Americans can see or hear about dozens of terrorist acts every day. They can tune in to their favorite TV shows or go to the local cinema and be bombarded with violence and mayhem endlessly. Perhaps these events should be called ???virtual terrorism.??? Consider this as you read more.
Americans can also, of course, tune in to media outlets that are continuous accounts of terrorist acts. These accounts describe suicide bombers, mass slaughter of innocent civilians, car bombs, and much more. The most disturbing terrorist acts at the moment involve public beheadings of reporters or other civilians who happen to be in the path of Islamic radicals in ungoverned parts of Iraq or Syria. Reaction to these beheadings has brought a sense of revulsion to new highs. Words to describe them seem inadequate, though they include ???barbarian,??? ???uncivilized,??? ???heinous,??? ???depraved,??? and ???wicked.??? If a single word were to be used to describe terrorist acts, it would be EVIL. Defining terrorism and discussing its relationship to morality may lead to less heat and more light on the subject.
Most current uses of the term terrorism assume that audiences know what the word means; likely they do not. Consider the following definition: Terrorist acts surprise and shock people with the threat of brutalizing violence or sudden death which, in turn, create extreme fear, feelings of desperation, acute anxiety, and panic???all elements of a most disturbing psychological condition.
Terrorist acts may be by a person who mugs someone on a city street, or in an elevator, or who rapes a lone jogger, attacking his victim with a gun or knife without warning, therein creating terror in the heart of his victim. Obviously in these cases people are astonished and shocked by the threat of immediate and grave danger. Attackers in such cases are often referred to as ???lone wolf??? terrorists.
Political terrorists, however, are different. Usually, their acts are well planned by radical ethnic, religious, or political organizations. They seek notoriety for their cause, realizing that world media will be focused on them while they act. It???s sobering to note, too, that a whole government may be one grand terrorist organization. Peel back a layer or two of North Korea???s government and that is what one finds.
Most comments in American media on these acts imply that they are morally wrong, using the words listed above. Islamists, on the other hand, believe in the validity of what they call ???jihad??? to drive Americans and other ???infidels??? out of the Middle East that once was part of an Islamic empire???a caliphate. Jihad is, of course, often referred to in Islamic culture as a ???holy war.??? In addition, to rid the planet of the Western infidels has become a sacred mission.
American commentators feel these acts are evil. Yet, they seem to have no moral basis for this feeling, much less a logical one. The absence of a moral basis on which to firmly condemn Islamic terrorism stems from the fact that few Americans understand Christianity???s Just War doctrine and its place in the Western world???s past. If they did, it would be obvious to some at least that the slaughter of innocent non-combatants is murder, and thus, morally wrong. And, where did this idea come from? It is embedded in the 1600-year-old Just War Theory attributed to St. Augustine (354-430).
As to a logical argument about the morality of terrorism, consider the following.
While American observers intuitively understand that terrorism is morally wrong, they should also grasp it intellectually in light of Just War Theory. Islamic practitioners, on the other hand, believe that their jihadist ???holy war??? is justified. Their justification is based on disputed obscure passages in the Koran. Both parties are referring to the same acts. Can both sides be correct? A first principle of logic states that something cannot be true and not true (that is, false) at the same time.
If American political leaders took a good look at the Just War Theory and its use through time, they would conclude the following: First, that Islamic terrorist acts in the Middle East violate this time-honored theory???s condemnation of the use of ???excessive force.??? Second, this violation constitutes justification for opposing Islamic terrorist acts with combat forces. Their principal duty would be three-fold, applying the foundational principles for a just war:
1. Suppress Islam???s use of excessive force.
2. Protect the remaining non-combatants who are at risk of being slaughtered.
3. Re-establish legitimate borders in the region.
President Obama could clear up his uncertainty and apparent confusion as to what would be an effective policy in this region. A quick tutorial on St. Augustine???s Just War Theory would help; he probably did not learn about it while going to school in Indonesia.
To conclude with emphasis: Islamic terrorism is morally wrong because it is murder and murder is a moral absolute. Our political leaders would be smart to embrace the Just War Theory as a basis for a wise Middle Eastern policy, even using American ???boots on the ground??? to terminate such jihadist evil.
Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.