War v Terrorism question: the simple answer

They asked: ‘What is the difference between an act of war and an act of terrorism?’ It appears in a list of questions that might be asked at an Oxbridge interview, and it struck me as an odd one because there is a simple, Hobbesian answer. Maybe they do not want Hobbes.

I am glad to forget the interview questions they asked me at Oxford; they are a fiendish and effective way to tease out the character and educated reasoning of a candidate. That is why a question with a short answer does not fit.

War is legal; terrorism is illegal: it is that simple.

War though in a Hobbesian sense is a perpetual state when there is no Common-wealth.

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

Where the Common-wealth (which is to say the state) is established and effective, only the state may use or authorise violence. Therefore authorised violence, whether as simple as arresting a man or as enormous as levying all-out war, belongs to the Sovereign. All private and unauthorised violence offends against the Sovereign and may be punished. Where the Common-wealth is ineffective to keep its subjects in awe then that Warre against every Man is reality.

The legalistic mind in a settled, modern state will argue about whether particular acts by that state are legal or not, drawing on laws established or invented, to condemn or condone acts of war effected by their government. States may have their own constitutional rules and procedures about when head of government may or may not go to war, but those are for the internal laws of the state. International law is not law. The domestic laws of a nation are only as potent as the extent to which the state follows the rule of law in the first place. From the perspective of an outsider faced with an invading army, they are utterly irrelevant. A sovereign may go to war, and that is universal.

With such a short answer available, an interview question asking what is the difference between war and terrorism suggests there is a moral judgment to be made, beyond ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’.

Theologically one can twist and turn about the subject but it comes down to the necessity of their being a sovereign Prince or Common-wealth to maintain the peace, and it is an attribute of indivisible sovereignty that the Sovereign may levy war and maintain by any means internal peace. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and war is indeed Caesar’s. The Romans admittedly though skilled at war, were no good example when it comes to peace and lawfulness of their wars, wracked as they were with rebellion and civil war.

The idea of civil war seems to contradict the idea of war as legal. Hobbes knew all about civil war, having been caught in the turmoil between the King and Parliament. Leviathan must be read in that context, the necessity of civil peace being a thread running through it. Two rival sides able to raise and command armies appear as two states at war.

Terrorism is something very different though. The terrorist strikes, kills, and then may slip back into society. He is not a soldier of a rival society, but is part of the society he attacks. His attack is in fact dependent upon that society for its effect: where there is no settled society there can be no terrorism because murder offends against no law and disrupts nothing. If a half-ton meteor lands in an empty field, it makes a hole but we move on, but if an identical meteor were to fall in a city, it would be a disaster. The shock of a terrorist attack is that it disrupts a society which relies upon its own peace and order to function.

An act of war will cause far more damage than any terrorist attack, if it is done properly, but war is celebrated, and war is, as the action of the Sovereign, the collective act of a nation (whether they like it or not) against an outside foe or an internal foe seeking to destroy that society. The simple answer then remains: war is legal, and terrorism is illegal. Going further, if you must, terrorism must by its nature be the highest of crimes because it is committed by those who are subjects of the laws of a society or who have become part of that society.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

One thought on “War v Terrorism question: the simple answer”

  1. “Terrorism” is sometimes defined as a “form of coercion.” But there are important differences between ordinary coercion and terrorist intimidation. This paper explores some of those differences, particularly the relation between coercion, on the one hand, and terror and terrorization, on the other hand. The paper argues that while terrorism is not necessarily associated with terror in the literal sense, it does often seek to instill a mental state like terror in the populations that it targets. However, the point of instilling this mental state is not necessarily coercive or intimidatory: one can try to instill terror as an act of punishment, or as an expressive or therapeutic act, or because one values the political consequences that might follow, or because one thinks terror is preferable, from an ethical point of view, to the inauthentic complacency that characterizes the targeted population at present. Though this paper asks questions about the definition of “terrorism,” these questions are not asked for their own sake. The quest for a canonical definition of “terrorism” is probably a waste of time. But asking questions which sound like questions of definition is sometimes a fruitful way of focusing our reflections on terrorism and organizing our response.

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