Where does Self-Defense End, and Terrorism Begin?

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.

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Comment by Nissim Dahan on January 9, 2009 at 7:03pm
John, I can agree with a lot of what you have to say, but we have to be careful not to make the argument so strongly, or to paint with too broad a brush, that we lose sight of the truth of the matter. As I just mentioned, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle between two extremes. That is why extremists may have a point initially, but their extremism causes them to lose sight of the truth, and in making their case, they also miss whatever point they may have had in the first place.

You say that "One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist," which relates to the relativity of moral positions depending on what side you're on. OK. But does this necessarily mean that there are no terrorists? Aren't there instances when evil manifests itself in no unsubtle terms, and when you have no choice but to use violence to defeat it, before it defeats you?

Is there any way, for example, to view people like Hitler as freedom fighters? Didn't he represent evil, and didn't he have to be put down, and wasn't the U.S. doing what was morally called for in taking him out?

Are there any circumstances, for example, in which people like the Taliban should be allowed to succeed in their aims, and in their treatment of women, and in their agenda for their country? If we can reach a reasonable accomodation with them then fine, but what if we can't? What if their extremism does not permit the possibility of compromise?

I understand what you are saying when you say that it is often convenient for the U.S. to designate her enemies as "terrorists" because such a designation makes it a lot easier for the U.S. to do what she wants to do politically and militarily. But that doesn't mean that there aren't actual instances when you're up against a foe who could not be reasonably described as other than evil, and when you have no choice but to take him out, or he will gladly return the favor.

Yes we have to find a way to stop war. And yes we have to create new realities on the ground which speak louder than words and which point to the possibility of peace. But we still have to keep our eyes and ears open. And when we are confronted by an enemy who is fixated on evil, we may have no choice but to deal with him on his own terms, even if it means parting, at least for a while, with our more noble aspirations.
Comment by Nissim Dahan on January 9, 2009 at 6:41pm
Paul, your two Hillel quotes are very fitting for our time. They are also examples of two of the three cornerstone universal principles of common sense.

Take the second one first: Do not do to others what is hateful to you. That is a version of The Golden Rule; Treat others as you would have them treat you. Did you know, Paul, that a version of The Golden Rule is written into virtually every major religion on earth? Why is that? Because it makes sense, that's why, not unlike the mathematical concept that two plus two equals four.

God didn't make it easy for us. He made this world difficult, perhaps because meaning could only emerge from our struggle with evil. There could not be goodness, without its juxtaposition to evil. And if I were God, I would certainly want my creation to be able to mean something. But God did give us something to make it fair, so that we could at least have a chance to live up to our potential. He gave us Common Sense. He made ideas like The Golden Rule self-evident, and enabled all of us to come to this truth, each in his own way. That's why every religion on earth has come to embrace this truth.

Your other Hillel quote harkens back to Aristotle's principle of The Golden Mean: That the truth of a matter is usually to be found somewhere in the middle between two extremes. Look at what he's saying. To paraphrase, if we don't protect ourselves, who will? But if all we worry about is oursleves, than who are we? Can we really protect ourselves, if all we care about is ourselves? Don't we have to take the needs of others into account in order to really protect ourselves? Can Israel ever be safe if her enemies are allowed to remain enemies?

And that brings us to the third universal principle of common sense: The Greatest Good, Jeremy Bentham's idea to "Do what brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number." With regard to the present conflict in Gaza, we have to figure out how to maximize justice between Israel and Gaza, so that the two have a stake in keeping the peace. Give Gazans a place at the table, a stake in their future, and they may think twice about jumping onto the bandwagon of martyrdom.

The Golden Rule, The Golden Mean, and The Greatest Good. I call them the 3-G's for short. They are the three cornerstones of common sense.

What if The Golden Rule would have us treat each other well by Investing in one another, to create jobs, jobs which protect the environment, jobs which grow our economies, and jobs which help to neutralize the hold of extremist thinking?

What if The Golden Mean would have us think straight, and moderate our views, by using Common Sense as our ideology?

What if The Greatest Good would have us maximize justice by having us organize ourselves around a Vision of Hope?

Einstein came up with E=mc2. Thankfully the formula for world peace is a lot simpler. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, "We find this truth to be self-evident: Ideology plus Investment equals Hope, and with hope, all things are possible, even the impossible dream of peace.
Comment by Paul RETI on January 9, 2009 at 2:23pm

For various reasons unrelated to this site, these two pearls floated to the top of my consciousness and are very relevant for me today:

  1. If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Hillel)
  2. Do not do to others what is hateful to you. That is the whole Truth (the Torah). The rest is commentary. Go and learn. (Hillel)

Interestingly enough, they are related to what both Nissim and Stewart wrote. I find that talking the talk is much easier than consistently walking the walk.

Comment by Stewart Mills on January 9, 2009 at 1:53pm
Thank Nissim, all the best with you and Marie's work for common sense humanity and peace.
Comment by Nissim Dahan on January 8, 2009 at 11:56pm
I agree wholeheartedly with what you're saying, Stewart. Terror is terror, whether state sponsored or privately sponsored. I don't think we should be too comfortable hiding behind empty labels and false distinctions. Just because it is a military conflict doesn't mean it's not terror.

And I would also agree that our primary identity should be our common sense of hummanity. We place too much significance on distinctions based on race, religion, ethnicity, political affiliations, etc. But it is our humanity that trumps all of that in importance. And by placing too much significance on the rest of it, we usually end up compromising our huamanity, in favor of the barriers we build to separate one from the other.

A lot of this has to do with out we think, and what we come to believe in. That's why I believe in a new ideological framework based on common sense principles, what I call an Ideology of Common Sense. Instead of believing what we want to believe in, it may well be time to start believing in what makes sense. In a more perfect world, common sense, the collective wisdom born of shared experience, will inspire our thinking, and inform our speech. In our fractured world, common sense is the common denominator.

These issues seem to resonate well with you. If you like, you are welcome to visit my webiste, and I would very much welcome your comments there You would register and comment wherever you wish, and I promise to respond. Getting a dialogue going is not easy, but is often the first step to peace.
Comment by Stewart Mills on January 8, 2009 at 2:32pm

Sadly we can look at what is or what is not terrorism in a very abstract form. My perspective is war is terrorism, whether state sponsored or instigated by non-state groups. To the human being on the ground who loses his mother, father, sister and/or brother during the violence between state and state or state and rebel forces - the unpredictability and randomness of the violence occurring is sheer terror. Where can I hide from the violence? I don't know. I was not responsible for it. I was just born in the wrong country at the wrong time to the wrong people.

Our task as humans is to work out ways we can educate each other first on our primary identity - humanity - and our secondary identity - race, religion, ethnicity, political position etc. next/last. To teach each other it is only grace that we were born in the situation where we are and we have an obligation to strive for dignity and the sanctity of life for our fellow human beings.


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