The Series Philosopher

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S02E10: Is the violence of war more justifiable than the violence of terrorism?

C.I.A officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is held hostage by al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban)

HOMELAND: 2×10 Broken Hearts – C.I.A officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is held hostage by al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban)

Can we  legitimize terrorism? What distinguishes an act of war from an act of terrorism? If wars can be just, can acts of terror be just too?

Can we stipulate that the notions of war and terrorism are interchangeable, and that it is just a question of point of view?

In the tenth episode of the second season of Homeland (Showtime), the lead role Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, My So-Called Life) is kidnapped by the world’s most wanted terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban, 24). They have a little chat about ethics:


CARRIE MATHISON: You’re never going to leave this country alive.

ABU NAZIR: I know and I don’t care.


ABU NAZIR: You can’t even imagine that, can you? Believing in something bigger than you, more important than you? We are at war, I am a soldier.

CARRIE MATHISON: You’re a terrorist.

ABU NAZIR: Imagine you are sitting down to dinner with your wife and children. Out of the sky, as if thrown by an angry god, a drone strike hits and destroys all of them. Who is the terrorist?

CARRIE MATHISON: It’s the last day of Ramadan. A young man enters a Shia village, pushing a cart full of candy and toys. He waits in the school playground for all the children to gather. Then he reaches back and flips a switch.

ABU NAZIR: We fight with what we have.

CARRIE MATHISON: You pervert the teachings of the Prophet and call it a cause. You turn teenagers into suicide bombers.

ABU NAZIR: Generation after generation must suffer and die. We are prepared for that. Are you?

CARRIE MATHISON: Whatever it takes.

ABU NAZIR: Really? With your pension plans and organic foods, your beach houses and sports clubs? Do you have the perseverance, the tenacity, the faith? Because we do. You can bomb us, starve us, occupy our holy places, but we will never lose our faith. We carry God in our hearts, our souls. To die is to join him. It may take a century, two centuries, three centuries, but we will exterminate you.

CARRIE MATHISON: Like I said… you’re a terrorist.


In that Homeland episode, two stories of violence are recounted: al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir tells the story of an American drone attack landing on a family having dinner, while C.I.A officer Carrie Mathison tells the story of a man gathering as many children as he can around him, luring them with candies, and in one click, making a bomb go off.  Both stories are regarded either as acts of terrorism or as acts of war depending on whether the narrator is on the side of the attacker or not. So how can we tell the difference between war and terrorism? Was the American drone landing on the Iranian kids on their way to school more just than the human bomb on a playground?

In political science, war is basically analyzed in the light of the principles related to the realism of the stakes. But in philosophy,  it is more relevant to have an ethical reflection about the stakes of political violence and armed conflict. There are moral criteria that enable us to assess the justice of a war.

The philosophical foundations of a just war would be found in the Middle Ages: philosophers and theologians like Augustine of Hippo (354-430)  and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) tried to justify “holy wars”, that were against the Christian principles of the respect of the sanctity of human life. Thomas Aquinas writes in the chapter “Of War” of The Summa Theologica:

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. (…)

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says: “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says: “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says: “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

That approach of war was updated in the late 1970s by the American political philosopher Michael Walzer, who elaborated a just war theory, wondering if the American war in Vietnam was a just war. He writes in his introduction to the essays compilation Arguing about war (2004) that “Just (…) means justifiable, defensible, even morally necessary (given the alternatives) — and that is all it means.” Refering to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he adds: “Jus ad bellum (which deals with the decision to go to war) and jus in bello (which deals with the conduct of the battles) are its standard elements, first worked out by Catholic philosophers and jurists in the Middle Ages. Now we have to add to those two an account of jus post bellum (justice after the war)”.

Can the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bellum that are defined in the quotation of Thomas Aquinas be applied to terrorism?

At the first glance, acts that are considered as terrorist acts go against most of the criteria of a just war. But the outbreak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that were presented as wars against terrorism, has raised many questions about the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence. Terrorism is defined as a political violence carried out by non-governmental players. But is it enough to condemn that violence? Is the violence of war any less despicable? 

According to Walzer, humans should not give moral justifications to wars, these “justifications” are simple lies they tell themselves, in which most cases are true. Humans want to feel good about what they are doing and they want to believe they are in the right. As he writes in the first essay of Arguing about war, “the triumph of just war theory is clear enough; it is amazing how readily military spokesmen during the Kosovo and Afghanistan wars used its categories, telling a causal story that justified the war and providing accounts of the battles that emphasized the restraint with which they were fought.”
Meanwhile, ever since the attacks of September 11, we observe among sociologists and philosophers an attempt to justify terrorism. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut names it  “sociological rousseauism’ (after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, according to whom no human evil stems from the human: “Man is born pure, it is society that corrupts“). Modern sociologists have depicted the Palestine suicide bombers as “terrorists out of desperation”. Terrorism is seen like an act of a person who finds it impossible to achieve their ends otherwise. When there is violence, the violence is not attributed anymore to the person who committed the violent act, we blame it on the system because, as Rousseau said, evil comes from oppression. Evil is, according to this perspective, somehow committed by the targets and the martyr appears as a bail: a man that sacrifices his own life has to be desperate, there must be a cause behind that act. These ideas are illusions, reasoning temptations and traps, and sociologists and philosophers must steer clear of them. In Their Morals and Ours (1938), Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) justifies the acts of violence and torture (the “revolutionary terror”) committed by the Soviet Russia’s government after the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War, by the repetition of the leitmotiv: “The end justifies the means“.

This assumption is enough to legitimate any act of terror, as any end can suddenly become an absolute. Terrorism seems to be a relative concept, admitting that might is right and that the American strikes on innocent victims will be seen as collateral damage as long as the American ideals will be the dominant paradigm. Not every war is just, the banality of evil (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem) sometimes pushes people to wage war against countries with enough oil wealth to be worth attacking. Just causes are to be found on the way to convince the masses that the war was for their own good.


One comment on “S02E10: Is the violence of war more justifiable than the violence of terrorism?

  1. Pingback: S01E03: Does your job have to make a difference (to be worth doing)? | The Series Philosopher

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