Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Ethics of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

Date: October 28 - 30, 2003
Scientific Organizer: Prof. G. Meggle (Leipzig)

This international conference was co-initiated by the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Melbourne. The conference set out to explore the basis for the moral assessment both of terrorism and counter-terrorism. For this purpose, it had to take into account, but mostly to transcend, purely factual questions about the origins and developments of terrorism at various places and times. Conceptual and normative questions moved centre-stage. And thus, while participants included journalists, lawyers, psychologists, and experts on international relations, peace studies, and conflict resolution, the largest group were the philosophers.
What is terrorism? Are terrorist acts to be defined exclusively on the basis of the characteristics of the respective actions? Should we restrict the concept to acts performed by non-state agents? Are terrorist actions by definition directed against innocent people? What is the perspective from which "innocence" is to be judged in this context? And, most importantly, is terrorism immoral by its very nature? The majority of the contributions dealt with some or all of these fundamental questions. Tony Coady and Igor Primoratz, among others, defended descriptive concepts of terrorism - so that, conceptually speaking, the normative status of terrorism would be an open question. Rüdiger Bittner's concluding talk on the political function of "Morals in Terrorist Times" came closest to taking the opposite stand. According to Bittner, it is, at the very least, obvious that terrorism is wrong.
But precisely what is it that makes terrorism right or wrong, and what is it that makes this or that form of counter-terrorism right or wrong? In the discussion of these central questions, the tradition of just war theory figured as a leitmotiv. That was only to be expected, for both terrorists and their militant opponents employ, in as far as they try to justify their actions, thoughts from that tradition. Thoughts about these thoughts therefore dominated Tony Coady's public lecture "Terrorism, Just War and Right Response". The same held true of Igor Primoratz's paper, which argued that, by and large, state terrorism is morally worse than non-state terrorism. Just-war theory, of course, works both ways. Unsurprisingly and inescapably, in specifying which wars are just it also specifies which wars fail to be just. Criteria of just war thus provide a powerful tool for the moral analysis of the most salient counter-terrorist action that lies ahead of us, the Anglo-American war against Iraq.
As to counter-terrorism, further specific measures that were scrutinized included military tribunals and other devices of international law; ditto, mostly on the national level, data-screening and various other executive and legislative projects that are bound to change the balance between national security and civil liberties.
Further contributions on the ethics of counter-terrorism will be printed in the extended conference proceedings - "extended" because there were more papers worth reading and printing than there was time to present and discuss at the conference itself. To name but one of these extra contributions, Haig Khatchadourian's article on torture and assassination in counter-terrorism will be in the book.
This conference was a follow-up event to another conference, the conference on the ethics of humanitarian interventions, held at the ZiF in January 2002. The obvious candidate for a topic to continue the series would be the ethics of preemptive defence. Given the role of preemptive strikes in the new "National Security Strategy of the United States", such strikes will be, in the years to come, one of the largest concerns in the ethics of international relations.
In the meantime, for more information on the conference that lies behind us, see the conference's website. It features the participants' CVs, the abstracts, draft or even final versions of most of the papers, and short summaries of the Bielefeld discussions.

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