This essay was originally published in the March 25, 1978, issue of The Nation.
An irony emerges from reading the sickening details of the terrorist slaughter in Israel. It is that Menahem Begin, the symbol of Israeli outrage and bereavement, first achieved prominence as a terrorist.
This irony inspires a question: Is terrorism ever justified? Are their neutral principles which can guide us in assessing both the March 11th murders by the Al Fatah and the killings of Englishmen and Arabs by the Irgun Zvai Leumi more than thirty years ago? And, if we are to condemn the Al Fatah and the Irgun equally, what if World War II "partisans" engaged in terrorism in Nazi-occupied countries of Europe? Should their violence also be condemned?
Terrorism is the random infliction of pain on strangers in order to achieve a political end. Those who engage in it have persuaded themselves that the orderly processes of law, justice and national or international order must be disregarded. Their cause is so urgent and so just, they believe, that anything that furthers it is permissible. Resolute in this belief, they kill the 5-year-old child whose grieving parents we saw in news photos last week.
To answer our basic question, I find it useful to contrast terrorism with civil disobedience. The terrorist and the civil disobedient both violate valid laws. In both instances, the violation is justified by the assertion that the cause is urgent and just. In both instances, the violator of the law has usurped the authority to decide when the law must be respected and when it may be violated. But here the similarity ends.
Civil disobedience is nonviolent. It may take forms which cause others inconvenience. Anti-war protesters in the United States blocked the entrances to draft boards and refused to pay taxes; civil rights demonstrators blocked traffic. The laws they broke are valid. Government has every right to enforce these laws, whatever the moral purpose of the violators. But the violators of these laws inflict no pain on strangers.
Another characteristic of civil disobedience is that those who engage in it do not run away. Their protest is announced and it is public. They identify themselves. Their leaders, men like Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, are in the forefront of the disturbance.
Because they violate valid laws and because they do not run away, participants in civil disobedience expose themselves to punishment. This punishment is an essential part of their protest. In some instances, it may take extralegal forms, as when Bull Connor turned water hoses and dogs on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham. On other occasions, the punishment is lawful, as when tax refusers were sent to prison.
Whatever form the punishment of civil disobedience takes, its effect is to inflict pain exclusively on the protester. Here, then, is the essential element that distinguishes the civil disobedient from the terrorist. The one seeks to achieve a political end by violating the law and inflicting pain on himself. The other tries to realize his political goal by inflicting pain on strangers.