Almost every legal system recognizes self-defense as a legitimate legal defense. If somebody is coming at you with an ax, and you have a reasonable concern for your life, and you have no means of escape, then you have the right to protect yourself, even if it means shooting the guy in the head. In short, the right to defend oneself is the right to take the life of another.
But is it possible that the right to defend oneself is being stretched so thin, that it crosses over into the realm of terrorism? And if that is the case, how do we know where the right to self-defense ends, and terror begins?
An example may help. As World War II was drawing to a close, the U.S. fought hard to defeat Japan. There were estimates at the time that victory in Japan, using conventional warfare, would cost millions of lives. President Truman made the painful and momentous decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And indeed, that decision prompted a quick surrender on the part of Japan. But could it be argued that the decision to drop the bomb was an act of terror, and not simply self-defense?
What is “terrorism?” The best definition that I’ve come across is: The intentional use of violence or fear against civilians for the purpose of promoting a political agenda. So there are two criteria for terrorism: the targeting of civilians, and a purpose to promote a political agenda. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilians were clearly targeted. But was the purpose strictly political, or did it contain enough of an element of the right to defend oneself, such that it could be seen as an act of self-defense? Clearly Japan was out to kill as many Americans as she could. And clearly, dropping the bomb saved lives by bringing the war to a quick close. But did the bomb cross the line into the realm of terror?
For the claim of self-defense to be legitimate, there needs to be a close and immediate connection between the defensive action taken, and the threat that is perceived by the person defending himself. If that connection is too loose, or tenuous, or indirect, then what is claimed in the name of self-defense, may quickly devolve into the realm of terror. And the distinction between self-defense and terror is an important one because political and military actions are being planned and taken, as we speak, based on this distinction.
If Israel and the U.S. decide to take preemptory action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, is this self-defense or terror? Clearly, innocent civilians will be put at risk. But is the threat posed by a nuclear Iran strong enough to justify an act of “self-defense?” What do you think?
Barack Obama has expressed his view that if we get actionable intelligence as to Bin Laden’s whereabouts, that he would take preemptive military action, even if the target was is Pakistan. Would this be self-defense or terror? Suppose that innocent civilians would be put at risk? Would this change the nature of the military action? What is America’s aim here; to defend herself, or to send a message to her enemies? Does motivation change the nature of the action taken?
A few years ago, scores of innocent children were killed in a face-off in Beslan. A group of militants from Chechnya took over the school, and put the lives of hundred of children at risk. Could anything that was happening in Chechnya have justified this action, so as to make it an act of self-defense? Or are some actions beyond the pale of any sort of moral justification? Would Jews on their way to the death camps have been morally entitled to kill innocent children? Or are such actions beyond the pale of human decency, under any circumstances?
My sense is that each case has to be evaluated on its own merits. It is often the case that the line between self-defense and terror is a thin and fuzzy line at best. It is convenient to ascribe to various groups the labels which make it easier for us to evaluate their behavior. We take a certain comfort, for example, in calling this or that group a “terrorist organization.” Such a designation makes it easier for to decide what to do. But the moral subtleties which underlie any given situation often undercut the notion that human behavior can be made to fit into nice and neat labels. We often have no choice but to evaluate each and every case on its own merits, even if it means questioning our preconceived notions.