Can Terrorism Ever Be Legitimate?

James Worth explores whether terrorism is ever legitimate, given the use of force exerted by the West on the Middle East.

By James Worth

I don’t think anybody will argue when I say terrorism is abhorrent. Loss of life for any reason is distressing, especially when the deaths of civilians are supposed to strike fear into the rest of us. Plainly then, terrorism is morally indefensible in the same way that murder and violence are. Modern discourse around terrorism is typically one born out of fear and intolerance. The othering discourse of those with a political agenda is especially damaging, and the division of society propagated by hate speech is undeniably linked to our perception of human atrocities. Simply, the actions of the few have come dangerously close to being branded the intentions of the many, but as global reactions to terrorism demonstrate, humanity achieves more when united. This unity in the face of adversity stems from the horrors of untimely and meaningless death. The slaughter of innocents to further promote a foreign agenda has never been acceptable legally or morally, and from this stems our ferocious condemnation of terrorism.

Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of violence or intimidation, especially against civilians, in pursuit of political aims. What are these political aims then? Did the Boston Marathon bombers have a political agenda, or the assailant on Westminster Bridge? Seemingly there is none. Historical terrorist organisations have had political motivation, the IRA and the ANC for example both used violent means in order to further the pursuit of their imagined ends and, to an extent, both were successful in this. Yet in 2017 the terrorists seem less and less like they represent a political agenda. ISIS may have claimed the attack on London as being their doing, but we can’t be certain of that; after all the only man who could confirm it was shot. So what, if any, are the political aims of an act of terror in the modern day?

Perhaps it is prudent to address the background of the ‘Westminster Terrorist’, before attempting to decipher what drove him to commit such a grisly act. He was born and raised in Kent, not far from where I come from. Tunbridge Wells is a wealthy area, one which still lacks in cultural diversity, much like the rest of Kent. His birth name was ‘Adrian’ – doesn’t strike fear like ‘Khalid Masood’, does it? His police record is particularly violent, with GBH and knife crime featuring amongst the highlights, crimes he evidently chose to recreate in Westminster. His personal history evidently contained instability that no outsider can understand, and perhaps it is in this instability that motivated him to murder. In his conversion to Islam we are faced with the only known link to terrorist organisations, and our judgement in this is questionable. Does his faith condemn his actions to be those of a terrorist, or is he, like any other individual, capable of acting in a manner unrelated to his religious belief? The Telegraph asks ‘When was he radicalised?’, and then proceeds to say ‘nobody knows’. Perhaps then it is possible that he wasn’t radicalised at all, and instead simply a victim of his own mental instability, but his religion and ethnicity sentences him to be a terrorist, even though he identified as British.

The political context of terrorism is perhaps what shapes our perception of it. Typically, terror attacks take place when a minority political entity uses a form of guerrilla warfare against a major world power. For example, the Luftwaffe weren’t terrorists when they bombed Britain, they were an opposing army. The British public accepted this as an act of war; they were prepared for it and acted accordingly. Terrorism conversely, seems to exhibit a distance from an act of war; it’s seen as being unnecessary and irrelevant. But why is this the case? After all most of the western nations that suffer from what we have come to understand as terrorism are involved in direct military action in the Middle East. Aggressive campaigns spearheaded by a coalition of first world nations have left a trail of destruction and death across the lands they promise to liberate. In fact on the same day as the Westminster Bridge attack a US air strike levelled a school in Raqqa, killing at least 30 civilians, possibly more. This in itself constitutes an act of war, if that had happened in New York it is a safe bet that the international community would be joined together in condemnation.

If the actions of the western military coalitions in the Middle East take such a high toll on the innocent population then surely, in their eyes, it constitutes an act of war. With whole families being devastated by liberty bombs it is not hard to imagine the motivation needed to strike back out against the aggressors. In this case, the aggressors are us; Britain, France, Germany, the USA etc. Our allegiance to this coalition sees us standing side by side with our allies whenever terrorism strikes, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and ‘#PrayForParis’ being typical examples of the way social media users reacted to the horrors of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Public outcry at these disasters was unparalleled, similar to the reaction of the public in America to the Boston Marathon bombings. However, the collective cognitive dissonance of the public has led us to believe we are not at war. We are somehow passive observers, morally indignant to the fact that we regularly rain terror and pain down on the unsuspecting population of a faraway country. We do not Pray for Aleppo, or for Raqqa because it stands outside our sphere of knowledge, it is not within touching distance and therefore we allow ourselves to believe we are not at war. Our actions have a reaction; we fail to accept that we are responsible for driving these people into desperation. Our war mongering leaves a wake of poverty, destruction, famine and grief. Is it surprising then that some people feel obliged to take up arms against us?

We have effectively pulled the wool over our eyes, not just individually, but as a society. British bombs explode daily across Syria while terrorist attacks in England occur once in a blue moon. Are we not therefore the terrorists? International politics is not easy, nor is it stable. Compromise must be made where it can, but that is not how we choose to act. Foreign military intervention is a crude tool to protect our interests. The damage done by our Governments is now too far gone to be retracted. If we admit wrong doing in Syria, then the logical step suggests we would be wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan too. Once that replaces the insular charade of liberation that has manifested in modern discourse, our entire political system will fall apart. The sale of arms to countries such as Saudi Arabia continues even though they will no doubt be used to execute civilians in Yemen; so now we are not only direct terrorists, we’re terrorists indirectly as well. Capitalist interests are being protected at all costs, our thirst for oil and our desire for conquest leave us blind to the humanitarian disaster that we leave in our wake. Our military spending accounts for £45.6 billion of our budget, compared to £12.2 billion on aid showing how we systematically fail to account for, or take responsibility for the damage our military inflicts.

The media have chosen to depict the Middle East as an adversary, and an unworthy one at that. We exist as their most benevolent liberators, bringing freedom and capitalism to those unfortunate enough to have been born outside of our light. How can we wage war, murder civilians in their thousands, ignore refugees and wash our hands of responsibility to then be surprised at a reaction? There is no logic in the process. Our bombs kill them, their bombs kill us, but they are terrorists, and we are infallible. War is still war, and we have most certainly declared war on the people of the Middle East. As for the ‘Westminster Terrorist’, I think it is unlikely that he actually meant for his attack to constitute terrorism, but we have created a cultural climate in which all crimes committed by those who are perceived different become attacks on all of us.

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