Publication Details

Martin, B, Terrorism: ethics, effectiveness and enemies, Social Alternatives, 2004, 23(2), 36-37. The original journal can be found here.


Discussions of terrorism usually contain unstated assumptions about ethics, effectiveness and "enemies." These assumptions usually serve to sideline nonviolent options. Ulf Sundhaussen’s otherwise perceptive article fits this pattern. Terrorism is nearly always assumed to be unethical. Indeed, the very label "terrorism" has become a hostile judgement disguised as a description (Gearty, 1997). In conventional western accounts of terrorism, there is a double standard: only terrorism by nonstate groups or US-government-defined "rogue states" is counted. Sundhaussen, like other critics, instead adopts a definition that includes terrorism by dominant states, especially the United States. His next step is to focus on injustices experienced by oppressed groups such as the Palestinians. He argues that when an oppressed group is so weak that no other response has a chance, then armed action against civilians can have some justification, at least as much justification as violence perpetrated by oppressors. This attention to justifying terrorism by the oppressed marginalises nonviolent options. Just because terrorism sometimes can be justified does not mean that nonviolent action can be ignored.