Most of us know, deep in our gut, that terrorism—the use of force against innocent civilians for the sake of political advantage—is wrong. But proving that is often more difficult than it first seems. The following hypothetical conversation is a case in point.
Soldier: I can’t believe you guys; strapping on suicide bombs and blowing up innocent civilians. Have you no shame, no sense of decency?
Terrorist: I can’t believe you guys; strapping on your seatbelts and firing missiles at this or that target, when you know full well that innocent people will be killed. Have you no shame, no sense of decency?
Soldier: There’s a big difference here. We do not intend to kill innocent civilians. You do. The innocent people we kill are collateral damage.
Terrorist: “Collateral damage?” Isn’t that a fancy cover-up for doing exactly what we do? We intend to kill innocent civilians. You don’t intend it, but know full well that innocent civilians will die in your operation. So what’s the big difference here? Pretending you don’t intend something that you know will happen anyway?
Soldier: Look, we’re wearing uniforms. We’re properly equipped. We comply with military conventions. And we do what it takes to defend our country.
Terrorist: Well, we don’t wear uniforms, because we’d rather not get shot before carrying out our missions. We are not properly equipped because we don’t have the means. We defy military conventions because we don’t have much of a military. And we fight, using what we have, on behalf of a cause we deeply believe in. We make do with what we have. Once again, all I see is moral equivalency between you and us.
Soldier: You’re so full of it. All you can do is to hide in the shadows, like a rat, spreading fear wherever you go, and using violence to force people to your way of thinking.
Terrorist: And when you fire your missiles, and your bombs, and your guns, aren’t you also placing fear in the hearts of people, and forcing them to swallow your policies against their will? What’s the big difference here?
Soldier: Yes, but you’re so loony, you believe that killing innocent people will make you a martyr, and will get you into heaven, surrounded by 72 virgins no less. How stupid is that?
Terrorist: And when you kill and die, your people will celebrate you as a military hero, even if innocent civilians died in the process. How stupid is that?
Soldier: I fight for my country because I believe in what she stands for.
Terrorist: Do you believe that your country makes mistakes, mistakes which cost innocent lives?
Soldier: Well, everyone makes mistakes.
Terrorist: So you will fight and kill for your country even if you know she makes mistakes?
Soldier: I will defend my country no matter what.
Terrorist: So I fight for the cause I believe in, no matter what, even if I’m not always right in what I believe, and even if I have to do some unsightly things, like killing civilians.
Soldier: But your cause sucks. At least I’m fighting for something noble, like freedom and democracy, and on behalf of a nation that upholds the rule of law.
Terrorist: I don’t see any freedom and democracy in the places you occupy. And where is the rule of law when you so easily suspend the rule of law, when you have to fight people like me.
Soldier: At least I know what I’m fighting for. What the hell are you fighting for?
Terrorist: I fight for God’s law, and His law is the real “rule of law.” His authority exceeds the authority of your secular nation. And I place my life in His hands, and in His service.
Soldier: So you don’t see much difference in the tactics we use?
Terrorist: Not really. We basically go around doing the same things. We just justify ourselves in different ways.
Soldier: And as to motivation; I’m fighting for my country, and you’re fighting for God.
Terrorist: Well, I don’t have a country as yet, since you stole it, so I fight for God instead.
Soldier: So there’s no big difference between terrorism and military action? Is that it?
Terrorist: No difference that amount to any real moral significance.
Soldier: Well then, I guess we’ll have to let the people decide.
Terrorist: The people? What do you mean?
Soldier: We have our agenda, and you have yours. It will be up to the people on the street to decide what they prefer?
Terrorist: We are at one with the people. We represent the people. There is not even one ray of sunshine between us and the people.
Soldier: That’s funny. But when some of your people dare to voice their disagreement with you, you usually end up killing them as well.
Terrorist: People who turn against us, are with the enemy, and deserve to be treated like the enemy.
Soldier: Well then, maybe there is a difference between us after all. Citizens, who disagree with what we do, or with the government we defend, have a right to disagree, and have a right to vote the government out, and there’s nothing much we can do about it. So maybe it will be up to the people to decide. If they don’t like our government’s policies, they will vote it out of office. But if they don’t like you, they may very well find another way to put you out of commission.
Terrorist: We are ready to die for our cause. We will not allow ourselves to be intimidated by you, or by anyone else, for that matter, even the people on the street.
Soldier: Well maybe there’s nothing much we can do about you, though we’ll keep on trying. But I can assure you, my friend: if you or I begin to walk out of step with the will of the people, they will make their will known to us, and there will be nothing that either one of us could do to stop that. The will of the people will not be deterred. It will be up to them to decide our fate. It will be up to them, once and for all, to decide what they want for themselves, for their children, and for the countless generations of children yet to come.