Israel’s Terrorists

An article in Saturday’s Times examines an old Irgun pamphlet issued by the Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Menachem Begin.

In the document, Irgun tells British troops: “It is unavoidable that many Jewish soldiers and many British soldiers should fall. And it is only fair that these people know at least why they may be killed.”

It adds: “Most of you have been in this country for quite a long time. You have learned what the word ‘terrorist’ means, some of you may even have come into direct contact with them (and heartily desire not to repeat the experience). But what do you know about them? Why does a young man go underground?”

It then draws a parallel with what would have happened if, seven years earlier, Britain had been overrun by Nazi Germany. “Remember 1940. Then it seemed quite possible that your island country would be conquered and subjugated by Hitler hordes . . . what would you have done? Would you have gone underground?” The pamphlet says that the occupation is “illegal and immoral” and “parallel to the mass assassination of a whole people”, in language that echoes that used on a note pinned to the booby-trapped bodies of two British intelligence officers executed by Irgun that same summer.

Irgun Soldiers

Irgun Soldiers

Aside from the juicy irony contained in the reference to an ‘illegal and immoral’ occupation, there isn’t much here that’s controversial. That the Irgun (and it’s younger sibling the Stern Gang, led by another prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir) was a terrorist group is not disputed. However, stories like this can help give rise to the unhelpful adage that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, a rhetorical quote which has some validity when denouncing elite rhetoric, but which is not particularly useful in any form of specific analysis.

Defining terrorism is a notoriously difficult task; every value one might decide to load into the term is contested (Carl Wellman gives strong arguments to suggest that the term need not even imply physical violence). One important aspect of this debate is the question over whether the word ‘terrorist’ should imply a moral judgment. Honderich argues that we should try to avoid ending up with a ‘persuasive definition’, and thus that the word should be easily applicable and should carry no automatic moral appraisal. Instead, we should view ‘terrorism’ as a prima facie wrong, which must be able to justify itself in the same way that any other use of force or authority must (i.e. the burden of proof is on the part of the terrorist). If an attack which involved the killing of ten innocents would almost certainly lead to the liberation of a nation, one could argue that it should be classed as a moral act which, on the whole, improved the human condition. Naturally consequentialist maths is a tasteless and tactless exercise, which is generally made less appaling by the appeal to rule consequentialism (in this case it might be termed Just War theory). It has always been the preserve of the powerful to condemn terrorism. Large states can rely on old-fashioned war, or economic strangulation to achieve their aims. They can destroy their enemy’s army from a distance, and need not imagine what it would like to have their country occupied. This pseudo-moralistic smokescreen should be pushed aside by anyone seriously concerned with a doctrine of moral equality.

Begin appears to accept something like this principle in the pamphlet, when he says that the British should know why the Jews were using terrorism, and that their cause and methods were just. Whether or not he was correct in his appraisal is a seperate matter – what should be taken is the obvious principle that terrorism is not always the wrong thing to do. More importantly, terrorism and terrorists do not occupy some lower moral realm, more evil than everyone else. We are all located on the same continuum. As Robert Pape has argued, terrorists fight in accordance with strategic military objectives, more often than not to secure or defend their homeland. This need not imply that today’s terrorists are right to act as they do; generally they are not. It means that when Israel, or the US and UK, condemn terrorism, and when they use the accompanying fear to justify further oppresive policies, we should be very careful. The terrorists are not the big evil in the sky; they occupy the same moral plain as everyone else, and it’s entirely possible that they have far more claim to their actions than our own country does to its own.

Edit: Obama, in Israel, has just said that there can be ‘no excuses‘ for terrorism (presumably meaning non-state terrorism). Again, an example of the placing of the term in a realm so extreme as to permit any action to be taken against it.  It is sometimes said that there is no idea so absurd that it cannot be justified by the creation of jobs. Something very similar could be said about the prevention of terrorism.


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