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September 11 2017 09:30 | Bischoefliches Priesterseminar Borromaeum, Kardinal-von-Galen-Saal

Speech of Aleksandra Kania

Aleksandra Kania

Sociologist, Poland

In debates on definitions of terrorism, and on the legal or moral judgment of terrorist activity, it is particularly difficult to reach a universal consensus and achieve unanimously satisfactory conclusions. Similar tactics and methods, including the intention of arousing fear in the public, or intimidating a population or government with the use of threats, violence, or coercion, can serve diverse political, ideological, and religious purposes and motivations. Similar methods are used by terrorist organizations and by liberation movements or freedom fighters, by ‘state terrorism’ and in the ‘war on terrorism’. However the term has acquired such a negative connotation in everyday language that it is applied only to the activity of enemies, and never to one’s own actions. Rationalizations or justifications of terrorist actions have been based on a variety of political, ethical, ideological, national, ethnic, racial, religious, and other types of considerations and arguments. Questions that seem important to discuss at our meeting are the following:

  1. What are the basic standards that allow for the moral assessment of terrorist action?
  2. What are the main roots of the rapid growth of global terrorism in the XXI century, and how should we respond to terrorism, and face up to the task of cutting out its roots?

Controversies surrounding the moral evaluation of the use of terror – inflicting fear as a political weapon – have been based on a distinction between two types of terrorism. The first type arises from a deep hostility to the ideas of freedom and democracy: the hatred of all aliens, strangers, and infidels, all those who do not belong to “us” and thus deserve to be destroyed. The second type employs terrorist methods to change public opinion and governmental policy by drawing attention to issues of particular national, ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic deprivations that had been neglected or ignored by existing political institutions.
In the case of the first type of terrorism it is easier to disapprove of it as morally wrong, because it is in contradiction with universal human rights. Pope Francis has many times condemned the “plague of terrorism”, and emphasized: “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person” (The Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2016). He has been calling for an end to “fundamental terrorism”, and saying: “…we must reaffirm our categorical rejection of all forms of violence, retaliation, and hatred that are perpetrated in the name of God” (Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2017).
Zygmunt Bauman, recalling Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which tells us to ‘act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law,’ contrasted it with “shaping monopolies and founding exclusivity of rights. … when the privilege of having a desirable rule applied had been assured for those who acted in its name; … for the purpose of making that privilege secure, the application of the self-same maxim had to be or was seen as having to be refused to some other specimens of humanity …” (Bauman 2006: 64-65).
The second type of terrorism claims to be acting “to secure recognition and respect for those who are excluded from full membership of democratic society” (Schwartzmantel 2011: 15). Terrorism has been practiced by those fighting against social or economic oppression, colonial domination, or foreign occupation. After the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and then the Red Terror in the Russian Revolution, terrorism was adopted in the later 20th century by the urban guerrillas in South America, the ‘Red Brigades’ in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, and the Japanese ‘Red Army’. Terrorism has often been used by both sides in anticolonial conflicts (e.g. Ireland and the United Kingdom, Algeria and France, Vietnam and the US), in conflicts over possession of a contested homeland (Palestinians and Israel), and in nationalist and religious conflicts (e.g. Northern Ireland, the Basque country, Chechnya).
This type of terrorism may represent a challenge to democratic politics, as an attempt to influence democratic politics by changing public opinion through the emotions of sympathy with victims and fear that terrorist acts provoke. “Terrorists appeal to the conscience of democratic citizens … seeking by dramatic actions to call attention to injustices perpetrated in the name of democracy” (Ibidem: 92). Although terrorism can be seen as a symptom of a failure in the democratic system, and terrorist actions are morally motivated, this does not mean that we should accept their motivation, and that terrorist violence is morally justified. Good intentions, or even noble ends, do not sanctify nor justify the means that involve harm, suffering, and the deaths of other human beings. The evaluation of terrorist actions should take into account not only their intentions, but also their consequences, their human costs, and whether their desired result could be achieved without violent action.
Arguments that terrorist methods are morally wrong are commonly accepted in the case of contemporary terrorist actions whose victims are frequently innocent civilians who are randomly selected, or who just happen into a terrorist situation, or when a so-called ‘narrow’ definition of terrorism is used: “The deliberate use of violence, or threat of its use, against innocent people, with the aim of intimidating some other people into a course of action they otherwise would not take” (Primoratz 2013: 24). While killing or injuring a random collection of common citizens, including children, is particularly abhorrent, some authors try to justify terrorism that selectively attacks only those who cannot claim innocence of injustice or oppression, and can be accused of responsibility for the wrongs that the terrorists are fighting against. Counterarguments point out that targets of terrorist action are not only those who are direct victims, but also always include the creation of fear among the wider public.
Carl Wellman, (2013: 31) answering the question: “Why is terrorism wrong?” summarized the following conclusions, which I found convincing:
Terrorism, the attempt to coerce an indirect target by the use or threat of violence against a direct target, is always at least prima facie wrong. This is because it has four essential wrong-making characteristics. It is coercive; it terrorizes; it uses or threatens violence; it uses persons as means only. … [T]errorism is, at least under normal circumstances, immoral … because, among other things, the use or threat of violence inflicts harm and violates moral rights. The fact that it is often an attack on innocent persons or non-combatants is relevant to the moral assessment of terrorism in another way. It excludes one possible justification of terrorism, that terrorism is a defensive response to the wrongful aggression of its victims.

If there is such a broad agreement about the moral rejection of terrorism, such that even the term itself has commonly been given a negative, derogatory meaning and is applied only to enemies, and not to oneself, then why do some individuals and groups resort to terrorist methods, rejecting the politics of negotiations and compromise, mediated by appropriate institutions? 

The second group of questions concerns the causes of the dramatic rise of terrorism in the 21st century and of its specific characteristics, as well as the search for ways to cut out its roots.
Two basic reasons for terrorist activity are related to the two types of terrorism distinguished earlier. The first one is caused by fundamental ideological differences, which express an irreconcilable contradiction of interests, and a drive to power and domination with the use of violence (e.g. the causes of World War I and II, revolutions and domestic wars from 18th to 20th centuries, and, in the 21st century, terrorist activities organized or inspired by radical fundamentalists from religious organizations – ‘jihadists’, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State). Faced with those who resort to this type of terrorism, the possibility of solutions to divert or redirect their activity into the channels of peaceful politics seem improbable. Citizens expect that their state will use its military power and police to defend them, and assure their safety and security, taking on the task of anticipating and preventing terrorist attacks (but limiting state violence to what is necessary to meet a genuine threat). However, listening and paying attention to the arguments used to justify terrorist action is an essential condition to counteract and neutralize their impact, to explain that their activity is morally wrong, and their interpretation of religious doctrine is false.
The second type is caused by various forms of exclusion, feelings of discrimination, foreign domination, ethno-nationalist or religious oppression, and socioeconomic deprivation and humiliation, which have created conditions for different movements using terrorist methods. Examples were mentioned in the former part of my paper, and some of them (e.g. Ireland and the Basque country) provide a proof that taming or defeating terrorism through peaceful negotiations and compromise is possible within a liberal democracy.
The new characteristics of terrorism in the 21st century are related to the process of globalization, which led to “the unprecedented degree of extraterritoriality of capital, trade, information, crime and terrorism” (Bauman 2006:127), and has transformed “twentieth century, nationalistic terrorism into twenty-first century global, networked terrorism” (Bobbitt 2008:527). Although domestic terrorism (without foreign involvement) outnumbers transnational terrorism about 8 to 1, transnational activity is most effective in the spread of terror and finds itself in the center of public attention. Worldwide television networks bring any even minor and comparatively insignificant act of terrorism directly into millions of homes, multiplying its fear-inspiring potential and exposing viewers to the terrorist’s demands or political goals. Among its effects are also imitating and spreading methods of using the least costly and easy available weapons, e.g. cars crashing into crowds of people in the streets, or stabbing pedestrians with knives. 
Structures of transnational terrorism differ from the centralized, cohesive, tightly knit, and hierarchical organizations remembered from the 20th century; they mainly became loosely knit, elusive networks having few links to any central leadership, and are mostly internet-mediated. Nevertheless, they can recruit growing numbers of the discontented people, and training grounds for global terrorism are expanding.
Social research revealing the causes of terrorism is necessary for deriving some policy implications and advice.
In an overview of empirical studies on the determinants of transnational terrorism, Tim Krieger and Daniel Meierrieks (2011) present and discuss their findings. Many scholars are looking for the roots of terrorism in economic deprivation, in poverty and inequality, and find evidence of the linkages between these factors and terrorism. ‘Relative deprivation’ – a discrepancy between what individuals think they deserve and what they actually receive – creates frustration and makes some people more susceptible to the appeal of terrorism; successful economic development reduces the genesis of terrorism. An increase in education discourages terrorist activity. Taking into account the development of economic and political institutions, several studies find that more liberal and democratic countries are significantly less likely to produce transnational terrorism. Welfare policies reduce terrorist activity, and government expenditures are to some extent linked to a reduction of terrorism. Some findings indicate that peaceful political integration and international cooperation may discourage terrorist activity, while confrontations and crisis foster transnational terrorist attacks. However, in their summary the authors write: “It is perhaps the prime result of existing evidence on transnational terrorism that the phenomenon is too complex to be reduced only to one root cause and one panacea. Popular and political discourse should therefore not fall victim to such ideas” (Ibidem: 24).
    One such unfortunate idea, resulting in too many victims, has been the concept of a “war on terrorism”, declared by the US and its NATO allies as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It has shown the ineffectiveness, or even the counter-productiveness, of military campaigns against contemporary ‘liquid’ forms of terrorism. The most evident effect of the ‘anti-terrorist campaigns’ has been even more ‘collateral casualties’, provoking an increase of accumulated grievance and hatred, multiplying numbers of potential recruits to terrorist activities, and continuing the cycle of violence and terror instead of ending it. As Pope Francis aptly pointed out: “What shall remain in the wake of this war, in the midst of which we are living now? What shall remain? Ruins, thousands of children without education, so many innocent victims, and lots of money in the pockets of arms dealers”. Complementary to this diagnosis is Zygmunt Bauman’s (2006: 109-110) suggestion of a remedy: “The real - and winnable – war against terrorism is not conducted when the already half-ruined cities and villages of Iraq or Afghanistan are further devastated, but when the debts of poor countries are cancelled, when our rich markets are opened to their staple produce, when education is sponsored for the 115 million children currently deprived of access to any school, and when other similar measures are fought for, decided – and implemented”.
I would like to complement these quotations with the brief conclusion that it is morally wrong, and ineffective, to fight against terrorism using terrorist methods. Facing up to the task of cutting out the roots of terrorism requires hope that terror can be defeated by solving the social problems that are inflicting fear. 


  • Bauman, Zygmunt, 2006, Liquid Fear, Cambridge: Polity.
  • Bobbitt, Philip, 2008, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century, London: Allen Lane.
  • Krieger, Tim and Daniel Meierrieks, 2011, “What causes terrorism?” Public Choice, 147: 3-27.
  • Pope Francis Says Ills of Global Economy, Not Islam, Inspire Terrorism, Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2016.
  • Pope Francis delivers antiterrorism message … Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2017.
  • Primoratz, Igor, 2013, Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Schwarzmantel, John, 2011, Democracy and Political Violence, Edinburgh University Press.
  • Wellman, Carl, 2013, Terrorism and Counterterrorism, SpringerBriefs in Law.


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