory. Thus these varied actors—-state and non-state–are better judged and distinguished ultimately by the morality of their ends, not by their a priori “status.” If it were otherwise, would not the insurgents of the American Revolution have been damned in their time?

A separate but closely related issue: the stress on the distinction between human beings called soldiers (the first casualties of warring states) and civilians (the frequent first casualties of terrorist groups) is to deem the former as dispensable cannon fodder while asserting Marques of Queensbury rules protecting the latter. That violates modern morals. All lives are precious, and the fact that soldiers in theory “accept the risk” of the job is no dispensation for their lives. In a modern democratic state, soldiers can be categorized as civilians, not a separate caste. The civilian electorates who govern the state more than soldiers are responsible for the decisions of the government they elect, for its application of armed force, and thus for the negative consequences, and thus also for the fact that they are the logical targets of pressure for change.

This, of course, raises the question of means vs. ends and is at the core of the conventional moral critique of terrorism; indeed, terrorism’s means define it. To the extent a consensus definition of terrorism exists, it may be described as the deliberate killing of non-military personnel in order to pursue a claimed political goal through exertion of pressure on a society. The literature is rife with other definitions, but their core comes down to this: murderous attacks on civilians for political purposes.

Terrorists who lash out from hatred but without concrete and achievable political goals, including those whose political goals are so sweeping as to be delusional—-such as Al-Qaeda members “acting out” the multiple failures of Middle Eastern societies —-are practically, if not philosophically, nihilists with nowhere to go. Their acts are pointless. They are a psychotic, not a political, phenomenon and the only reasonable answer is the use of force to kill or incarcerate them, while seeking in the longer term to address the social pathologies which produce new recruits.

But there are other “terrorist” movements now and in history with genuinely political aims, which resorted to violent tactics because the latter were the most effective available. The anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s that gave birth to numerous new nations in some instances relied in part on terrorism.

The “grand daddy” of such groups was none other than the Irgun faction of the Zionist movement in Israel, which engaged in bombings and assassinations (including of a senior UN official) to press the end of British occupation. The Irgun was far from the decisive factor in achieving Israeli independence, and was opposed by many in the Zionist movement, but it made a contribution and that contribution to independence eventually absolved its leader of his past and he went on to become prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin.

The pattern is familiar. Terrorist movements have rarely, if ever, succeeded militarily; when they succeeded, it was by bringing a superior power to the bargaining table; and if the movement’s leaders were ultimately successful and judged to be on the right side of history, they were cleansed of their past.

Who resorts to terrorism and why? Terrorism is the tool of the weak, used by disaffected groups or minorities to oppose the rule and (as they see it) the oppression of an established and militarily superior power. Because it is resistance on the cheap, terrorism often emerges out of civil society rather than state sponsorship, because oppressed civilian groups, lacking control over governmental machinery, can summon little or no regular military force able to confront their “oppressor” in conventional military terms.

Thus they resort to “hit and run” or even suicidal attacks, and may choose soft non-military targets to pressure the government they seek to influence. Whatever the morality of slaughtering innocents, this strategy can make sense in military/political terms: why fail in frontal armed assault against a far superior state-sponsored military apparatus? The goal instead is to so upset the civilian economic and social life of an adversary state as to force negotiations on more equal terms.

The specific methods of a given terrorist group depend on the nature of the regime it opposes. In democracies (e.g., the conflict in Northern Ireland), terrorists seek to wear down the voting majority until it is so sick of strife and uncertainty as to consent to a political solution by meeting the minority’s demands in part or in whole. (Of course, there is always the possibility of backlash, as is evident in the case of Israel, where terrorism against the body politic successfully put the PLO on the map but more recently proved self-defeating by feeding Israeli doubt that Palestinians could ever be appeased short of the destruction of the Israeli state.)

In autocratic states (e.g., Egypt), which are less subject to public opinion and relatively indifferent to civilian casualties, terrorist groups seek more to disrupt national economies—-in particular by scaring off foreign tourism and investment—-to the point where governments are goaded to concessions because the damage to the nation’s economic life threatens the (corrupt) elites’ ability to sustain their rule.

While autocratic states may eventually crack under such strains, democratic governments are more immediately susceptible to terrorism, at least if the “cause” is plausible, because terrorism strikes common people who in democracies have influence to prod their governments towards negotiation if the pain becomes too great and the minority’s grievances are perceived as not unreasonable, even if their methods are condemnable. Thus, though it seems perverse, one may argue that terrorism in some cases is more justified, or at least more effective, when directed against democratic governments. Terrorist movements in such states typically arise from confrontation between an oppressed minority and a dominant majority (e.g., Northern Ireland; Israel/Palestine).

Civilians guide such a state, the state commands the military, the military applies force, including death, to its opponents. Should the ultimate civilian authors of those consequences be exempt from pressure while their military servants (in fact their fellow citizens) take the brunt of the polity’s decisions? The democratic nation in the modern age, certainly since World War I, is a nation in arms. Every citizen has a role in deciding its fate through the vote or by military effort expressed in mass mobilization or industrial support of the war machine. Thus, every citizen must accept the consequences of state policies.

We resist that notion of equal responsibility and we hate the idea of terrorism. Why? Because terrorism seeks to alter the status quo and shake complacent (dominant) populations or elites out of their complacency. It threatens our comfortable and insulated everyday lives…including the moral barrier we have sought to erect by the increasingly strained distinction between military combatants and the civilians who ultimately direct them in a democratic state. It puts electorates squarely up against the lethal consequences of their own voting decisions.

Or, if you prefer, it acknowledges the civilian electorate as politically influential agents who are targeted by terrorists seeking to influence or blackmail their political decisions. In the democratic West, terrorism is a handmaiden of democracy: everyman has the power, so everyman is now a target. And stoically accepting that fact, accepting our responsibility as citizens without whimpering or whining as potential combatants and agents of resistance is, in my view, required now as an act of patriotism on the part of participants in the modern democratic state. To plead overly the distinction between military combatants and civilian “victims” is an abdication of our responsibility as citizens. In that respect we are coming closer to the model of the ancient Greek city states which gave birth to democracy: our physical safety is more directly bound to the future of our polity than it has been in a long time…and it should be.

All governments condemn terrorism. But they sometimes give in to it and even later, if sometimes grudgingly, applaud its exponents, provided the latter’s underlying cause was just and politically successful: Witness the ANC and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

There is a life cycle to successful terrorist movements. They begin weak in their actions and condemned by “responsible” authorities. If they represent a serious and widely shared grievance, they may grow stronger, more effective (more lethal), and still more condemned. At some point, that very effectiveness can turn condemnation into reluctant acceptance of them by states as a negotiating partner. They have won a place at the table by the classic means any actor ever has in politics: by demonstrating the capacity to exert force or other influence.

That is a critical moment for such terrorist movements. Can their leadership shift from the role of hunted opponents to the role of accepted statesmen; can they shift from a narrow military/terrorist focus to a broader political vision, which inevitably implies compromise rather than maximalist rhetoric? That in the past has defined the difference between the success or failure of a number of such movements. An example of success: Nelson Mandela in South Africa. An example of failure: Yassir Arafat in Israel/Palestine. The roles of guerrilla leader and visionary statesman call for different qualities in an individual; not all terrorist/guerrilla leaders are personally capable of the transition.

The classic era of terrorists with a nationalist vision appears on the decline, since many of them have realized their goals in the post-World War II period. Increasingly we confront instead violently psychotic millenialist groups which must be extirpated rather than engaged. Nonetheless, some ethnic-based movements will continue to arise, perhaps with terrorist components, seeking in the traditional mode independence or autonomy for more or less narrowly defined populations. It behooves us to recognize the difference between those movements and irreconcilable millenialist groups and, where appropriate, to suspend our moral qualms and adopt our tactics and even negotiate with the former.

We will have enough on our hands as it is in dealing with the “wretched of the earth” in the coming century: given the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, we can expect many more terrorist movements based on pure frustration and psychosis. We will have to put them down insofar as they affect us. So, as a matter of pure economy, it behooves us to recognize where we are dealing instead with genuine political movements, albeit using terrorist means, which may be dealt with more cheaply (if holding our noses) by negotiation.


Born in California in 1950, Marc E. Nicholson graduated from Yale University, served in the U. S. Army in West Germany, and entered the Foreign Service in 1975. He had tours as a political and political/military officer in Brasilia, Lisbon, Bangkok, and Washington before retiring in 2000 to Washington, DC, where he now lives and works as a part-time consultant.


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