9 minute read

Must Terrorism Be Political?

By Saba Bazargan


Was Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old who allegedly murdered nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a terrorist?

This question is important for both practical and moral reasons. The practical reasons are legion: the specter of terrorism has been used as rationalization for indefinite military detention, extrajudicial assassinations, the criminalization of certain kinds of charitable donations, ethnic- and religious profiling, and outright torture. If Roof’s alleged acts count as terrorism, then this suggests that the US Homeland Security apparatus can be brought to bear not just on Muslim Americans suspected of allying themselves with extremist Islamism, but on ultra-conservative Americans who are suspected of allying themselves with the cause of militant white nationalism.

The question of whether the massacre counts as terrorism is also relevant for moral reasons. Though we often use the concept overly broadly, ‘terrorism’ is at least supposed to carve out a form of violence that calls for special or distinctive disapprobation. This is partly because terrorism aims not only at those who are maimed and killed, but at the larger society as well. The direct victims of terrorism are those who are actually maimed and killed by the terrorist. But by inflicting such harms, the terrorist advances another goal: to spread fear in the general population (of which the direct victims are members). Those who are made to live in fear are the indirect victims. According to what I will call the ‘Standard View’ of terrorism, which is widely endorsed by many moral philosophers, the purpose of spreading fear in the general population is to coerce them into acceding to some political or social goal that the perpetrator has. The perpetrator, in effect, makes a conditional threat to the indirect victims: you will not feel safe unless you meet our political demands. This differentiates terrorism from other atrocities (such as Adam Lanza’s attack at Sandy Hook element school in 2012 – an atrocity that was apparently devoid of any political or social agenda). What makes terrorism so morally egregious, on this account, is not just the bloodshed involved, but the way that the direct victims are used to manipulate the indirect victims.[1]

“Though we often use the concept overly broadly, ‘terrorism’ is at least is supposed to carve out a form of violence that calls for special or distinctive disapprobation.”

This account of what makes terrorism distinctively wrong might seem abstruse and problematically ‘bloodless’. Certainly, a major part of what makes terrorism wrong must be the shattered limbs and the shattered lives. But an appeal to the wrongfulness of forcibly using someone helps explain why terrorism is deserving of its own category in the pantheon of moral wrongs. To see why, it is useful to compare terrorism with another heinous wrong: rape. What makes rape wrongful consists partly, of course, in the physical and psychological harm inflicted. But it is not limited to that. The victim of rape is not merely physically harmed; in addition, her body is forcibly used as a mere tool in furtherance of the rapist’s heinous ends. This is partly why the wrong of rape is deserving of its own category. The same goes for terrorism: the direct victims are used as tools to spread fear among the indirect victims who are in turn used as tools to force those with political power to accede to the terrorist’s demands.

But given the Standard View, it is unclear whether Roof’s alleged actions count as terroristic. He was clearly motivated by racism. The site he chose – the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – played an important role in the history of black liberation in South Carolina. It was co-founded by Denmark Vesey, a leaders of a thwarted slave revolt which was to unfold on June 17, 1822 – exactly 193 years before Roof’s attack. His ‘manifesto’ as well as his activity on social networking sites reveals that he harbored explicitly racist views against African Americans. According to a friend of his, he wanted to “start a race war”.[2] And during the massacre, he allegedly said that blacks were “taking over the country“ and “have to go”.[3] It also seems clear not only that he was motivated by racism but that he intended to intimidate the African American community at large; he allegedly spared at least one victim so that that she might reveal to others what happened, thereby sowing fear among the public.[4]

But what if Roof aimed only at vengeance against African Americans for misperceived wrongs? If he sought simply to harm African Americans by massacring some and sowing fear in others, then as deplorable as this is, it does not qualify as terrorism on the Standard View. This is because, on this view, the purpose of terrorism is to coerce a people or a government into acceding to social or political demands. Accordingly, FBI Director James Comey said, two days after the massacre, that he did not see it as an act of terrorism. This is because terrorism is “more of a political act”, he said. “…and based on what I know,” he continued “I don’t see this as a political act. Doesn’t make it any less horrific, but terrorism has a definition under federal law.”[5]

That Roof’s act might be characterized as retributive rather than political might partly explain why, according to a CNN/ORC poll conducted two weeks after the massacre, only 41% of Americans thought that it qualified as terrorism.[6] (Indeed, only 55% of African-Americans thought the atrocity qualified as terrorism). We might in response try to argue that Roof did indeed have political aims, or that retributive aims against a people count as political. But in my view, we need not saddle ourselves with this burden; to count as an act of terrorism, a violent act need not have the aim of bringing about some political end.

To see this more clearly, consider the following fictional example. Suppose a self-identifying Muslim (let’s call him ‘Mr. J’) residing in the United States is radicalized by Islamist websites; he comes to believe that American citizens must be punished for what he perceives to be crimes against the people of Muslims countries. So Mr. J procures weapons and goes on a murderous spree during an Independence Day parade. The direct victims are, in his view, deserving of their fates. The indirect victims – those Americans who might be fearful of gathering in public displays of American patriotism – are in his view thereby punished as well. Certainly we want to say that this would count as terrorism. Yet Mr. J’s purpose is not to coerce the public into acceding to political or social demands. Rather, it is simply to inflict retribution, for its own sake. Given the Standard View, it seems we are forced to say that Mr. J’s actions do not qualify as terrorism.

This is an unpalatable consequence. To avoid it, I think we should reconsider the Standard View. Recall that on this view, what makes terrorism distinctively wrong is that such acts aim at harming direct victims in order to spread fear among indirect victims; this fear is used to force those with political power to accede to the terrorist’s political or social demands. But I think the hypothetical case of Mr. J shows that an act of terrorism need not have that purpose. Let’s call this the ‘Modified View’. At first, the Modified View might seems to cast its net too widely in that it seems to mistakenly categorize non-terroristic violence such as the Sandy Hook massacre as acts of terrorism. But this isn’t so, because the Modified View retains the idea that an act of violence counts as terroristic only if it targets some in order to spread fear among others in society. This rules out random acts of violence (like the Sandy Hook massacre) and rules in acts of violence where direct victims are harmed in order to inflict retribution on members of that that demographic (like the Roof massacre). What the Modified View abandons is the condition that the purpose of spreading this fear is to coerce those with power into adopting the terrorist’s political or social demands.

“insofar as we are interested in determining whether Roof’s alleged actions count as terrorism, it does not matter whether the atrocity aimed at political or social change. It is enough if we know that he aimed at inflicting grievous harms on some, in order to sow fear in other members of that demographic.”

The Modified View, if correct, suggests that there are various kinds of terrorism distinguished by the purpose of spreading fear. In political terrorism the purpose of spreading fear is to force social or political concessions. In hate-based terrorism the purpose of spreading fear is to seek retribution against a target demographic. The categories are not exclusive; acts of terrorism may be both political and hate-based. But what makes both species of terrorism, in my view, is two-fold: a) the direct victims are targeted with the intention of inflicting serious harms, and b) inflicting these harms is used as a means to the (penultimate or ultimate) end of spreading fear among the indirect victims. That the ends are political in nature is morally important, but only incidental to its status as an act of terrorism.

The upshot, then, is that insofar as we are interested in determining whether Roof’s alleged actions count as terrorism, it does not matter whether the atrocity aimed at political or social change. It is enough if we know that he aimed at inflicting grievous harms on some, in order to sow fear in other members of that demographic. Whether Roof’s alleged act was merely retributively motivated or motivated by a desire to force political or social concessions, is relevant only to the type of terrorism it falls under, and not whether it counts as terrorism as such.

Though the term ‘War on Terror’ was retired by the Obama administration, the war continues if not in name. If there is to be a world-wide military campaign against terrorism aimed at the US and its allies, then militant ultra-conservatives committing violent hate-crimes either for its own sake or in furtherance of some political agenda, should not be exempted as a target.

[1] Samuel Scheffler developed the most sophistical version of this view in his paper ‘Is Terrorism Morally Distinctive?’ The Journal of Political Philosophy, 14(1), 1-17.

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/US/friend-accused-sc-shooter-claims-wanted-start-race/story?id=31874063

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/south-carolina-governor-urges-death-penalty-charges-in-church-slayings/2015/06/19/3c039722-1678-11e5-9ddc-e3353542100c_story.html

[4] http://abcnews.go.com/US/charleston-shooting-gunman-allegedly-survivor-inside-church/story?id=31872085

[5] “FBI Director: Charleston shooting not terrorism”. WHAM-TV. June 20, 2015. Retrieved June 20, 2015

[6] http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2015/images/07/01/confederate.flag.pdf

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


  1. Kristijan Mihajlovski

    This is a very, very interesting article!

    I’d just pose the question of making a difference between hate crimes (crimes aimed at an identity-defined group OR an individual BUT ONLY IN HIS CAPACITY AS AN AFFILIATE to an identity-defined group) and the modified view of terrorism.

    Hate crimes are by definition attacks on a group via the attack on a part of the group. Do hate crimes automatically constitute acts of terrorism?

    • Saba Bazargan

      Interesting — I’m not sure that hate crimes are by definition perpetrated by individuals acting on the behalf of an identity-defined group. Certainly some hate crimes might have this characteristic, but not all do. It seems possible for a self-hating homosexual to perpetrate hate-crimes against other homosexuals.

      I don’t think all hate crimes qualify as terrorism, because some hate crimes do not aim at inflicting serious harm on its direct victims. Spray-painting hateful graffiti on a place of worship might be an example of this. It seems to me that for an act to count as terroristic, it must aim at spreading fear in a demographic *by inflicting serious bodily harm* as a means to spreading the fear. If this is correct, spray painting hateful graffiti on a place of worship would be a hate crime, but not terrorism.

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