Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Terrorism: Glenn Greenwald vs. Michael Walzer

The comments on my post yesterday about Glenn Greenwald were interesting, and seemed to indicate a bit of confusion between different matters. So here's a quick lexicon of relevant terms:

Manslaughter: the unintended killing of a person. In all systems of law I've ever heard of, manslaughter is less serious than murder, even though the consequence for the victim is the same: death.

Murder. The intentional taking of an innocent life. It's the intention that makes the difference, not the result. In Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars I pointed out that the Sixth of the Ten Commandments is not "thou shall not kill", as often mistranslated, but rather "thou shall not murder". Judaism recognizes that killing sometimes happens, such as in self defense or in war.

Self defense. Protecting oneself may sometimes include killing. When evaluating the act, it's not the result - the death of a person - which is important, it's the intention. Of the attacker. The court or the police may decide that killing the aggressor was justified by the intention of the (dead) aggressor.

War. This is the most common way for people to kill large numbers of other people. The mere fact of being at war tells very little about morality, since some wars avert worse things, such as genocide, others promote genocide, and many wars happen for complicated reasons which do not immediately lend themselves to moral deliberation. I have written about this at greater length here.

Terrorism. Initially, this wasn't a moral category at all. It was a tactic of random murder, intended to terrorize a society into changing its behavior in a significant manner, contrary to its will, perpetrated by an otherwise small or weak group. The phenomenon first appeared in the 19th century. Then a double twist occurred.

The first was in the 1980s. At the time the most famous terrorist group was the PLO (alongside the IRA). Lots of people were reluctant to use such a pejorative word to describe Arabs killing Jews: The Arabs had oil, they were supported by the Soviets and thus also by Western Useful Idiots, the Jews were, well, Jews. So the term was dropped, replaced by the term 'militants'. So cynical was this ploy that for years the international news of the BBC called the PLO militants, while the local news of the same BBC called the IRA terrorists. (I'm not making this up). The English language lost the word to describe the people who had once been militants, but this seemed a worthy price to pay for political correctness.

Then, after 9/11, suddenly there was an urgent need for a clearly pejorative word to describe the perpetrators of random murder committed by a small group with the intention of terrorizing an entire society. At the time I remember watching the agonizing, but it didn't take long for the American media to go back to the obvious word, 'terrorist'. Once the terrorists began exploding bombs on European trains, the word was accepted worldwide. (Interestingly, this was happening parallel to a steep decrease in Palestinian terrorism, forced by the IDF and the security barrier, so the dilemma of using the word for everyone except the Jews was blunted).

Yet there was a problem: lots of people didn't like the ensuing wars, nor the regrettable fact that Western troops were now killing Muslim civilians. So they started applying the terrorist word to them, too. There was no need, of course, since armies killing civilians as a result of the messiness of war were never previously called terrorists. Armies aren't small groups; the Western ones were not randomly killing innocents so as to terrorize them. It would have been better to use a different term, one that would do what language is supposed to do, namely describe reality with useful preciseness. But preciseness was the last thing the wielders of the term were seeking; their goal was to bludgeon the political discourse in their ideological direction.

And so we've come full circle and kept on going. Not only is the word terrorism back in vogue, it's now applied with a gusto to anyone who kills non-combatants, unless they're Islamists killing Muslims, in which case they're called insurgents. (And the Palestinians are still militants).

Glenn Greenwald's argument demonstrates how radical this is. Back in 1976, when Michael Walzer published his seminal Just And Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations, a book still widely cited, he included a discussion of intentionally killing non-combatants in a non-belligerent country. The Allies had reason to believe the Germans were developing nuclear weapons, and at one point had to decide to sink a Norwegian ship which might have been transporting heavy water but was certainly carrying regular Norwegian civilians; the Norwegians, remember, were notionally on the Allies' side. Yet the danger of a Nazi nuclear bomb was so great it was decided to sacrifice random innocent Norwegians to prevent it. The fact that by the time Walzer wrote his book it was long since clear that there had in fact been no Nazi nuclear program to be thwarted was irrelevant, since the decision makers couldn't have known that and had reasonable reason to believe the opposite. After he works through the matter as philosophers do, Walzer justifies the decision.

Greenwald, facing a lesser case where someone killed an Iranian nuclear scientist without scratching any innocents at all, calls it terrorism.


marek said...

A little more background about our friend Glenn:

Anonymous said...

This particular perversion of language is not so recent, though. Joseph Goebbels called Allied bombing raids (but not Nazi ones) 'terror bombing', and the term was soon taken up by the usual suspects in the West.

Barry Meislin said...

Regarding Greenwald, why exactly are we taking this perverse shmuck seriously?

Anonymous said...

Language describes the world we live in. If you're changing/distorting language you influence the way people perceive the real world.

Regards, André

Silke said...

Greenwald has quite some followers - I think anybody with the capability to attract masses has to be watched. One never knows one day somebody may come up with a cure for him and his congregation.

and here's iPod fodder for people who want to listen to Michael Walzer, "Trying Political Leaders"
or here

though I couldn't summarize it in my own words I remember the lecture as held by a sane man and listening to him as a pleasure.


Anonymous said...

Nova did a episode on the Norway incident, it can be seen in three parts here:
Hitler's sunken secret

Walzer's disagreement with Asa Kasher (drafter of the IDF code of ethics in the mid 90s)
See series of responses and replies:,

Unfortunately the primary articles don't seem to be online. I have read Kasher and Yadlin's “Military Ethics of Fighting Terror: An Israeli Perspective” as published in Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 1 (April 2005). It's a balancing act based on a certain set of (relatively explicit) assumptions.


Anonymous said...

More on the Norway incident:

Walzer's argument with Asa Kasher
See series of responses and replies:,

Anonymous said...

It seems very odd to me to cast the debate over whether certain groups should be labeled "terrorists" or "militants" or "freedom fighters" as something that only comes up when it involves killing Jews. I don't think I can think of a single example of a campaign of terror where there hasn't been a dispute over what label to apply (and I should note that I have no problem calling Hamas, Black September, et al. terrorists). The Tamil Tigers. The Chechens. The Weathermen. The Algerians (forgetting the acronym...) The Red Army Brigade. The PKK. The ANC. That weird Iranian group camped in the Iraqi desert (M something...). In every one of these cases you could find people arguing for and against the "terrorist" designation. The debate is always political: when you're attacked, you label it terrorism; when other people are attacked, well, you can afford to waffle.

As for Walzer's argument, well I don't think anyone would deny that in some cases some considerations could be proffered that would justify certain actions in war. Walzer's argument might even be a good one. But if you want to then use that to rebut Greenwald, you'd actually have to make the argument showing how the two situations were analogous. You'd have demonstrate that Walzer's assessment has withstood scrutiny in the literature on just war. Otherwise, you're just appealing to authority. I understand this is a blog post, but let's at least be frank about what it accomplishes: it adumbrates an argument that could, potentially, make Greenwald out to be a horse's ass.

A minor point: the attacks didn't go off "without scratching any innocents." The wives of both scientists, and the driver of one, were injured. Now, maybe the bombs involved are precise enough that they only kill one person. Barring that, however, the lack of dead innocents seems more like dumb luck.

Anonymous said...

This is the same anon as Anon 9:44

There's an analysis over at Stratfor (free, but I don't have the link at the moment) that says there seems to be some evidence that the IED's had shaped charges that, judging from the resulting damage to the cars, could in fact have been capable of killing only one one occupant of the cars.

Silke said...

in my book Greenwald is in fact a horse's ass but only, if I try really hard to remain exceedingly polite

even if I were an "anti-Zio" as Greenwald adulators are calling themselves, if I had a wee bit of functioning brain left I'd be bound to notice that he is an "emperor without clothes".

his stuff is vapid, completely vapid

to call it an argument is an insult to all people having ever made a valid argument.

Anonymous said...

Video of the blast, even casual inspection suggests it was very focused:


RK said...

Anonymous at 9:44 is quite right. How do you expect this post to be convincing when many of your readers have seen, with their own eyes, terrorist groups that attack Jews (like the Abu Nidal Organization, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas, etc.) referred to as such by governments, the media, and commentators long before 9/11? Of course there were always people who refused to use the term, since "all political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning." But it's pretty apparent that the terrorist groups that most consistently avoid getting tarred with the label are anti-colonialist groups like MK and the FLN, not anti-Israel or anti-Jewish ones.

RK said...

Apologies, I actually meant to write "Islamic Jihad" instead of "Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade." Was thinking of one thing, and wrote another.

Silke said...

I've read through that Walzer-Kashner exchange at the NYRB and found this sentence by Walzer

"What risks we impose, and what risks we decide to accept, are ALWAYS under our control. " (emphasis mine)

it made me lose a lot of respect for the man - it is such appalling nonsense devoid of any knowledge of how humans function under stress.

It may be applicable for the philosopher in his study pondering the decision whether his heart can withstand another dose of coffein but not a soldier in a combat situation. It is almost as appalling as the "one always has a choice" mantra - BS - there are (lots of) situations where one doesn't have a choice.

Schiller got it right when he said in Don Carlos "Gewalt ist für den Schwachen stets ein Riese" (Violence is for the weak one always a giant) and a soldier under attack in a combat situation is always also weak a.k.a. vulnerable one no matter how superior his fire power and adrenalin and heaven knows what else plays havock with his powers of judgement let alone his feeling of being in control.

And then there comes a high class thinker and knows it all ...

(my apologies to all of the breed who I admire)

Yaacov said...

RK -

Governments indeed never stopped using the term. However, I challenge you to find the term applied to Palestinian terrorists in the mainstream media, anytime in the past few decades, perhaps even post 9/11. I don't know about FOX news,which I never watch, but from CNN and NYT to the left.

As for using it to describe other terrorist groups, I didn't say otherwise. Indeed, once the media absolved itself from making the call as to what is murder and what isn't, they did so for many conflicts - tho not, as I noted, in the case of the IRA and the BBC.

And no, the idea that it's hard to know which man's terrorist is another man's freedom fire is not acceptable. I never hid behind such idiocy in my writing, nor do I recognize the legitimacy of anyone else to do so.

FFS said...

Two minor precisions: (1) self defense not only depends on the intention of the attacker, also on the correlation between the kind of force used in your defense and the one you are confronting; (2) ETA terrorists in Spain (a thousand assasinations and thousands of other victims since the mid '70s) are still called militants, nationalists or things like that in anglo saxon media, including the UK and USA

Anonymous said...

Any "war" that kills more civilians than combatants is terrorism.

Anonymous said...

"As for using it to describe other terrorist groups, I didn't say otherwise."

But you strongly implied, as you continued to do in your comment ("once the media had absolved itself") that the factor that determined the standards for using the term in general was the usage of the term regarding killer of Jews. I see no reason to believe debate over what term to apply to terrorists began with Palestinian terrorist or evidence that in the absence of the media permitting itself to refer to Palestinian terrorists as militants it would not have done so in regard to other conflicts.

"And no, the idea that it's hard to know which man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter is not acceptable."

No one in the comments argued that it was. But deciding whether it's acceptable or not is distinct from noting that "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter" is a real phenomenon that explains (but doesn't justify) how terrorists are designated in the press.

Anonymous said...

I've tried to post this twice but it hasn't gotten through (maybe I keep messing up the captcha): a quick search of the NYT between 1990 and 2000 for the term "Palestinian terrorist" in the "World" section (to exclude opinion pieces) yields several pages of hits. I have not done any other searches to see the number of hits for other formulations that would count as designating a Palestinian as a terrorist ("a member of the terrorist group Hamas") or the number of hits for formulations that do not designate Palestinian terrorists as terrorists ("militants from the Palestinian group Fatah"). Readers may reproduce the search easily (I previously tried to include the link in a comment, but it seems to have been rejected as spam).

Silke said...

to all the Anons on this thread I'd really consider it a courtesy, if you could deem your readers worthy of some distinction.
To sign of your comments with one consistent letter or figure is really not that much trouble.

Until you do may lots and lots of your comments suffer from system failure or mess up.

Anonymous said...

And yet the general public of Indonesia does not hesitate to brand the actions of violent Islamist groups as 'terorisme' nor media connected with Moslem politics.

Here's a quick selection of news articles from Republika, a commercial national newspaper established by a foundation associated with the Indonesian Moslem Intellectual Association:

Indonesia Considered Terrorism Law Still Softening (July 29):

Involved Network of Terrorism in Indonesia (Aug 11):

Ideological Terrorim Still Growing in Indonesia (Sep 23):

The Caliphate Issue and Terrorism (Nov 28):

RK said...

I think you're simply wrong about this, Yaacov. Here are some hits, just using Google for five minutes. (I'm sure LexisNexis or your own company could provide many, many more examples, especially since lots of papers don't have online archives going back that far.) Links not included to avoid spam filter:

2 Members of Palestinian Group Get U.S. Legal Resident Status, by Todd S. Purdum, Apr. 11, 1997: "All eight defendants ... were initially charged in 1987 with being affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist group."

Palestinian group and Iran Tied to Pan Am Bomb, by Michael Wines, Feb. 8, 1989: "Evidence ... increasingly points to a Palestinian terrorist group ... the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine"

Abu Nidal's Rivals Seem to Be Gaining, by Ihsan A. Hijazi, Jun. 24, 1990: "The Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal appears to be losing ground in a struggle for control of his group ..."

In Gaza, Peace Meets Pathology, Nov. 27, 1994: "Fatah's quasi-independent terrorist offshoot, the Fatah Hawks"

Or, take this one from The Observer, sister paper to your favorite rag, The Guardian: Bonn 'faked' hijack to free killers, by Jason Burke, March 26, 2000: "Black September, the Palestinian terror group that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics ..."

If you're going to engage in criticism of media narratives, some basic knowledge of what the media are saying is a basic prerequisite, I think.

kurt9 said...

The Allies had reason to believe the Germans were developing nuclear weapons, and at one point had to decide to sink a Norwegian ship which might have been transporting heavy water but was certainly carrying regular Norwegian civilians; the Norwegians, remember, were notionally on the Allies' side.

This is a very poor argument to use. Anyone who has read "Mein Kampf" would know that the Nazis never had any desire to attack the Anglo-American West. Indeed, they did everything they could to avoid making war with the Anglo-Americans. It was Churchill who mucked everything up.

Yaacov said...


I'm not wrong. The refusal of much of mainstream Western media to use the T word is a matter Ive been following for decades,in real time. The BBC explicitly admitted the matter when explaining why they did use the word for the IRA but no-one else. A quick dash thru the archive of the Guardian shows that when the word was used, is was either when quoting Israelis verbatim, with the reporter using the word 'militant' in the exact same context, or quoting government officials, or when reporting about the extreme Palestinian groups, most notably Abu Nidal, which even the PLO called terrorists. A quick look at the NYT shows a similar pattern.

I do however accept that the picture may not have been totally black and white at all times, hence your ability to find results which differ from mine. It might be interesting to research this in a systematic way, carefully delineating the phenomena, but were I to do real resarch rather than blogging, I"d probably start with more interesting matters.

Kurt - don't be silly. Very few people, even in Nazi Germany, ever actually read Mein Kampf, and even fewer since. It was never a blueprint for anything. I challenge you to find any of the main subsequent Nazi policies in it.

Anonymous said...

My parents were given "Mein Kampf" at their wedding by the city of Düsseldorf. I have made several attempts to read it and had to give up after about 50 pages each time, my head feeling like its inside became slush. The only benefit I had from it was that I learned that Hitler ranted about something that is popular to rant about to this day i.e. "Neudeutsch"

(quoted from memory, there are so many wannabe clever coinages for that particular complaint about, but when I paid attention for some time, the most frequently used was Hitler's - but I am sure, once RK googles it, I'll be proved wrong;-)

I have been told recently though and Wikipedia confirms it that "Mein Kampf" in English had the "benefit" of an editor and thus may be a much more readable book. Also whenever I hear from those planning to come up with an edited version for scientific use that there are innumerable heavily revised editions ...

If not accepting Nazi-dhimmitude means "mucking it up" then hail to the up-muckers.

Silke said...

ooops - Anon at 12:24 is me


RK said...

Sigh. Yaacov, one problem that crops up when reading experts is that it's hard to gauge their accuracy. After all, most of us read experts to learn when we're wrong about things. That's why we rely on these occasions when the expert (1) lacks special knowledge or (2) makes an easily verifiable claim.

That's what's going on here. You're not an expert on English-language media coverage: there's a decent chance that those of us who live in the U.S. and follow the news closely are more familiar with what CNN broadcasts and the NYT prints than you are. (How do you have personal knowledge of what the BBC local news says, anyway?) And you essentially made a categorical assertion that I wouldn't be able to find instances of mainstream media outfits referring to Palestinian terrorism as such. I looked, and I found several (many more on Nexis, actually), as I knew I would, since I've actually been reading the New York Times during the time period you mention. In response, you retreat to a murkier and harder-to-verify claim without admitting that you're doing so. ("the picture may not have been totally black and white at all times"? What times, exactly? There are examples across virtually the entire time period in question. What does that even mean? It's just weasel words.)

Look, blogging is a seat-of-the-pants game. Nobody expects perfect accuracy in these off-the-cuff posts. But we do expect you to acknowledge errors, and to reflect on what those errors imply about your general knowledge of the subject. We already know Didi Remez regularly fails that test; here's hoping you don't.

Silke said...


who is the "WE" in your latest comment?

Yaacov said...

RK -

the thing is, I don't think I"m wrong. I've accepted, following your intervention, that the matter deserves closer investigation, which I'm not about to do, but the fundamental proposition, that I still stand by.

I don't follow the internal BBC, of course. But I remember very clearly how the BBC responded when they were called out on their hypocrisy. It was a revealing moment.

Nevet said...

This is a very interesting discussion. Anonymous (Dec. 3, 2:58 PM) said that "Any "war" that kills more civilians than combatants is terrorism" but that clearly is not the case. WWII killed many more civilians than combatants yet was very clearly and unabiguously a war. According to Yaakov, what matters is the identity of the perpetrators--a small non-state actor or a state military--and the goal. (That last one is a bit fuzzy too; the goal of ending foreign occupation can be pursued through either war or terrorism/insurgency.) I think what we need is a discussion of "proportionalism" in war, and the distinction between TARGETING non-combatants in terrorism vs. "collateral damage" in war. A subject for another blog post, perhaps?