Terror and the Sense of Justice

Terror and the Sense of Justice

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 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.

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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