The Right Coast

September 13, 2004
When Terrorists Have a Just Cause
By Ilya Somin

Many acts of terrorism are not only despicable in themselves, but are also intended to promote an evil political agenda. Certainly that is true of Al Qaeda's plan to use terrorism to establish an Islamofascist caliphate spanning the Muslim world. But terrorism is a means, not a goal, so it can be used to advance just causes as well as unjust ones. For example, Russia's long history of oppressing the Chechens arguably justifies Chechen terrorists' demand for independence. Similarly, there is a strong argument (one I agree with) that France's law banning the wearing of head scarves by Muslim students is an indefensible violation of religious freedom. The abolition of this law is, of course, demanded by terrorists who recently took two French journalists hostage in Iraq.

The fact that the terrorists' demands may be just does not in any way excuse their actions. But it does pose a difficult dilemma. If governments give in to any terrorist demands, including just ones, this creates an obvious incentive for future terrorism - including by groups with evil causes. If, on the other hand, the government keeps current policies in place in order to avoid giving in to terrorism, then an unjust policy is perpetuated.

The same point applies to third party observers such as the media, international organizations, and political activists. If, for example, human rights activists call on Russia to grant Chechnya independence, this might be seen as urging concessions to terrorism. Indeed, one of the reasons why terrorists engage in terrorism in the first place is in order to attract attention to their cause from the media and the international community.

Note that even if the government changes its unjust policies or third parties condemn those policies for reasons having nothing to do with the actions of terrorists, the terrorists themselves might still believe that their strategy has worked - and therefore try to repeat the "success" in the future.

How do we solve the conundrum? There may not be any definitive solution, but here are a few tentative suggestions.

1. The elimination of the unjust policy can be combined with a stepped-up military offensive against the terrorists. This approach might reduce the chance that the change in policy will be perceived as a concession to terrorism. Such a strategy was consciously adopted Israeli government when it coupled its decision to withdraw from Gaza (although the Israelis understandably don't believe that they were wrong to occupy Gaza in the first place, an issue I won't try to address here) with a massive attack on the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, including killing its two top leaders. "Israeli officials . . . said they hope a string of military successes to show that the militant group was not driving it out of the coastal strip."

2. Delaying changes in the policy in question to ensure that they are not adopted soon after a terrorist attack. This, of course, has the cost of continuing the unjust policy longer than might otherwise be the case. But it might still be preferable to either an immediate change in policy or sticking to the status quo indefinitely.

3. The media, human rights activists, and international organizations should ensure that causes promoted by means of terrorism do not get more attention and support than equally worthy causes promoted by legitimate means. For example, even those who believe that the Palestinian cause is just should work to ensure that it not be given greater priority than that of, for example, the Tibetans - a people victimized by a brutal occupation who nonetheless have not resorted to terrorism to combat it. Indeed, in cases where terrorism is broadly supported by the group the terrorists are acting to "help," we should consider giving that group's cause LOWER priority than it might deserve otherwise. If this strategy is firmly in place, over time terrorists might be convinced that their efforts are futile. I don't underestimate the difficulties involved in getting the media and the international community to adopt this norm. But we should at least make a start.

The above list is far from exhaustive, and may not be appropriate to every case. More needs to be done to address the dilemma created by terrorists who have a just cause. Sadly, the problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon!