An Exercise in Terrorism: Theirs or Ours

Suppose that Al-Qaeda destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies in some country where people matter — say the US, or Israel, etc.  Would we regard it as an act of terrorism?  They could claim they had no intent to harm anyone, they just thought that the plants were involved in producing biological weapons or components for them.  In fact their claim would be vastly more credible than in the case of the [US] Sudan bombing, because their targets would be rich countries where supplies could easily be replenished, domestically and from abroad, unlike the Sudan. 

I don’t think there would be the slightest question raised about this being a terrorist act, in fact an appalling terrorist act, even though, as noted, it does not approach the criminality of the al-Shifa bombing.  And no one would even bother to laugh at their protestation about intent.  Of course, if you carry out an act like this you know that there will be severe effects on civilians — vastly more so in the Sudan case, transparently.  In law, incidentally, one criterion for determining intent is anticipated effects, but even elementary moral considerations make it clear.

Suppose we decide that the Clinton bombers had no specific intent to harm civilians [in the Sudan], though of course they knew that the effects would be very severe.  That puts them at even a lower moral level than the major international terrorists.  It means they are treating people rather as we treat ants when we take a walk.  We don’t intend to kill them.  It’s just that they mean so little to us that we don’t even consider the matter.

Let’s try another case.  Suppose the WTC attackers were to claim that they had no intent to harm anyone.  They assumed that anyone in the buildings would find their way out, and their intent was to interfere with acts of corporations and financial institutions that are not just threatening to do severe harm, but are doing so.  That perhaps reaches the level of plausibility of apologetics for the al-Shifa bombing.  Would we even bother to laugh?

Terms like "terror," "aggression," etc., and other terms used to deal with human affairs are not defined well enough to yield an explicit answer for every situation.  Nor should they be; precise definition makes sense only within far-reaching explanatory systems, where the precision matters.  That’s even been true in the history of mathematics.  Law, domestic or international, is not a formal axiom system.  To decide how to use the terms of political discourse, a good criterion is to ask how we would use them in the case of acts carried out by others, not when the blood is on our hands.  It’s a useful exercise.

Leave a comment