In the wake of the shocking events of 11 September 2001, terrorism and the “war on terror” became the number one issue for the US government. But terrorism has a far longer, more global history.
Political, religious and national/ethnic groups have resorted to violence to pursue their objectives – whether full recognition of their equal citizenship (in Apartheid South Africa), a separate national state of their own (Israelis in the 1940s, Palestinians from the 1970s onwards), or the establishment of a religious/ideological state (Iranian terrorism against the Shah). In some cases former terrorists have made the transition to peaceful politics – for example Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland. Is it possible to justify the use of terrorist tactics if they result in the deaths of innocent civilians in bombings and shootings? This is an issue that calls into question the value we put on our ideals, beliefs and human life itself.
In extreme cases, in which peaceful and democratic methods have been exhausted, it is legitimate and justified to resort to terror. In cases of repression and suffering, with an implacably oppressive state and no obvious possibility of international relief, it is sometimes necessary to resort to violence to defend one’s people and pursue one’s cause.
Every individual or (minority) group has the right to express its discontent. The state, being a representation of the people, should facilitate this possibility. Even more, the state should support the rights of minorities, in order to prevent the will of the majority suppressing the rights of people with other interests. If this does not happen, the state has failed to serve its purpose and loses its legitimacy. This, in combination with the growing inequalities and injustices amongst certain groups, justifies committing acts of terror in order to defend these rights, that were denied in the first place.
For instance, Umkhonto we Sizwe, a liberation organisation associated with the African National Congress in South Africa and led by Nelson Mandela, decided in 1961 to turn to violence in order to achieve liberation and the abolishment of Apartheid. The reason they gave was:
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. (...) Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals. The methods of Umkhonto we Sizwe mark a break with that past.”
Terrorism is never justified. Peaceful and democratic means must always be used. If this cannot happen inside the state, there are international courts such as the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, which handle cases such as war crimes and oppression. Even when democratic rights are denied, non-violent protest is the only moral action. And in the most extreme cases, in which subject populations are weak and vulnerable to reprisals from the attacked state, it is especially important for groups not to resort to terror. Terrorism merely exacerbates a situation, and creates a cycle of violence and suffering.
In some cases, terrorism can result in the acknowledgement of certain groups. Therefore, terrorism is justified by its success in achieving results when peaceful means have failed. In many countries terrorists have succeeded in bringing governments to negotiate with them and make concessions to them. Where governments have not been willing to concede to rational argument and peaceful protest, terrorism can compel recognition of a cause. Nelson Mandela moved from terrorist to President. In many other countries we see this trend too – in Israel, Northern Ireland, in Sri Lanka, and in the Oslo peace process that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
 Palestine Facts. (n.d.). Details of the Oslo Accords. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Palestine Facts: http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_1991to_now_oslo_accords.php
Terrorism, in the long term, has far less chances of success than other, peaceful means. It antagonises and angers the community that it targets. It polarises opinion and makes it more difficult for moderates on both sides to prevail and compromise. A lasting and peaceful settlement can only be won with the freely given consent of both parties to a conflict or disagreement. The examples given in this argument are of countries and areas that still counter much instability, and in countries such as Israel and Palestine a sustainable peaceful solution still seems far away. Moreover, the Oslo peace process is the result of long-term, diplomatic efforts on an international scale, and terrorism does not seem to have contributed directly to this process.
Terrorism can raise the profile of a neglected cause. The hi-jackings of the 1970s and 1980s brought publicity to the Palestinian cause, helping to bring it to the attention of the world. States can use their wealth and media to put across their side of the story; their opponents do not have these resources and perhaps need to resort to terrorism to publicise their cause. In this way, limited and focused use of violence can have a dramatic international impact.
 Tristam, P. (n.d.). The 1970 Palestinian Hijackings of Three Jets to Jordan. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from About.com: http://middleeast.about.com/od/terrorism/a/dawson-field-hijackings.htm
Not all attention that follows terrorism is positive. After the 9/11 attacks, aid workers in Afghanistan were forced to cut off food supplies in the country, even though 7 to 8 million civilians were dependent on them. The kind of terrorist attacks that attract the most attention are the violent ones, and they are likely to be met with reactions of disgust and grief. This means that the international community is less likely to sympathize with their cause, which results in less support.
The definition of terrorism depends very much upon your point of view - the proposition does not need to defend every atrocity against innocent civilians to argue that terrorism is sometimes justified. A broad definition would say terrorism was the use of violence for political ends by any group which breaks the Geneva Conventions (which govern actions between armies in wartime) or ignores generally accepted concepts of human rights. Under such a broad definition, states and their armed forces could be accused of terrorism. So could many resistance groups in wartime or freedom fighters struggling against dictatorships, as well as participants in civil wars - all irregular groups outside the scope of the Geneva Conventions.
A narrower definition would say that terrorism was the use of violence against innocent civilians to achieve a political end. Such a definition would allow freedom fighters and resistance groups with a legitimate grievance to use force against dictatorship and occupation, providing they only targeted the troops and other agents of oppression. Yet even this tight definition has grey areas - what if the soldiers being targeted are reluctant conscripts? Are not civilian settlers in occupied territories legitimate targets as agents of oppression? What about their children? Doesn't it make a difference if civilians are armed or unarmed? Don't civil servants such as teachers and doctors count as agents of an occupying or oppressive state?
There will always be grey areas that might be justified, under the broader definition most armed forces in history could be accused of terrorism particularly acts such as the bombing of cities during World War II. While under the narrower definition the various resisitance groups during the same war would count. Perhaps at a half way house would be independence movements including the American Revolution.
States who ignore the Geneva Conventions, for example by mistreating prisoners or deliberately attacking civilian targets, are guilty of terrorism and this cannot be justified. Nor are the Conventions only applicable to warfare between sovereign states - their principles can be clearly applied in other kinds of conflict and used to distinguish between legitimate military struggle and indefensible terrorism.
Nor is it reasonable to argue that there are grey areas, and that civilians are sometimes legitimate targets - once such a claim has been made anything can eventually be "justified" in the name of some cause. All too often the political leaderships of protest movements have decided that limited "physical force" is necessary to advance their cause, only to find the violence spiralling out of control. The "hard men" who are prepared to use force end up in control of the movement, which increasingly attracts criminals and others who love violence for its own sake. The original base of support for the movement in the wider population and internationally is alienated. The authorities against whom the movement is struggling also respond by using increasingly repressive measures of their own, generating a spiral of violence and cruelty.
Actions can only be justified by their outcomes, and if the outcome of an act of terror is an overall increase of justice, freedom and welfare, this action is therefore legitimate. Many people around the world suffer on a daily basis from poverty, injustices and violence. Generally, these people did not choose to suffer, nor was it a result of their actions; therefore it can be seen as a logical conclusion that it is a good thing that this suffering is diminished. However, authorities might not always agree to redistribution or an acknowledgement of rights, and more drastic measures are needed to obtain the goal. If, in this case, the use of acts of terror is needed to obtain greater goods such as justice and equality, and this would mean that on balance, more people would gain more utility, the action would be justified. In this way, terrorism can be seen as an effective weapon in a revolutionary struggle that results in progression. A very current example are the terrorist attacks in several Middle Eastern countries that have led to the Arab spring, such as the attack on the Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
 Sinjab, L. (2011, June 3). Yemen: President Saleh injured in attack on palace. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13638787
The end does not justify the means. Even in cases of oppression, it is better to persecute your interest through non-violent and legal means. There may be cases where only an act of terror will lead to a direct improvement of overall utility, but these cases are very rare. Often terrorist attacks are performed by extremist groups who have views that differ from the majority of the community they claim to represent. Most people prefer non-violent means, and the repercussions of violent terrorist acts, such as the invasion of Afghanistan to eradicate the Taliban, will largely worsen the position of the marginalized in society.
Even in cases of suppression and deprivation of human rights, it is not justified to harm others outside the law. Considering acts of terror, there are three possible targets: civilians, political, military or other powerful authorities and their representatives, and structures such as (government) buildings, cars etc. without any causalities. In the case of the first, it is illegitimate to kill innocent civilians because not only have these people not contributed to the terrorists' marginalization, which means that hurting them will not undo the cause of harm, but this also perpetuates the harm that was the cause for violence in the first place. In the case of the second target, the attack on authorities responsible for the marginalization might be removed in some cases (if there is one), but it more often results in backlash where supporters of the authorities act against the insurgents, resulting in more harm. This happened with the Kurdish revolt against the Turkish authorities, which led to a guerilla war with over 30.000 causalities. Thirdly, attacking the infrastructure of a country means disabling the population for accessing their basic capacities such as accessing healthcare by destroying roads or hospitals. Regarding the fact that the population is innocent in the crimes of the government, this is unnecessary and harmful for the whole population.
 Washington Post. (1999). Who Are the Kurds? Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/feb99/kurdprofile.htm
In extreme cases, it is justified to harm others. It can be argued that the population of a nation is complicit in the crimes that their government commits, because they support the regime by paying tax. Osama bin Laden's 'Letter to America' justifies attacking civilians by stating that they are a complicit part in the American military actions abroad because they have chosen their government democratically, and pay taxes to fund their actions.
Secondly, attacks on authorities can get rid of dictators or repressive regimes. Thirdly, commodities such as infrastructure can be used by the government for the promotion of certain groups and to marginalize others. During South African Apartheid, townships were created where black people were forced to live, and which had very little amenities, while the areas where white people lived had much better provisions.
 Laden, O. B. (2002, November 24). Letter to America. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Observer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver
Acts of terror will not lead to a deeper mutual understanding, but to alienation from the international community. People see acts of violence as a threat, and especially in the context of international terrorists attacks, the fear of escalation prevails. Even more, acts of violence are open to multiple interpretations, which can be used in favour of the oppressing state, that has much more resources to spread its message. Not only can it say it uses violence against these terrorists groups to defend itself, but it can also paint an image of the terrorists as irrational, violent creatures. This plays easily into existing stereotypes of non-Westeners as being violent. In order to counter this scenario, it is wiser to resort to non-violent actions. This has the benefit of conveying a very clear message to the outside world that the people protesting are the victims, and not the perpetrators. For instance, the actions of Mahatma Ghandi were known for their civil disobedience and their political messages that went against the norm, but because of the peaceful nature of his protest, he was able to attract a lot of positive attention and followers.
Terrorism can bring attention to certain causes and bring discussion. Images of violence will make much more of an impact than those of peaceful protest. With the modern media, the power of oppressive states to hide or twist the truth has significantly diminished, as anyone with a cellphone can tell their story. Also, with people taking their faith in their own hands, acts of terror such as sabotage can be seen as clever and resourceful.
Terrorism creates a perpetual situation of poverty and anxiety within the community. Terrorism creates an unsafe situation for the local community, which has several consequences: firstly, people are less able to continue their daily actions, such as going to work or school of they are afraid of attacks. Secondly, people are less likely to save or to take risks such as setting up a business when they are uncertain about the their future. Thirdly, international companies are less likely to set up business in a location which is seen as unstable, and with the local market which has little to spend. This all lead to a continuation of poor conditions where many people live in poverty and anxiety, and see little opportunity than continuing the violence themselves. In Northern Ireland, the political violence which is present, combined with the high rates of poverty, creates a vicious circle where the unstable situation is continued.
 Horgan, G. (2011, July 12). Equality of misery? Poverty and political violence in Northern Ireland. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Politico: http://politico.ie/crisisjam/7686-equality-of-misery-poverty-and-politic...
In extreme cases, communities already live in very poor conditions, and terrorism can bring attention to their cause and provide an escape of their situation. By bringing attention to the poor conditions people are living in, and the oppression a community is suffering, you provide an opportunity for improvement. It can be that their condition can worsen on the short term, but that is justified if this means that there is a solution to their suffering on the long term.
States or institutions created in concession to terror are often corrupt, dominated by men of violence with links to organised crime. Nothing is achieved to improve the lives of the people in whose name terror has been used. Terrorist organisations have often a military and violent character. The sort of people who attracted to committing acts of terror often glorify illegitimate acts of violence and justify the possible harm done to civilians by proving their complicity or the outcome of the actions. More precisely, they have only the interest of their ideology or the minority they are supporting. When these people are put in a position of power, they are likely to follow the same lines as before, especially when they do not have a political background. They are likely to be ignorant of how political processes work, and will appoint people that have the ideology in other powerful positions. This will make the whole political system inefficient and biased towards a minority or a fringe interest. As a result, level of corruption could rise, and in extreme cases people with other opinions can be persecuted. Iran went from a Westernizing state to an Islamic one, and is now hostile to dissidents.
 BBC News. (2012). Iran Profile, Retrieved 17 February 2012 from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14541327
States or institutions created in concession to terror can work, if the process of creation is handled with care and is done with the interests of the whole population at heart. It is true that some terrorist organisations have no political experience, but some have, and these organisations should have a say in the political process, in corporation with representatives of other groups. Modern South Africa is a state created as a result of terrorism, yet it is not a state that would be accused of conducting a violent foreign policy or excessive internal repression, especially when compared to other parts of the continent.
African National Congress. (1961, December 16). Manifesto. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from African National Congress: http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=77
BBC News. (1998, January 29). The life and death of Mahatma Gandhi. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/50664.stm
BBC News. (2012). Iran Profile, Retrieved 17 February 2012 from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14541327
Chomsky, N. (2001, October 18). Terrorism Works. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Media Monitors Network: http://www.mediamonitors.net/noamchomsky3.html
Horgan, G. (2011, July 12). Equality of misery? Poverty and political violence in Northern Ireland. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Politico: http://politico.ie/crisisjam/7686-equality-of-misery-poverty-and-politic...
Laden, O. B. (2002, November 24). Letter to America. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Observer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver
Palestine Facts. (n.d.). Details of the Oslo Accords. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Palestine Facts: http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_1991to_now_oslo_accords.php
Sinjab, L. (2011, June 3). Yemen: President Saleh injured in attack on palace. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13638787
SouthAfrica.info. (n.d.). Tackling Apartheid. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from SouthAfrica.info: http://www.southafrica.info/about/arts/615832.htm
Tristam, P. (n.d.). The 1970 Palestinian Hijackings of Three Jets to Jordan. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from About.com: http://middleeast.about.com/od/terrorism/a/dawson-field-hijackings.htm
Washington Post. (1999). Who Are the Kurds? Retrieved August 3, 2011, from Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/feb99/kurdprofile.htm