Terror and the Sense of Justice | The Nation


Terror and the Sense of Justice

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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.

This essay, from the March 25, 1978, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on civil libertioes and terrorism, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.

About the Author

Aryeh Neier
Aryeh Neier is president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations. He was president from 1993 to 2012. Before that...

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The death of Ronald Dworkin means the loss of the most important advocate in our time – to borrow the title of his last book – of “taking rights seriously.”

By exposing himself to punishment, the civil disobedient, as philosopher John Rawls put it, "expresses disobedience to law within the limits of fidelity to law, although it is at the outer edge thereof. The law is broken but fidelity to law is expressed by the public and nonviolent nature of the act, by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of one's conduct." When he invites the pain of punishment, the civil disobedient appeals to the conscience of those in power and of the general public. You are not acting justly he says, and I am willing to endure the pain you inflict on me for violating a valid law in order to convey to you the depth of my feelings. It is a powerful appeal, as Gandhi's movement demonstrated in ending British colonial rule of India and as civil rights protesters and war resisters proved in the United States.

The civil disobedient's appeal is possible only as long as a sense of justice is alive in a society. This does not mean that the society is acting justly. The British were not acting justly in India but Gandhi had faith that a sense of justice was still alive in England, despite the injustices of the British raj. And Gandhi understood that the British were unwilling to be regarded as moral lepers by the rest of the world. Therefore, he appealed to the whole world's sense of justice. Similarly, Americans who nonviolently disobeyed laws in protest against racial segregation and against the war in Vietnam were appealing to world opinion and to as sense of justice that they knew to be still alive in an America that was acting unjustly.

Wherever the sense of justice is alive in a society, we are entitled to say to people with urgent moral causes, if you feel you must violate the law, do it so that you yourself are the sufferer. Expose yourself to pain, if that is what is needed to awaken a dormant sense of justice. Do not inflict pain on others. But when a society has reached such depths of brutality and depravity that we can no longer discover in it any seen of justice, is is of no value for a protester to inflict pain on himself.. What possible good could have resulted if protestors against Nazi Governments in Europe had inflicted pain on themselves? Even if they had incinerated themselves in the manner of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, it would have been useless. We would have no ground, therefore, for telling World War II partisans that terrorism was immoral. All that was left to them in resisting Nazi evil might have been the opportunity to inflict pain on strangers.

The Irgun and the Al Fatah, however, had no such moral justification for terrorism. The Irgun could not claim in the 1940s that no sense of justice existed among the British. At that very moment Gandhi was freeing India by exposing himself to pain. And the Al Fatah cannot say that there is no sense of justice in contemporary Israel. Among Israelis themselves there are outspoken advocates of the rights of the Palestinians.

We have no infallible guide to tell us when a society's sense of justice has perished. But we can identify principles which allow us to denounce this latest carnage in Israel without condemning equally terrorism in all times and in all places.

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