Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues

Title: Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues

Editor: Igor Primoratz

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN: 1403918163

This book presents a series of political philosophical essays. Most of the essays are pitched at a high level; they are, therefore, only really suitable for older students.

 Primoratz’s introduction to the book (pgs x-xxiv) offers a nice overview of the central questions concerning terrorism. It includes sections entitled, ‘What is terrorism?’, ‘Can terrorism be morally justified?’, and ‘The state as terrorist.’ Teachers might use this introduction to familiarise themselves with the broader context in which the essays that follow it take place.

Igor Primoratz’s essay, ‘What Is Terrorism?, offers a definition of terrorism (see, esp., pgs 24-26). Students might be presented with this definition and asked whether or not they think it captures what terrorism is (especially interesting is the question of whether the threat of violence constitutes terrorism, or whether terrorist acts must include violence), and whether they think that terrorism, so defined, is always morally unacceptable.

Leon Trotsky’s ‘A Defense of the ‘Red Terror’’ is both philosophically and historically interesting. His defence of terrorism (see esp. pgs 39-40) is direct. Students are likely to find his views easy to engage with. A passage from this essay could be presented to students in History. Alternatively, students could be asked to write an essay on Trosky’s views.

Virginia Held’s essay, ‘Terrorism, Rights, and Political Goals’, contains a section entitled ‘The justifiability of terrorism’, (pgs 65-69), which surveys the issues surrounding whether or not terrorism can ever be justified. Senior students might be presented with this section, or with passages from it, and asked to write a philosophical essay on whether or not terrorism can ever be justified. Teachers might instruct students to take a position – yes or no – and defend it against possible objections.

Uwe Steinhoff’s article, ‘How Can Terrorism Be Justified?’ offers a useful scenario where a person whose family is kidnapped realises that the only way of ensuring that his family is safe is to kidnap the innocent daughter of the leader of these kidnappers, and to threaten to kill her if his family is not released (pgs 105-106). This could be presented to students in an effort to get them thinking about the ethics of terrorism, and whether or not it can ever be justified. The final two paragraphs of this article (pg 108) are also useful in that they suggest that state terrorism is prevalent, and that the weak only really use terrorism as a last resort. This extract could be presented to students at the beginning of a discussion.

Igor Primoratz’s article, ‘State Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism’, (pgs 113-127) is particularly fertile. Teachers might read it for its ideas, or select passages from it for presentation to students. The article contains a passage (pg 118, beginning ‘The terrorist attacks…’), which presents astounding figures, and could be used to get students thinking about whether or not some of the actions of some states should qualify as terrorism. It also contains a useful passage on moral standing (pg 122, beginning ‘But that is…’), which could be used to generate discussion.

Burton M. Leiser’s article, ‘The Catastrophe of September 11 and its Aftermath’, (pgs 192-208), would be useful for teachers looking to work Philosophy into their History lessons. Its appallingly weak arguments – while insidious – are likely to prove especially fertile for discussion. The article gives an overview of the events of 9/11, as well as an historical treatment of the events surrounding it. The author makes a number of bold claims, including that ‘[s]tates should be free to pursue terrorists wherever they may flee…’ including across international boundaries – ‘with or without the consent of the state whose boundaries are crossed’ (pg 205). While older students might be able to engage with the article in its entirety, the article alone does not give enough historical context to the events of September 11, 2001; for this reason, teachers would do well to explain what happened on that day, and over the days that followed, to their students.

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