Anatomy of a Terrorist

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

This week we're looking at the Anatomy of a Terrorist. But how exactly do you know what is or isn't terrorism? There's an old saying -- “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” That suggests the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” are contested terms. Are these words so entangled in rhetoric and polemics that they're useless for objective philosophical discussion?

The key to a philosophically useful definition is the root word, ‘terror.’  Terrorists are people who spread terror. They do so by injuring and killing people -- often lots of people, especially innocent people. So what’s the difference between a terrorist and a garden-variety mass murderer? Terrorists usually don’t kill just for the thrill of it. They aim to cause fear and intimidation as a way of achieving certain political ends.  But freedom fighters also do that in some cases -- even some governments. 

In terms of a definition of terrorism, that’s a feature, not a bug. Terrorism and terrorists come in many flavors. Take World War II -- a veritable cornucopia of terrorism. Franco, Stalin, and Hitler terrorized their own populations. Resistance movements all over Europe fought the Nazi occupiers with terrorist techniques.  And lots of states -- even the so-called good guys -- used terror bombing against cities and civilians.   

But all that might as well be ancient history. When Americans think about terrorists these days, we're thinking about people like the Boston Marathon bombers, or Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers he inspired, or suicide bombers in the middle east. So it might help to focus on those kinds of terrorists.

Now Americans tend to think of terrorists as bad guys with bad causes. And yet plenty of supposedly good guys with supposedly good causes have resorted to terrorism too. The ANC in South Africa in its early days was up to its neck in terrorist techniques. Or take contemporary eco-terrorists out to save the planet. Does pointing them out amount to denying that terrorism is an intrinsically bad thing? It’s just not so simple to evaluate either the morality or the rationality of terrorism. Once you realize that sometimes good guys with good causes resort to it too.  

Still, it seems reasonable to claim that sane, rational people with a decent moral sense don’t engage in terrorism -- except maybe as an absolute last resort. Take the 9/11 hijackers. They were well-educated adults who, before their terrorist acts, functioned relatively normally in society. Nobody identified them as nut-cases. They don’t seem to have been mere irrational pawns. And they certainly thought of themselves as doing something both moral and rational. Is there any way that flying those planes into those buildings can possibly be construed as a rational act of a normally functioning mind?

Well, what makes an act rational? When it's a way of advancing one’s desires and goals, on the assumption that one’s beliefs are true. So if a terrorist desires to advance a political cause, and thinks that flying a plane into the World Trade Center will advance that cause, then he's rational... right?  

But suppose you start out with some crazy beliefs and goals.  Maybe you believe that by strapping a bomb to your chest and blowing yourself and lots of other people up, you’ll be instantly transported to heaven to sleep with seventy virgins. If you start out thinking like that, it probably doesn't matter how calmly and coolly you reason from there -- you’re just plain crazy. Irrational garbage in, Irrational garbage out.

So we've identified our question: are acts of terrorism typically motivated by crazy beliefs and desires? Or could a terrorist be acting on a reasonable assessment of the political situation, in pursuit of a fairly reasonable goal? Our guest, Martha Crenshaw, has spent many years study the psychology of terrorism, and she'll help us try to understand whether it's reason or un-reason that makes terrorists tick.

Comments (18)


lindamat2001@yahoo.com's picture

lindamat2001@ya...

Saturday, June 28, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Regarding ?Does the end

Regarding ?Does the end justify the means?? ? From the first time I heard this in high school, I have always thought that this was JUST a short-hand way of asking
?Does a legal, ethical or moral end justify using an illegal, unethical or immoral means to achieve it??  Of course, the answer is no.
I would love to hear any comments on this.
All the best (ethics) to you!
-Linda M.

Devon's picture

Devon

Sunday, June 29, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

At some point during the show

At some point during the show Ken noted that Americans tend to use the term "terrorist" in strictly dismissive, pejorative terms. While this is no doubt mostly true, I think it's important to also note that it is not at all an exclusively American practice. Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and other political leaders routinely refer to groups who (violently) challenge state power as "terrorists." The charge -- at least as reported in English translations of their statements -- seems much more frequent and usually serves as the basis for violent counter-measures by the state, as noted by the guest. For what it's worth, the US doesn't have the same level of organizaed internal violence that it must respond to qua The State.

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