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Bin Laden and the Temptations of Nihilism

How do terrorists justify killing civilians?

August 31, 2004

How do terrorists justify killing civilians?

All terrorist campaigns have to discredit the idea of civilian innocence.

Bin Laden's statement in a 1998 interview takes explicit aim at such ideas:

“Our mothers and daughters and sons are slaughtered every day with the approval of America and its support.

“And, while America blocks the entry of weapons into Islamic countries, it provides the Israelis with a continuous supply of arms allowing them thus to kill and massacre more Muslims.

“Your religion does not forbid you from committing such acts, so you have no right to object to any response or retaliation that reciprocates your actions.”

Likewise, the Palestinian suicide bombers are taught to view Israeli passengers on a municipal bus not as innocent bystanders, but as accomplices in the crime of occupation.

If this is not enough, then standard varieties of anti-Semitism — which have semiofficial standing in the politics of the Arab world — are enlisted to further dehumanize the intended victims.

In Algeria, the FLN — Front for National Liberation —maintained that French civilians were legitimate targets because they were beneficiaries of French colonial oppression.

In South Africa, white civilians were gunned down in churches and public squares on the grounds that they were complicit in the evil of apartheid.

Preventing a war on terror from becoming nihilistic means, first of all, insisting that counterterror forces observe the distinction that terrorists sweep away — namely, between innocent civilians and legitimate military targets.

A war on terror that does not struggle to hold the line against the temptation to become as indiscriminate as the terrorists will surely lose both its political and its moral legitimacy.

But let us admit just how difficult it is to maintain discrimination. Civilian complicity makes civilian immunity a complex affair.

In South Africa, all whites were complicit beneficiaries of apartheid, but there is a material difference between working for the police and military forces and merely voting for the regime — or between being white and actively giving apartheid your support.

Many whites, after all, opposed apartheid — and it is doubtful that the system would have fallen when it did had the regime not lost its own basis of support.

In moral terms, it seems wrong to accuse someone of complicity on the basis of attributes rather than conduct, to condemn whole categories of people — white South Africans, Israelis, or any other group — on the basis that they derive benefit from some injustice, rather than on their particular actions as individuals.

On the other hand, where civilians take a direct personal part in counterterror actions, they deserve to lose their immunity from military attack.

For example, the pieds noirs in French Algeria armed themselves and carried out preemptive or revenge attacks against Algerian fedayeen. And some Israeli settlers do the same in the occupied territories, passing from defense of their settlements to active combat operations against Palestinian fighters or their civilian supporters.

They become legitimate military targets — but their families do not.

Where terrorists hide in refugee camps, conceal their weapons in civilian areas and attempt to pass themselves off at check points as civilians, a counterterror operation may be tempted to ignore civilian immunity altogether.

The risk of such tactics is that instead of isolating the terrorists, you increase their support.

As you escalate repressive measures, and they fail — exposing your forces to more resistance — your troops will come to view the population with hatred, thus increasing the chances of abuse and atrocity.

Gradually, they come to view the entire population as the enemy and the civilian-combatant distinction is entirely obliterated.

This is an especial danger when the two peoples at war come from different religions and races.

Then it becomes all too easy for the counterterror agents of a democratic state to live inside a schizophrenic moral duality — treating their own fellow citizens and their own families as equals, while treating the occupied population as things.

This duality in fact shelters counterterrorists from the nihilism that is gradually taking them over in their professional life.

Faced with the evidence of their own inhumanity on the job, they take refuge in their humanity as parents, neighbors, friends and citizens.

On the job, however, the counterterrorist will gravitate toward the same nihilistic pole as does his terrorist opponent.

Everyone is an enemy — everyone a legitimate target. When both sides reach this abyss, a terror and counterterror can easily become a free-fire zone.

Excerpt taken from THE LESSER EVIL (pp.125-130), published in 2004 by Princeton University Press.