The Meaning of Terrorism

| July 29, 2022
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Terrorism is an essentially contested term in contemporary moral and political discourse. It is a complex and ambiguous concept that is used both aggressively and defensively in competing appraisals of human conduct. How we construct the concept of terrorism in our minds captures how we approve and disapprove of political violence, which is further entangled with diverging values and conflicting political sympathies. Competing conceptions of terrorism also mobilize the political violence of putatively justifiable counterterrorism efforts. Accordingly, there is much at stake in the thorny task of trying to map out conceptual space for a reasonable consensus on terrorism. C. A. J. Coady has been working on this task for more than forty years, and his latest book does as good a job of defending a philosophical definition of terrorism as one would expect. The Meaning of Terrorism is carefully argued, clearly written, and filled with empirical examples that challenge how we think about terrorism.

As Coady defines it, a terrorist act is “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” (p. 19). He characterizes this as a “tactical” rather than a “status” definition of terrorism because it does not exclude the possibility of state terrorism. This approach allows for evenhanded appraisals of political violence carried out by both state and nonstate actors. Coady’s account is exemplary in this respect. Yet, there remains something odd about his characterization of the definition of terrorism as “tactical,” rather than, say, “normative.” A “terrorist act” has more in common with other terms of ethical misconduct, such as “rape” or “torture,” than with largely ethically neutral terms of tactical behavior, such as “flanking,” “frontal assault,” “smoke screening,” or “feigned retreat.” Terrorism, like rape and torture, certainly denotes a phenomenon that can have tactical features, but its core meaning reflects ethical rather than tactical concerns.

In defending his definition in the first two chapters, Coady cogently argues against definitions of terrorism that stipulate randomness in target selection, as groups of noncombatants are sometimes targeted for their political significance (p. 21). He also rejects the goal of inspiring fear as being essential to the definition because the goal may instead be to produce anger and overreaction. Since the anger and fear produced by terrorist acts often go hand in hand, Coady does not gain much traction by distinguishing semantically between them. Yet his central point of excluding any specific psychosocial goals from the definition is methodologically well taken. Rather than limiting by definitional fiat the goals that terrorists might pursue in inflicting harm on innocent noncombatants, it is better, Coady notes, to “leave as much room as possible for empirical investigation into the actual intentions and motives of political actors” (p. 46). This open-ended manner of inquiry may raise problems for Coady’s own tactical definition, however.

In some instances, terrorist attacks may be best understood not as a tactical means of producing specific social consequences but as intergroup reprisals in which the killing of enemy noncombatants is seen as retribution that is desirable for its own sake. Thus, attempts to understand terrorist violence in terms of means-ends tactics may fail to appreciate the noninstrumental nature of some instances of political violence. Terrorist violence may sometimes fail to conform to any recognizable form of instrumental rationality. It may even be, on occasion, a product of the irrationality or mindlessness of the agency behind it, such as when that agency consists of the labyrinthine military bureaucracy of an internally complex modern state.

Here I want to highlight some aspects of Coady’s definition that are more philosophically controversial than he acknowledges. Consider, first, the element of intentionality in Coady’s definition of terrorism. Critics sometimes object that an intentionality component privileges the party with a military advantage in asymmetrical conflicts. The violence that conventional powers inflict on innocent noncombatants during war may be as ethically condemnable as the more obviously deliberate terrorism of their enemies. The bureaucratic structures of states often obscure intentionality to such an extent that it is philosophically controversial whether states can have intentions at all. If what enlivens negative appraisals of terrorist actions is our concern for the harms that innocent noncombatants suffer, then it is more sensible to focus on effects rather than intentions. To be sure, other things being equal, it is worse when killing innocents is deliberate than when it is reckless, and it is worse when it is reckless than when it is negligent. But we can register these differences by distinguishing between deliberate, reckless, and negligent terrorism, rather than defining away the latter cases.

On my view, the most problematic element of Coady’s definition of terrorism is its inclusion of significant property damage. In the context of a declared “war on terrorism,” in which the term is officially employed to mobilize lethal military force, the inclusion of nonlethal property damage seems inherently disproportionate in most conceivable cases. Property damage is not typically deemed a capital offense in modern legal (or moral) systems. Further, the chief problem with the inclusion of property damage in Coady’s account is that it is incompatible with his view that the moral prohibition against terrorism is absolute, admitting of no exceptions (pp. 74, 145–47). He otherwise does an admirable job of defending this absolutist position in response to seven different kinds of countervailing arguments. These include arguments ranging from general utilitarian doubts about principled norms to arguments allowing greater moral leeway under conditions of extreme emergency. Yet, all of Coady’s arguments repudiating putative justifications of terrorist acts turn on the intuitive wrongness of killing or seriously maiming innocent noncombatants (for example, p. 115).

If he had attempted to defend an absolute prohibition against terrorism using examples involving property damage alone, his arguments would have been less compelling. While it may never be justifiable to pursue legitimate political goals by killing innocent noncombatants, it might conceivably be justifiable to pursue such goals if the only harm inflicted is to “objects of high artistic, religious, or historic significance” (p. 51). People are more valuable than inanimate things in the “common-sense morality” that Coady wishes to accommodate (p. 3). To be sure, if one kills innocent noncombatants by destroying their only source of water, then one has committed a terrorist act in the core sense of inflicting lethal harm; but wrongful damage to property alone should not be included within the ambit of a concept that is often employed to mobilize lethal force as a response, except perhaps in cases where the property in question is central to the shared identity of the target population.

Although Coady is consistent throughout the book in maintaining that both state and substate actors can commit terrorist actions, he narrows his focus in chapter 7 to state actors and the challenges they face in pursuing counterterrorism measures—whether through military efforts, legal action, or diplomacy. This chapter is especially welcome as a corrective to the knee-jerk militarism that too often prevails in the contemporary geopolitics of terrorism. In his concluding chapter, Coady deftly dispels the all-too-familiar idea that there is some inherent connection between terrorist violence and religiosity, especially Islamic religiosity.

Although Coady’s previous book Morality and Political Violence (2008) is more useful for undergraduate classroom instruction, his latest work is an excellent and welcome addition to the academic literature on terrorism.


—Mark Rigstad

Mark Rigstad is an associate professor of philosophy at Oakland University, where he teaches courses on the philosophy of international relations and armed conflict.

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 36.2

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