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Open for Debate

Philosophizing about Terrorism

28 November 2022
a person wearing a balaclava
a person wearing a balaclava

One evening almost exactly fifty years ago, a group of men and women in balaclavas abducted Mrs Jean McConville from her home in West Belfast. McConville, whose husband had died of cancer, had ten children who had to fend for themselves after their mother’s disappearance. It took years for the truth to emerge: the Provisional IRA had kidnapped Jean and executed her because they believed she was an informer. It was not until 2003 that her remains were found. She had been shot in the back of the head.

The McConville killing is the subject of an important book by Patrick Radden Keefe and has been described as a war crime. But was it an act of terrorism? It is often said that we know terrorism when we see it. In the words of Jeremy Greenstock, a British diplomat, ‘what looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism’. Does the McConville killing look and smell like terrorism?

On the one hand, her murder was carried out by a terrorist group as an act of retribution and to send a message to her community about the dire consequences of being an informer. Terrorism, it is said, involves the use or threat of violence in order to generate a psychological impact beyond the immediate victims, for a political motive. It is, in the words of one standard text, ‘a form of politically motivated violence intended to communicate a message’. Viewed in this light, the execution of Jean McConville might be seen as terrorism.

On the other hand, if sending a message to potential informers was the primary purpose of the killing, then it is hard to understand why it was kept secret. The bodies of executed informers were usually dumped on the street, but the IRA decided not to do that with Jean McConville, presumably because of the bad publicity that would have been generated by the cold-blooded murder of a widowed mother of ten. If the primary purpose of the killing was retribution, or to dispose of a supposed informer, then it was not primarily intended to communicate a message. Not everything that terrorists do is terrorism.

Psychologism is the view that for an act of violence to count as an act of terrorism, the person responsible must fulfil certain psychological conditions. Although this is a plausible thesis, it is extremely difficult to be specific about the relevant psychological conditions. The more complex the conditions, the harder it is to sustain the notion that we know terrorism when we see it. 9/11 was an act of terrorism if anything was, but what was the primary motive of the 9/11 pilots? The answer to this question is not obvious, even if it is obvious that the 9/11 attacks were terrorism.

A further complication, noted by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson, is that the identity of the perpetrator results in very different descriptions of identical forms of violence. One might ask, for example, why mass shootings in the US are generally not described as terrorism, but a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, was described as terrorism when it emerged that the suspects had Pakistani parentage. This draws attention to what has been described as the politics of labelling and the extent to which, as Erlenbusch-Anderson puts it, ‘acts of naming something terrorism are impositions of power’.

Many definitions of terrorism define it as violence against civilians or non-combatants, but do we want to say that the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11 was not an act of terrorism because it had a military target? Were the many civilians who worked in the Pentagon not victims of terrorism? It is also not obvious what counts as a non-combatant. From the standpoint of the Provisional IRA, Jean McConville was a ‘combatant’ if she was a British Army informer.

The difficulty of defining terrorism will come as no surprise to philosophers and psychologists who believe that few terms are definable. As Martyn Frampton notes in his contribution to the Cambridge History of Terrorism, attempts to provide a definition of terrorism have resulted in a final product that ‘can feel more like a catalogue of component parts than a cohesive and workable definition’. Philosophers say the same thing about definitions of knowledge.

Although the philosophy of definition has had little impact on attempts to define terrorism, there is clearly scope for a fruitful exchange on this issue. Exploring points of contact between terrorism studies and philosophy is the mission of an AHRC-funded project called Rethinking the Philosophy of Terrorism, which recently held its inaugural meeting at Keble College, Oxford. Participants included academics and intelligence and counterterrorism professionals.

It used to be said that that there are two central philosophical questions about terrorism: what is it, and what, if anything, is wrong with it? These are two central philosophical questions about terrorism, but there are many others. For example, terrorism scholars make assumptions about the nature of intention, motives, action, knowledge, imagination, causation, rationality, and explanation. These topics all fall within the purview of theoretical philosophy but have rarely been subjected to detailed scrutiny in the context of terrorism studies.

There is clearly room for a genuinely interdisciplinary investigation of terrorism that draws on the insights of terrorism scholars, historians, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, and criminologists, as well as lawyers, legislators, and members of the intelligence community. From the perspective of those who are tasked with countering terrorism it might seem that philosophical debates about how to define terrorism are of little practical relevance. Terrorism, they might insist, is what the law says it is. Yet legal definitions are themselves subject to critical scrutiny, and it makes a practical difference whether a given act of violence is classified as an act of terrorism.

What, then, of the McConville killing? Was it an act of terrorism? One might regard it as a borderline case about which reasonable disagreement is possible. Even in the case of seemingly obvious examples of terrorism, there is almost always room for further discussion because of the ethical and political implications of calling something ‘terrorism’. What cannot be disputed is the inhumanity of what was done to the McConville family fifty years ago.