Table of Contents



Title page

Copyright page



1 Introduction

2 Terrorism as Unjust War: Killing Innocent Civilians

Three problems with the just-war analysis of terrorism

A different sense of ‘innocence’

War crime, ordinary crime or a special offence?

3 Terrorism as a Political Tactic: Intending to Instil Fear

What sort of ‘ism’ is terrorism?

What terrorists want

Fear is the key

Summing up

4 States Can Be Terrorists, Too

The definitional ploy

States terrorizing other states

States terrorizing their own people

State-sponsored terror and crimes of complicity

5 Warnings Can Be Terroristic, Too: Profiting Politically from Fear

Threats and warnings

Impure warnings: ‘terrorist warnings’ versus ‘warnings of terrorism’

Politicians’ intentions matter, too

Terrorism as an aggravated wrong: is ‘violence’ required?

Better ‘terrorist warnings’ than none at all?

6 Warnings Bound to Be Misheard

How big a deal is terrorism?

Calibrating risks

Mechanisms of misperception

Mass-mediated terror

Risks of really mass destruction

Imprudent precautions

7 Terrorizing Democracy

Terrorism as a political wrong

Fearlessness as a response

Hobbesian solutions to non-Hobbesian problems

Of tyrants and terrorists

8 Conclusions



For Brian Barry

Title page


I wish, twice over, that I did not have any need to acknowledge the contribution of the first-order political actors whose activities occasioned this book: first and most obviously, those who think that death and destruction is a fitting means to political goals; but second and as sincerely, those ‘democratic’ politicians who deliberately frighten people further for their own narrowly partisan purposes.

September 11, 2001, found me visiting Britain, where I had lived for the decade marking the height of IRA bombing campaigns. Of course there was shock and horror at the pictures from New York and Washington; of course there was concern for friends and family living there; and there was of course the sympathy of common humanity for all those caught up in the horrors of that day. But having learned to live with medium-grade terror over dozens of years of IRA violence (and the high-grade terror of the Blitz, a generation before), Londoners also seemed to be taking a much more balanced and realistic attitude to the real magnitude of the new threat. The attitude seemed to be, ‘Okay, steer clear of the pillar boxes and don’t go near Canary Wharf for a while’: but otherwise, it was business as usual.

When I returned home to Australia, and still more when I visited Washington a few months later, it was all very different. Ordinarily sensible people were clearly scared witless (literally, in my view). People whom I know to have taken a fair few reasonable risks in their lives were suddenly stockpiling duct tape to seal their windows against gas attacks. Every public office, even the most innocuous, was barricaded behind razor wire and concrete crash barriers. The ‘government of the people’ had become a ‘gated community’. So too had all the great public monuments to liberty along the Mall, that great avenue of the Republic. Draconian new police powers had been voted into law by congressmen who, by their own confession, had not even paused to read the legislation.

Clearly, people were spooked. And they were all the more spooked by the precautions that were supposedly protecting them. It is hard even for a jaundiced observer, stuck in a long queue waiting to have his bags inspected before entering the Library of Congress, not to succumb to the thought that ‘There must be a real, substantial threat, for them to go to all this trouble.’ One then pinches oneself, of course, if one is sufficiently jaundiced, and reminds oneself that ‘it’s all just campaign advertising, at public expense (twice over)’.

But how many people are sufficiently jaundiced? Plenty, in Britain: or so the opinion polls and election returns from there seem to suggest. Not nearly as many in the US, judging from the opinion polls and election returns there. In Australia, on the verge of a federal election as the Twin Towers fell, the panic lasted long enough to re-elect the government after a shamelessly xenophobic campaign, subsequently confirmed to have been based literally on a lie. The War on Terror, or anyway the war on Iraq so disingenuously linked to it, might have cost Tony Blair his job had there been a more credible Opposition or a braver leader-in-waiting within his own party. Other members of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ are less willing than they once were, and many are slipping away quietly or otherwise. But the US remains hegemonic, and the neuroses whipped up there in response to the threats of terrorism, real and imagined, cannot help shaping the world that all the rest of us have to share with it.

I have few illusions about the power of a book by an academic (even if it is deliberately less ‘academic’ in its style than my other academic books) to change any of that. Not directly or immediately, anyway. But over the long haul, with enough of us chipping away at that crazy consensus, the general tide of opinion might eventually begin to turn. Terrorism might come to be reduced to its rightful place as a cruel nuisance to be marginalized as best we can, but unworthy as a major preoccupation of a great people. Politicians attempting to fix our focus on it for their narrowly partisan purposes ought be seen as subverting democracy, just as surely as the bombers themselves.

Weetangera, 1 July 2005

* * * * * *

Final manuscript for this book was delivered to the publishers shortly before the London transport bombings of July 2005, and I have been unable to take any account of those events and reactions to them. From what I am able to tell from half a world away, however, is seems that Londoners’ reactions to those attacks are radically different from Americans’ to those of 11 September 2001, in the ways that my text anticipated – and of which I wholly approve.1

Weetangera, 2 August 2005


1 Freedland (2005); Lawson (2005); Meek (2005).


Naturally, all of us have talked with a great many people over the past months and years about terrorism, how to understand it and what to do about it. When one’s academic project abuts issues dominating public discourse in this way, it is hard to disentangle all the many contributions others have made to one’s thinking on the subject.

I know that not all influences were academic. I vividly recall the scepticism of a taxi driver, clearly a denizen of darkest Washington SE, who pointed and said, ‘That be the State Department; you can tell by the black clouds hovering above it.’ We had a good discussion, but I’m afraid I didn’t catch his name.

Those who I know influenced my thinking, through conversations or correspondence, include Brian Barry, Chuck Beitz, Geoff Brennan, Jerry Cohen, Angelo Corlett, Raymond Das, Lina Eriksson, Amitai Etzioni, Richard Falk, Andreas Føllesdal, Bruno Frey, Christel Fricke, Diane Gibson, Al Hájek, Renée Hájek, Jennifer Hochschild, Julian Le Grand, Catherine Lu, Larry May, Gill McAndrew, Jeff McMahan, Helen Nissenbaum, Bhikhu Parekh, Carole Pateman, Thomas Pogge, Martin Rein, Chris Reus-Smit, James Rice, David Rodin, Sam Scheffler, Jeremy Waldron, Adrian Walsh, Burleigh Wilkins and Andrew Williams. I am grateful more generally to various conference and seminar audiences in Armidale, Canberra, Oslo and Pasadena, and to my publishers’ anonymous referees, as well as to Naomi Sussmann and her University of Haifa students who trialled it in the classroom. Finally, I am grateful to my publishers, especially Louise Knight and Ellen McKinlay, for their continuing faith in this venture.

This book is dedicated to Brian Barry. As mentor and friend, he taught me well – not only how to chew, but also when to swallow and when to spit.



Let me be clear from the outset: the title of this book is anything but rhetorical. There are a great many things wrong with terrorism.1

Indeed, it is my thesis in this book that there are even more things wrong with it than commonly appreciated. The further, under-appreciated wrongs of terrorism I shall be concentrating upon in this book are of a predominantly political character.

The fundamental thought lying behind my argument is just this. Of course terrorists do all sorts of terrible things. They kill people. They destroy buildings and aeroplanes not belonging to them. They kidnap people and chop off their ears. All that is true, and it is morally enormously important. But pause to consider: what is the distinctive wrong of terrorism? The offence of ‘killing people’ is already on the moral statute books. So too are those of ‘kidnapping’, ‘maiming’ and ‘destroying property not belonging to you’. What makes terrorists different from, and morally even worse than, ordinary murderers, kidnappers and so on? What is the moral disvalue of ‘terrorism’, over and above the moral disvalue of the particular acts (of murder, kidnapping, and so on) through which it is carried out?

I take it that any sensible definition of ‘terrorism’ simply must include, as a central feature, the fact that it involves the strategic use of terror. That is to say, terrorism is fundamentally strategic, and it is fundamentally aimed at instilling terror.

Terrorism as I shall be depicting it is first and foremost a political tactic: frightening people for political advantage. That is its core element. No doubt there are many other elements, of various familiar sorts, that it would also be necessary to add for a complete characterization of ‘terrorism’. And no doubt there are a lot of other political tactics that involve frightening people for political advantage that do not constitute ‘terrorism’.2 Nonetheless, looking at terrorism as a subset of that larger class of more familiar political manoeuvres usefully brings to the fore the distinctively political wrong that is involved in terrorism.

Note well, however: if ‘frightening people for their advantage’ constitutes the analytic core of ‘terrorism’, then that is something that can be done by Western political leaders as part and parcel of their War on Terrorism as surely as it can be done by extremists in the course of their War of Terror. To what extent Western political leaders are actually guilty of doing that depends crucially upon their intentions. I do not pretend to have any privileged access to those; maybe we never really will know for sure. At least for now, I must therefore content myself with making a more philosophical point in a more hypothetical fashion.

Still, the point in this suitably hypothetical form remains. If (or insofar as) Western political leaders are intending to frighten people for their own political advantage, then (to that extent) they are committing the same core wrong that is distinctively associated with terrorism. Such, anyway, will be the argument of this book.

‘Can that possibly be right?’, one naturally asks oneself. ‘Surely those who fly aeroplanes into buildings, killing thousands of people and destroying property, are guilty of additional moral crimes – and far worse moral crimes – than politicians who do nothing more than “frightening people for political advantage”.’3

Certainly they are. My point is merely that those are other offences. What makes the terrorist pilots’ behaviour not merely (sic) ‘murder’ and ‘vandalism’, but also ‘terrorism’, is that they act with the intention of instilling fear in people for their own political purposes. That is the distinctive feature that makes ‘terrorist murderers’ not merely ‘murderers’ but also ‘terrorists’. And that is a feature that the behaviour of murderous terrorist pilots shares with the behaviour of politicians who commit no further moral offences (beyond merely frightening people for political advantage).

Very much the worst thing about mass-murdering terrorists is that they are mass murderers, not that they are terrorists. My account of ‘terrorism’ is a deflationary one: it is not as bad as we think, focusing just on the distinctively ‘terrorist’ element of a terrorist’s act. But my account is also an expansionary one: there are more terrorists around than we might ordinarily imagine (Western political leaders mounting wars against terrorism being potentially among them).

More will be said over the course of this book to try to make those propositions convincing. But be warned that that is where the argument is heading.

* * * * * * * * *

Be warned, too, about the nature of this book. It is largely an exercise in political philosophy, in the hard-nosed analytic mode.

I draw on facts as appropriate – probably more heavily than most of my peers in academic philosophy. Facts matter in any attempt at applying philosophical precepts to the real world. They are not the only things that matter, and not all of them matter equally. But certainly we should do our best to get the relevant facts wherever we can, to tailor our philosophizing to the actual world to which it is meant to apply.

Academic philosophers typically attempt to finesse the facts through toy examples. They abuse that procedure badly when they ask us to imagine some utterly fanciful scenario. ‘What would we say in that case?’, they enquire; but if the scenario is too outlandish, too far from the circumstances of ordinary life around which our intuitions have been shaped and to which they are adapted, it simply does not matter what we would say (and indeed, we may not even have anything much to say). ‘Crazy cases’ count for naught in attempting to apply moral philosophy to the real political world.4

In its proper place, however, that procedure can be absolutely invaluable. There are certain things we just do not (now) know that we would need to know to judge real-world actors. To help us see exactly what we would need to know – on what facts our judgements would actually turn – it can be enormously helpful to think our way through philosophical-style hypotheticals. ‘We do not know exactly how the world actually is, but suppose it were this way: would the person be guilty of terrorism in that sort of case?’ By then varying the scenarios ever so slightly and repeating the question, we can discover where exactly the cutting point comes, for us, between a terrorist and a non-terrorist. Thus, while I draw on facts where possible and appropriate, I also (in chapter 5 especially) employ philosophical-style hypotheticals to determine what facts might actually matter.

Although this is a philosopher’s attempt to come to grips with the phenomenon of terrorism, it is designed to be generally accessible to all interested readers. Scholarly apparatus is kept to a minimum. Notes are used sparingly, and placed unobtrusively at the back of the book. Fine-grained philosophical analyses are eschewed in favour of a more ‘big picture’ approach. I hope (and fear) it is still evidently the work of a professional philosopher. But I hope it is also one that anyone interested in the topic can read with both profit and perhaps even pleasure.

* * * * * * * * *

In this book, I shall be making much of ‘definitions’. That is not merely the preoccupation of a philosophical fusspot. Definitions carry political consequences.

There is a lot of loose talk about ‘terrorism’. Public officials are wont to describe just about anyone making political trouble for them, these days, as a terrorist.5 Here are a couple of the more egregious examples I have come across:

But this misuse of the label ‘terrorist’ to tar any political opponent is not just the product of overstatement on the part of zealous junior officials. This sort of inflated definition is sometimes found at the highest levels, and sometimes even works its way into legislation.

Consider, for example, India’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002. There, a ‘terrorist act’ is defined as any act done ‘with intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India’ (followed by the more standard formulation ‘or to strike terror in the people or any section of the people’).8 But note well: the former clause could well deem any opposition parties, however loyal, ‘terrorist organizations’. After all, it is the job of the opposition to oppose, thereby engendering ‘disunity and dissensus’.

Well, words mean whatever we say they mean, in an observation that Lewis Carroll attributes to Humpty Dumpty. And the law is whatever lawmakers say it is. But big words such as ‘terrorist’ carry mighty consequences, and we ought be correspondingly careful how we use them. Fussing over definitions in such circumstances is anything but pure pedantry. Figuring out what exactly terrorism is and what exactly makes it so wrong is crucial to framing an appropriate response to that evil.


1 Just as there are many wrongs which those who practise terrorism protest; although unlike Honderich (2003a, 2003b) I am not prepared to allow that fact to excuse terrorists their own wrongs. For a much more careful discussion of circumstances under which terrorism might be morally justified, see Corlett (2003, chs 5–6).

2 For a partial survey and potted history, see Robin (2004).

3 Frightened people often end up killing lots of other people, however; and for that, politicians who intentionally instilled that fear might be largely to blame.

4 As I have been insisting for some time, now (Goodin 1982, ch. 1).

5 Not to mention the public, more generally. Martha Nussbaum (2003, 233) recounts the tale of ‘a baseball game I went to at Comiskey Park, the first game played in Chicago after September 11 … [A]s the game went on and the beer began flowing, one heard, increasingly, the chant, “U-S-A, U-S-A”, a chant left over from the Olympic hockey match in which the United States defeated Russia, expressing the wish for America to defeat, abase, humiliate, its enemies. Indeed, the chant USA soon became a general way of expressing the desire to crush one’s enemies, whoever they were. When the umpire made a bad call against the Sox, the same group in the bleachers turned to him, chanting “U-S-A”. Anyone who crosses us is an evil terrorist, deserving of extinction.’ Or anyway such was the mindset of the White Sox fans on that day.

6 Aglionby (2004). Arroyo’s own phrasing was ambiguous but at least admits of this reading.

7 Pear (2004). The reporter has Paige saying the NEA ‘was like “a terrorist organization” ’; but Paige’s own spokesperson reports, ‘He said he considered the NEA to be a terrorist organization.’

8 India (2002), sec. 3 (1)(a).