A persistent trope of debates about terrorism is the extent to which it is explained, or perhaps even excused, by various sets of social phenomena, centring on denial of putative rights. Disparagingly, those who hold this view are sometimes referred to as root causers, the sneer, it is often claimed, being justified by the way in which focussing on the underlying social conditions ignores the importance of individual agency in terrorism. It is argued that, regardless of whatever it is that motivates individuals to commit acts of terrorism, they committed them, and they ought to be unreservedly condemned for choosing to take that course. At least insofar as condemnation is involved, I think this view is probably wrong, because it ignores the way in which the propriety of condemnation can be dependent on the position one occupies in relation to the putative grievance the terrorism seeks to motivate the amelioration of. If that’s the case, the root causers are not as wrong as some think they are: they may be pointing to two ways in which many non-terrorists relate to terrorists which debar them from condemning terrorism.
Jerry Cohen, in his paper ‘Casting the First Stone: Who Can, and Who Can’t, Criticise the Terrorists’, talks of his anger at hearing the Israeli ambassador to Britain appear on the radio and say
No matter what the grievance, and I’m sure that the Palestinians have some legitimate grievances, nothing can justify the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians. If they were targeting our soldiers, that would be a different matter.
Cohen’s complaint has two strands, out of which he seeks to generalise two ways in which a condemnation can be ruled out: the ‘tu quoque’ or ‘you too’ relation, or the ‘you’re involved’ relation. Both work relatively simply. One is debarred, at least in part, from condemning an act, however reasonable the condemnation of that act may be in the abstract, if either one has committed a relevantly similar act, or if one has in some way been instrumental towards that act. The first is clearer, I think: however abstractly proper condemnation of theft may be, an unrepentant thief can hardly fairly condemn someone who steals from them. It would be obviously dishonest for them to publicly take up an attitude of condemnation towards acts which are so similar to the acts which they habitually engage in – assuming that acts are relevantly similar.
The second is slightly more complicated, partly because it splits into two related but not quite identical strands. The first of these senses in which ‘you’re involved’ is that when one has created the grievance to which the condemned act is a response, while the second is that when one has created a situation in which the most attractive or even the only response to a grievance is the condemned act. The two are not identical, because I can starve someone, making it harder for me to criticise them when they steal to feed themselves, just as I can play no part in their starvation, but close down the soup kitchens would have alleviated the need to steal. Despite the two different relations in which I could stand to the starving person, in both cases I would be a hypocrite were I to criticise their theft, because I created either the grievance which it is a response to, or I closed off other avenues of alleviating it. In both cases I would be complicit in aspects of the injustice which the condemned act was a response to.
To use other examples, which show that the injunctions have a wider scope than reactions to injustices or perceived grievances inflicted on those who are to be condemned, we could think of concentration camp guards and their superiors. One concentration camp guard may not criticise another for acts intrinsic to being a concentration camp guard, just as an officer may not criticise the man he commands for following his commands. The ‘you too’ injunction applies to the first, and the ‘you’re involved’ to the second. The moral complaint at the heart of the first is, it seems, a simple hypocrisy: ‘if it’s so terrible, why are you doing it?’ is a legitimate question to ask in this situation, and until an adequate answer can be provided, the condemner should fall silent. The moral complaint at the heart of the second is marginally more complex, but is the one in the question, ‘if it’s so terrible, why did you encourage me to do it?’, a question which likewise ought to silence the condemner. In both cases, the question asks about the consistency of the attitudes which are displayed by the condemner: they are attempting to condemn something they are at best complicit in, and so their attitude cannot be honest, because if it were, they would surely work to remove their complicity rather than criticise the acts in which they are complicit.
The bearing this has for Cohen on what was said by the Israeli ambassador is that the Israeli state, of which he is a representative, engages in acts which are relevantly similar to the terrorism of the Palestinians, and has both created the grievance to which the terrorism is a response, and made that terrorism one of the most effective ways of drawing attention to, and so gaining redress for, that grievance. This is not to make any claim about the justifiability, in the abstract, of that terrorism, or of the various policies adopted by the Israeli state towards the Palestinians: the point is that one can hardly take up a public attitude of condemnation towards Palestinian terrorism when one engages in acts which bear certain similarities to it, and when one has created the situation in which it is an obvious means of gaining redress. Equally, Cohen’s claims apply just as much to Palestinian condemners of Israeli policy: their terrorism is relevantly similar to the ‘targeted’ assassinations by Israel, and it undoubtedly creates a political climate in which such policies can flourish.
The relevance the argument has here is threefold. Firstly, it shows that the root causers may be onto something when they draw attention to the social background against which acts of terrorism occur, because, insofar as we are complicit in the creation and maintenance of those conditions, there is a question of how appropriate the stance we take towards that terrorism when we condemn it is. They are almost certainly incorrect when they argue that that social background justifies that terrorism, but they are correct to point out that we must consider to what extent justified criticism of terror depends on being able to separate ourselves from acts which are similar to it, and from the creation and maintenance of situations which provoke it and make it seem attractive.
Secondly, it revises Phil’s point about the proper response to terrorism being ethical, rather than political: sometimes, one cannot take up a non-political stance from which one could respond to a terrorist outrage, because one is inextricably bound up in the politics of that outrage. Galloway’s claim, in this light, that the London bombings were predictable blowback from Iraq, commits the exact opposite of the Israeli ambassador’s wrong, by overstating the extent to which we were complicit in the wrong in question, no doubt amongst other things. Lastly, it makes a more general point about political discourse. Although I haven’t discussed it, there is the question – which bears on what Phil had to say, because it may make an ethical stance open to an otherwise compromised, political, figure or claim – of to what extent the hypocrisy of the two ways in which one can be prevented from condemning an act can be mitigated by honest disavowals of one’s complicity or weak-willedness. If public debate is to be conducted in an ethically and morally sound manner, answers to these kinds of questions need to be found.