{Guest Post} [Topics: Ethics, Philosophy of Language, Terrorism]

Testing Terrorism:

On Stephen Nathanson, Michael Walzer, and Terrorism in Relation to Conventional Warfare



Venn Diagram - Terrorism and Conventional Warfare - Stephen Nathanson, Michael WalzerTerrorism and conventional warfare are thought to inhabit two close yet separate spheres. Accolades and patriotic flags romanticize the grim reality of conventional warfare, while face masks and frightening rhetoric emphasize the deadly image of terrorism.

The term ‘terrorism’ typically elicits an intense emotional response, tainting the discussion of its ethics, and preventing understanding. The first misconception which must be made clear is that terrorism is not a separate phenomenon from  conventional warfare; terrorism must be considered at the very least an outgrowth of conventional warfare, understood as an adaptive strategy which reflects desperation.

I posit that terrorism is simply another form of warfare. If the preceding statement is true, the ethics of conventional warfare will apply to terrorism. If both conventional warfare and terrorism hold the same moral implications, one cannot discount one without discounting the other.

Stephen Nathanson and the Definition of Terrorism:

I will begin this discussion by critically examining definitions of terrorism. Stephen Nathanson, in his book Terrorism and the Ethics of War, defines terrorism in the following way: terrorism is comprised of acts of deliberate violence committed by groups trying to further a social or political agenda; these acts generally target limited groups of innocent people in order to influence a larger group and draw the attention of political leaders.

This definition contains within it what many people call the “moral crux” with terrorism. Before discussing the “moral crux” of the problem with terrorism, however, it’s imperative to realize the dual applicability of Nathanson’s definition.

The actions taken by terrorists, according to Nathanson, would be similar to those taken by the weaker of the two parties during warfare. If a smaller, developing state was at war with a fully developed military giant, it would cease trying to fight with blatancy; rather, it would turn to smaller, more coordinated attacks, perhaps even on civilians, in order to draw the attention of the opposition’s leaders in hopes they would surrender or at least listen to their demands.

Michael Walzer - terrorism and conventional warfare - Stephen Nathanson

Michael Walzer and the Definition of Terrorism:

Adding another perspective to the discussion, Michael Walzer’s definition of terrorism is the following: terrorism is the method of random murder of innocent people. This definition is simple, and would include the allied bombings of Germany during the Second World War if Walzer had not written a caveat.

In his book Political Action (as well as in other works), as a caveat to his definition, Walzer develops the idea of “supreme emergency.” According to Walzer, during a time of supreme emergency, it is morally permissible to use terrorist tactics. Walzer thus justifies the allied bombings as acts of war. Walzer’s definition is entirely self-serving, a transparent attempt to excuse the terrorist actions of his country.

Walzer’s defensive definition and reasoning is itself indicative of the fluidity with which a terrorist act becomes a permissible act of conventional warfare, alluding to the fact that the two are not different.

The Moral Crux of the Definition of Terrorism:

Returning now to the aforementioned moral crux with terrorism. It is as follows: if terrorism is immoral, it would be so because it deliberately kills civilians.

I posit that the moral crux with conventional warfare is quite similar. It is as follows: if conventional warfare is immoral, it would be so because it kills civilians. It is in the use of the word ‘deliberate’ in which the moral distinction between terrorism and conventional warfare exists.

Civilian deaths caused by conventional warfare are referred to as collateral damage, a term implying no deliberation, and creating a gray area in which the definitions of terrorism and conventional warfare are once again blurred; for instance, an act of terrorism may be represented as an act of conventional warfare if the victims of the act were referred to as collateral damage.


It is evident that terrorism is simply a different form of warfare, and not a separate phenomenon. In my concluding statement I will briefly outline the political biology of a terrorist organization.

Venn Diagram - Terrorism and Conventional Warfare - Stephen Nathanson, Michael WalzerGroups that resort to terrorism often possess interests that are not widely shared and thus they are small, highly motivated, and often belligerent organizations with the sole goal of advancing their typically radical cause in mind. Terrorist groups rarely form an effective bureaucracy and administrative system, and thus a single terrorist organization is composed of many different cells—some more active, extreme, or even moderate than others.

Essentially, these organizations become nation-states in their own self-aggrandized right, and terrorist action is the only form of conventional warfare which is feasible and aggressive enough to stand a chance of achieving their goals.

On the grounds argued here, that terrorism and conventional warfare differ only in two arbitrary attributes—the relative power or resources of the opposed forces, and the extent to which deliberate killing of civilians by each force has been successfully rebranded as collateral damage—I conclude that these two methods of war are equally unethical, and that they share reasons for being deemed morally impermissible.

{Guest Post} [Topics: Ethics, Philosophy of Language, Terrorism]

Testing Terrorism:

On Stephen Nathanson, Michael Walzer, and Terrorism in Relation to Conventional Warfare

was last modified: August 12th, 2021 by Avi Gupta
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