Friday, July 9, 2010

Stephen Nathanson's "Terrorism and the Ethics of War"

Stephen Nathanson is Professor of Philosophy at Northeastern University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Terrorism and the Ethics of War, and reported the following:
I recommend that readers begin my book on page 1 since it starts with a description of the main questions that the book deals with. The central questions are:

1) What is terrorism?

2) If, as many people believe, terrorism is especially evil or wrong, what features make it especially wrong?

3) If terrorism is always wrong, why do condemnations of terrorism often lack moral credibility and how can condemnations of terrorism be made more credible?

4) Is terrorism always wrong or can it be justified?

My first aim is to show why we need to face these questions. After the 9/11 attacks, there was a strong moral consensus that all terrorist acts are inherently wrong. Beneath this consensus, however, there are deep confusions. Most people cannot define terrorism, and though they often condemn terrorism for killing innocent people, they tend to approve of some actions in war that kill innocent people. It is widely believed, for example, that the Allied bombings of German and Japanese cities in World War II were justified even though these bombings share features of terrorist acts. Like terrorism, they were deliberate attacks on civilians that were carried out to advance the political goal of achieving victory.

Page 99 deals with another puzzling aspect of these issues, the problem of “collateral damage” harms. In wars and other forms of political violence, some people are intentionally attacked in order to kill or injure them, but other victims, while not intentionally targeted, are nonetheless killed or injured. Since I define terrorism, in part, as intentional, politically motivated attacks against civilians, collateral damage killings of civilians are not terrorism because they are not intended. On page 99, I criticize “just war theory,” which supports the common view that unintended killings are inevitable in war and should not be morally condemned. This is puzzling. How can people condemn terrorism because it kills civilians while also thinking that attacks in war that kill civilians are morally justifiable?

When we think about these things, we may feel confused both about what terrorism is and whether terrorist acts and other acts of war are necessarily wrong. These are, in fact, difficult philosophical questions. In Terrorism and the Ethics of War, I try to face the hard questions about war and political violence, and I defend an ethic of war that condemns terrorism in a morally credible way.
Read an excerpt from Terrorism and the Ethics of War, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue