Defining terrorism and empaty
Russ Allbery > Other Writing
Terrorism and War
Written January 27, 2006
I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish civil war. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the Fascists. But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence. Recently I drew up a table of atrocities during the period between 1918 and the present; there was never a year when atrocities were not occurring somewhere or other, and there was hardly a single case when the Left and the Right believed in the same stories simultaneously.
— George Orwell, "Looking Back on the Spanish War"
In the US moral perspective and in US political discussions there are two basic kinds of armed conflict: war and terrorism. There's a lot of grey area in the middle, but that's not the part that interests me. The part that interests me is the distinction.
The distinction isn't about methods, forces, reasons for fighting, or the legitimacy of the organizations sponsoring the fighting. These all come up in discussions, but they aren't the metrics by which the fighting swings from clearly war to clearly terrorism. The difference is, concisely, who the targets are. If you target enemy combatants, it's war. If you target civilian populations, it's terrorism. (There are some exceptions in world wars and around collateral damage, but the essence still holds.)
There are many reasons for this, and it is certainly not a phenomenon limited to the US. This definition is idealized in chivalry, reinforced by cultural stories and peer pressure, and is so basic to the way that we think about physical conflict that it's an unexamined set of assumptions deep in our cultural outlook. Children are told to pick on someone their own size, you never shoot someone in the back, you only fight people who are prepared to fight you, you fight the other guy's fighters and not their families, and so on. This attitude runs so deep that it's considered basic morality.
These rules serve a practical purpose: allowing a society to fight wars without being destroyed by them. This is an important goal if you have a lot of wars, and there have been times in history where there were a lot of wars. Unless you have some rules that create limited warfare, the losers would be devastated by the winners, both sides would be severely damaged by the war, peace would be far harder, and everything would look much uglier. Rules of limited warfare kept the women and children safe to create more citizens, kept the food supplies behind the lines protected, and protected the government, bureaucracy, and social system from being destroyed by the war. It also had the significant effect of keeping the rulers safe by saying that assassination is against the rules. Those rulers were, of course, the same people who worked out what the rules were. (I don't, by this, mean to imply that there aren't benefits for nearly everyone in this set of rules. There are. But it's worth keeping in mind that cultural rules often can be traced to how they help the powerful.)
However, the rules of limited warfare also do something else. They put the full burden of the war on armies following army rules, which in practice means that they ensure that the side with the best army wins. This is built into the language we use to talk about the proper way of conducting war: a fair fight. By definition, a fair fight means the side with the best army wins. These rules of limited, civilized warfare are like the Marquis of Queensbury rules in boxing: they're designed to ensure the best boxer wins, with no funny business and no recourse to anything other than boxing skill.
So far, so good. In a world of mostly balanced powers (which has been the case through most of history), you win some and you lose some, wars stay under control because of the rules, and most of the pain is born by the soldiers who presumably volunteered or got unlucky or are nasty foreign mercenaries we don't care about anyway. The sides with the best armies win, and since good armies are built by powerful economies with high technology and lots of natural resources, the US always has good armies, so we nearly always win when everyone follows the rules. It's a great system for us.
Now, let's look at the other side.
Suppose that you're a citizen of some tiny little country in the bad part of nowhere with few resources to speak of, lots of starving people, and a bad economy. Specifically, suppose you're Palestinian. And you're in a conflict with Israel, which has most of the modern technology and resources that the US can throw at wars, and which is simply always going to beat you in a fair fight. Always. They're better boxers and always will be better boxers. You have no real hope of finding any allies that can do for you what the US does for Israel in terms of support in an outright shooting war.
Note that I am not saying a single word about the morality of either side of this. I'm just presuming that there's a war, which there is. Take a step back from who's right and who's wrong for just a moment.
What would you think about these rules of limited warfare which, if followed, guarantee that you will always lose? And what would you think about a system of morality that says that you're evil incarnate if you don't follow those rules, and lose, whenever you fight? When someone tells you that you have to follow these rules, are you going to hear a measured and reasoned analysis of the morality involved, or are you going to feel you're told you're required to lose? That, basically, you're being handed a pile of high-sounding moral rhetoric that reduces to "Israel is a better boxer and therefore they deserve to win because the fight should be fair?" In other words, this elaborate morality that we've constructed around war sounds, to the other side, very much like "might makes right."
It is quite common in the US for people to wring their hands and claim they just don't understand why anyone would support terrorism. Those people have never thought about the other side. There's a word for not having to think about other people's problems. That word is "privileged."
People in the US have a tiny percentage of the population fight all their wars for them, have the luxury to set up elaborate rules around wars so that they are rarely ever personally hurt, and have the best armies. All those rules about the correct way to fight wars ensure that we'll win the wars without having to fight ourselves. Everything that any of us say about war, myself included, is from that position of privilege. The rules favor us. That doesn't mean the rules are necessarily wrong in some moral sense. It does mean that it's not horribly surprising that the people whom the rules do not favor aren't as fond of them.
Terrorism is the way you fight when you can't win wars in a fair fight. It's fighting dirty. It's like kidnapping the wife of the other boxer and holding her hostage to win the boxing match. It's not fair, it's against all the rules, it's not limited warfare, and it directly threatens the privilege of those of us whom the rules of war protect, like the other boxer's wife. It makes war more dangerous and destabilizing because all those behind-the-lines resources, social structures, and people in power are now potentially at risk. In other words, it means that if the terrorists get really lucky, the side with the best army may take more damage than it should in a fair fight, and might be unable to maintain control they would otherwise be assured.
Of course we hate terrorism. Terrorism means that war isn't something that only happens to other people. Terrorism destroys the outsourcing of war to soldiers and destroys our imagined sense of neutrality where we're not actually fighting since all we're doing is providing money. Terrorism makes us targets and means war isn't something that happens to other people.
But, again, look at the other side. Terrorism is a way that you can fight when you would otherwise lose. Terrorism is bad, nasty, dirty option, but it's an option other than surrender. Fighting wars while following all the rules is equivalent to giving up if you're so far overpowered that you have no shot in a fair fight of armies. It's a horrible, powerless feeling when you're in a war and you know that, no matter how brave you are, no matter how much you try, the force calculation says that you're inevitably going to lose. Terrorism gives you options. Terrorism provides you with some sense of power and control over what you can do.
Now, all of the above assumes that there simply is an armed conflict and there's no way to avoid it. Obviously, the best path is to not fight at all, to find some other means of resolving disagreements. Historically, and for obvious reasons, the side that is guaranteed to win in a fair fight has not been particularly fond of giving concessions to the side that would lose, but it's happened. There's a whole path of peace that I'm not talking about in this essay.
But, looking only at the fighting and not the morality of the positions for a moment, think about this, and you'll understand why Hamas wins elections. Think about it some more, and you'll understand why simply condemning terrorist groups as immoral, evil, inhuman monsters doesn't solve a problem. We're condemning people's desire to find an option other than surrender without providing an alternative. Think about how you'd feel if you were told that you had to follow a set of rules that guaranteed you could not personally defend anything you cared about in a fight, and think about that in a context where you didn't believe that any of the alternative mechanisms of justice would ever rule effectively in your favor. Imagine that the other side would always still have a well-funded army that was allowed to fight according to the rules that ensure they win.
Think about it some more, and you might see that as long as there are only two alternatives, terrorism or losing a war by the rules, what we are telling the Palestinians is that their only acceptable solution is surrender.
Try to look beyond your personal privilege, look past the protection those rules offer you personally, and wonder why anyone would believe they would just quietly accept those terms.
The only real solution is another option, which is certainly not news and is what everyone else has been saying for years. But while we're struggling to find that other option, what message are we really sending by villifying terrorism in the way that we are? In the giant echo chamber of Western media, it's preaching to the choir and making all of us feel better about our privileged position, reinforcing our shared morality and cultural assumptions. To the people who can't win in a fair fight, it's saying to them that if they ever, for whatever reason, get into an armed conflict, they're simply screwed. The longer we insistently say, with the full force of our moral superiority, that being pounded into the dirt by a superior army time and time again is the right and just way the world should work, the less likely they are to listen to anything we have to say ever again. Even if we find another option.
Some food for thought.