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The Ethics of Terrorism: Employing Just War Principles Essay

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The Just War tradition has been seen as a leading perspective on the ethics of war since the writings of St Augustine were rearticulated by Thomas Aquinas. It attempts to provide a framework which validates just conflicts, whilst at the same time applying limits so as to prevent unrestrained warfare. Today, its core principles can be divided into two broad categories: ‘jus ad bellum’ (just resort to war) and ‘jus in bello’ (just conduct in war). For a war to be just, numerous criteria must be satisfied within these categories.

In recent decades non-state terrorism has become increasingly high-profile; indeed, in the twenty first century it has dominated the global political agenda. It is pertinent therefore, to question whether terrorism can be ethically assessed using the Just War tradition.In this essay, I will argue that it is possible to ethically evaluate terrorism by employing Just War principles. I will show that terrorists can satisfy the most important criterion of the Just War tradition. Firstly, they can represent a ‘legitimate authority’ and can have a ‘just cause’. Secondly, terrorism can be a ‘last resort’ and offers a ‘reasonable prospect of success’. Finally, whilst many terrorists do adhere to the principle of ‘discrimination’, the notion of ‘non-combatant immunity’ and civilian innocence is over-simplified. Furthermore, terrorists may perceive themselves to be in a ‘supreme emergency’, therefore meaning the rules of war cease to exist. Terrorism can satisfy the principle of proportionality.

However, before I begin my argument, I must establish a working definition for ‘terrorism’; an important and controversial issue in itself. Walzer describes it as ‘like rape and murder… an attack upon the innocent’ (2005...


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...Family Research Council, Accessed Online: 07/11/2010

Roberts, Adams, (1989), ‘Ethics, Terrorism and Counter Terrorism’, Terrorism and Political Violence 1 (1), pp. 48-70

Schmidt Alex P, and Jongman Albert I, (1998) ‘Political Terrorism’ (Amsterdam, Transaction Books)

Smilanski, Saul, (2004), ‘Terrorism, Justification and Illusion’, Ethics, 114, July pp. 790-805

Valls, Andrew, (2000), ‘Can Terrorism Be Justified’, In Andre Valls (ed.), Ethics in International Affairs, pp. 65-80

Walzer, Michael, (1992), ‘Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations’, (New York: Basic Books)

Walzer, Michael, (2005), ‘Arguing About War’, (Yale Nota Bene)

Wilkins, Burleigh Taylor, (1992), ‘Terrorism and collective responsibility’, (New York : Routledge)

US State Department, (2005), ‘Country Reports on Terrorism’, Accessed online: 15/11/2010


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