Terrorism: Who is a Just Target?

      A terrorist is someone who kills, injures, or threatens those with no direct connection to a military target, with the idea that the larger society will be “terrorized” and exert pressure on policy makers or others to take action to placate the terrorists. The 9.11 attacks in the US are the most famous of modern terror attacks, and to most Americans terrorism seems like a modern development, but bombings by anarchists and others were common in 1920s America. In fact, the tactic of striking fear into the hearts of non-combatants has probably been around as long as organized warfare.

      One of the prime tenets of our position on Crime and Punishment is that there are rules to the game. We don’t believe in winning at any cost; the ends don’t justify the means, as we explain in our Living Sanely. It may be permissible to attack an enemy, but only if the target is the actual enemy, not simply if they represent the enemy in some way. The President of the United States may be a legitimate target of those waging war on behalf of militant Islam , after all, he is Commander in Chief of the US Armed Forces, and ordered the assassination of their spiritual leader Osama bin Laden.

      Terrorists and their sympathizers have justified the attacks on innocents by saying that anyone who votes for those in power, or who pays taxes to support them, is a legitimate target. Of course that is ridiculous; people pay taxes because they are forced to, whether they agree with the military ventures those tax dollars fund or not. Of the thousands killed in the 9.11 attacks none could by any reasonable standard be held responsible for US military policy. And, of course, some of those killed in the attacks were practicing Muslims.

      The central tenet of any just system is that it treat people as individuals, not as members of groups. So an individual is held responsible for their actions, but no one else is held responsible; not their family, or their neighbors, or their employer, or the society in general. There should be a bright line between responsible individuals and everyone else, a line that cannot be crossed. It cannot be overemphasized that a just society deals with individuals, not people as members of any group.

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