Terrorism, retribution, and collective responsibility

Social Theory and Practice 34 (2):209-242 (2008)
Terrorism is commonly viewed as a form of war, and as a form of war, the morality of terrorism seems to turn on the usual arguments regarding the furtherance of political objectives through coercive means. The terrorist argues that his options for armed struggle are limited, and that the use of force against civilians is the only way he can advance his cause. But this argument is subject to a powerful response. There is the argument from consequences, which asserts that terrorism is almost always counterproductive, even assuming the terrorist’s political objectives are legitimate. There is the argument from rights, which claims that terrorism violates the basic human rights of (at least) its civilian victims, and is therefore morally objectionable regardless of its consequences. And there is the argument from virtue, which notes that slaughtering civilians requires no skill or courage and therefore generates no honor or glory, making the terrorist not a virtuous warrior but a vicious one. But terrorism is not only a means of political coercion. It is also, in the view of many terrorists, a means of retribution. It is a means of exacting punishment on a political community the terrorist believes is collectively responsible for grievous wrongs certain members of that community have committed. And viewed as a means of retribution, the usual arguments made against terrorism-as-coercion have no moral force. To explain why terrorism-as-retribution is morally wrong, we must attack the notion of collective responsibility on which the terrorist relies
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DOI 10.5840/soctheorpract200834213
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