The ethics of terror

The European Union definition of terrorism includes all attempts to override the democratic process by force. However, democracy is not a detergent which makes evil into good. The outcome of a democratic process is not inherently good, and often inherently wrong and unjust. The EU prohibition of terrorism has no moral basis.

Amsterdam, 18 juni 2004

DAC Peter Clarke
Metropolitan Police, SO13
London SW1H OBG

the necessity of terrorism

As commander of the anti-terrorist unit at London's Metropolitan Police, you are a prominent leader of the 'war against terror' in Europe. This letter is however intended to emphasise the moral and historical necessity of terrorism. It sets out the justification for acts of terror, and for terrorism as an ideology. Although terrorism is not generally treated as an ideology in the same sense as other '-isms', it follows from the European definition of terrorism - violence to change the political or social order - that it can be adopted as a political philosophy. In a 2002 petition to the European Parliament to legalise terrorism, I set out two fundamental grounds for terrorism...

1. The European definition of terrorism (at the time a draft version) implies that it is wrong to change society, especially since conservative political violence was not included in the definition. The final version, Council Framework Decision 2002/475/JHA, defined terrorism as violent crimes aimed at "seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation". Bomb attacks committed by conservatives to stabilise a country, or its fundamental structures, are not defined as terrorism by the EU. The definition was evidently written by people who think the existing structures should stay in place, for all time. The underlying assumption is that conservatism is the whole and absolute moral truth - and that assumption is false.

Innovation is its own justification, and in historical perspective innovation and political violence have always been associated. This has become more relevant as democracy spreads. Self-satisfied and conservative electorates, like the 'Middle England' which elected Tony Blair, are generally characteristic of democracies. The liberal-democratic political philosopher John Rawls saw democracy as a vehicle for political and social stability over a period of centuries, and it does seem to work that way. That is a fundamental reason to oppose it, and this opposition will inevitably have a 'terrorist' nature, since democracy includes no mechanism to correct its own defects.

2. Specifically, terrorism is necessary for innovations in the geopolitical order. In such cases there is no question of an alternative mechanism, and the historical record is clear: borders are changed, and states are dissolved and formed, by force of arms. I emphasised in the petition the deep hypocrisy of the European leaders, who condemn geopolitical violence as 'terrorism', while their own states were established in the same way. I quoted the funeral oration by the Irish premier Bertie Ahern, for the IRA-man Kevin Barry - arrested by your predecessors in the British police, and executed. After 90 years, and often less, the secessionist terrorist becomes the fallen hero of the nation, and the barbaric terror becomes the heroic struggle for freedom. Most of the current EU member states established their sovereignty by force in the last 200 years. None of them existed in their present borders in 1800. Croatia, which today became an official candidate for EU membership, secured its independence at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead in the 1940's, and into the mid-1990's. And yet its premier would, like Bertie Ahern after his oration for Kevin Barry, denounce violence for political ends.

The hypocrisy is unsurprising, because a threat of geopolitical violence is inherently present within Europe itself. A European civil war, to establish a single European state, would eclipse all violence by Al-Qaeda, and all other 'terrorist threats'. Yet on a realistic analysis, there is no other way of forming such a continental state. It would involve the reversal, and more than that, of the transition to sovereign national states in Europe, since 1800. So within Europe (and that includes Britain and Ireland) the European ideal itself is a prime justification for terrorism. The ideal makes terror a necessity, because 'terror' is the motor of geopolitical change. You are familiar with the attitude of the British electorate: there is no way they will democratically consent to abolition of sovereignty, and absorption of their country into a European state. It must be done by force, or the European ideal must be abandoned.

The population of the other nation states in Europe is just as 'Eurosceptic' in this sense. Few Belgians would fight for Belgium, and the Russian minority would not fight for Latvia or Estonia, but the vast majority of the European population would not peacefully approve incorporation into a European state. Many would fight it bitterly. I suspect that you yourself, and most of your 'anti-terrorist' colleagues, would go underground and start planning bomb attacks, if you woke up to find London occupied by Orwellian Eurostate troops. The sovereign nation state was not only established by violence, it would be maintained by violence in the face of threats to its existence. So pro-European terror is not a case of violence against peaceful societies, it is a case of one violence against another. Not the violence, but the morality of the states themselves, decides which is the 'just cause'.

In November 2003, I wrote to the German ambassador in the Netherlands, urging violence against Germany with the intention of overthrowing the German nation state, and replacing it by a continental European state. In March 2004, I advocated the violent overthrow of all nation states in Europe, in a letter to the anti-terrorist prosecutor in the Netherlands. Like the earlier petition to the EP, both of those letters appeal to the moral defects of the nation state, as a justification for its overthrow.

Leaving aside geopolitical innovation, with its historical link to the use of force, there remain many other instances where terrorism is morally and historically necessary. Most are related to inability to innovate within democratic systems, and the consequent necessity to use force as an alternative...

3. Majority injustice against weak minorities necessitates terrorism. The introduction of genital inspections, for certain ethnic groups in the Netherlands, is a classic example of how a majority can humiliate a marginalised minority, within a democracy. The inspections are targeted against Somali's, possibly also Egyptians and Sudanese. (Britain is considering similar measures). Any parent who belongs to these ethnic groups will be required, purely on the basis of their ethnic origin, to present their daughters for annual genital inspection. If they refuse they could be jailed as sex abusers, for the refusal will be taken as evidence of female genital mutilation. The ostensible aim is to protect children, but anti-immigrant parties support the measure, knowing it will deter Somali immigration. It is deeply humiliating for parents, possibly traumatic for their daughters, and it creates a climate of fear among Somali's. And they can do nothing about it: they have no unified political organisation, they are generally unpopular, and their media image has been reduced to the mutilation issue. So Somali parents face this dilemma: surrender your daughters to be traumatised, or go to jail as a sex abuser and lose all your children. Neither democracy, not the rule of law will protect them from this: the average Dutch judge would treat a Somali plaintiff with contempt.

Nothing in a democracy prevents a weak and despised minority from being treated in this way. Sweden, a model democracy, sterilised 'mixed-race' women until the 1970's. Even relatively large minorities can be subjected to surprisingly aggressive policy. The Netherlands has just introduced legislation banning the poor (with less than 120% of national minimum wage) from living in the largest cities. The Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce has proposed, that the entire low-income population be removed from Amsterdam over the next 20 years, and they can probably persuade central government to back that policy. Democracy has not 'failed' in these cases, they occur precisely because the government reflects widely-held attitudes of contempt and hatred, toward certain minorities. As a police officer in a liberal-democratic Rechtsstaat you enforce such measures, simply because they are the law. You wrongly see such a state, founded on the rule of law, as being above moral judgment - and you wrongly think that enforcing the rule of law allows you to suspend your conscience. The injustice of such measures, and the inherent lack of redress when they are sanctioned by parliament and courts, justify terror to end them.

4. Even if there were no specific targeting of minorities, large-scale social change requires terrorism. That applies especially to the two classic state responses to social injustice: redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of income. Increasing inequality of income, inheritance, geographical mobility, and the negative effects of urban renewal and gentrification, have created the need for a third massive correction, redistribution of housing. Rational housing allocation, on the basis of need and spatial planning, would be totally unlike the present distribution, where rich individuals occupy huge houses worth € 10 million or more, and a poor family lives in a 3-room flat on the 10th floor. At a European level, things are much worse. There are third-world slums in Albania, while Germany is demolishing thousands of recently renovated flats in the east, because it can find no tenants for them.

A general redistribution of income, wealth, and housing in Europe would be the most dramatic social change since the Second World War. There is no chance that democratically elected governments will commit themselves to this - an indicator of the essentially conservative nature of democracy. Yet accepting this democratic decision would mean permanent acceptance of permanent injustice, and that can not be morally right. Force is necessary, precisely in the sense used in the EU definition of terrorism - violence to change society.

5. The clearest justification for terrorism is the morally unacceptable planetary inequality. It is a relatively new aspect of human society, which was not considered by classic moral philosophy. In the last two centuries an unprecedented gap in living standards has emerged, a continuously widening gap. OECD research indicates that the differential between western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa increased from 3-to-1 around 1820, to 20-to-1 around 1990. All recent statistics indicate that standards of living in the poorest countries are falling. The inequality is not just relatively worse, the accumulation of problems in the poorest countries - poverty, erosion of infrastructure, worsening terms of trade, AIDS - has trapped the poorest countries in a downward spiral. A huge mass of people live in conditions comparable to those of early 19th-century Europe - or mediaeval Europe, if the crops fail. Over 1,1 billion people live on less than $1 a day, the World Bank 'extreme poverty line'. The one-dollar figure is already corrected for differences in purchasing power. It doesn't mean what you could buy with a one-dollar bill in Mozambique, it means what a dollar would buy at US prices for food, housing, and medical care. In sub-Saharan Africa almost half the population lives under this limit.

The worst thing is, that the inequality is permanent. Even the most positive statistics suggest it will take more than a century, to end this kind of extreme absolute poverty. Literally billions of people would live and die in extreme poverty before then. The health statistics, however, indicate that won't last a century: the suffering of the most vulnerable will last indefinitely. The UNDP Human Development Report 2003 says:

....while there is heated debate on whether income inequality is increasing between rich and poor countries, inequality in child mortality has gotten unambiguously worse. In the early 1990s children under five were 19 times more likely to die in Sub-Saharan Africa than in rich countries - and today, 26 times more likely (figure 2.2). Among all developing regions only Latin America and the Caribbean saw no worsening in the past decade relative to rich countries, with children still about 5 times more likely to die before their fifth birthdays.

The inequalities in maternal mortality (death in childbirth) are even worse than those in child mortality. The World Bank Global Monitoring Report 2004 comments:

On current trends, the goals of reducing child and maternal mortality will not be attained in most regions, and only a small proportion of countries (15 to 20 percent) appear to be on track. The goal of halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other major diseases (malaria, tuberculosis) appears daunting; their incidence continues to rise, further aggravating conditions affecting child and maternal mortality and entailing broad and serious economic and social consequences.

The inequality, and the downward spiral, can only be ended by force, because a causal relationship has developed between democracy and global inequality. The rich countries are almost without exception democracies, and they are nation states. Any electorate is inherently selfish, and the voters in each nation believe that the national wealth is their exclusive property. No democratic nation state will ever decide, to simply give away its prosperity - but that is exactly what is needed.

In the face of global inequality, all existing policies on 'development aid' are simply illusory. The UN aid target is 0.7% of rich countries GDP. In fact they only give 0.4%, and genuine gifts are a fraction of that. But the level of transfer needed, to equalise global living standards, is about one hundred times more than the UN target, and that would have to continue for a generation. Campaigners who suggest that poverty can be ended by meeting the UN aid target are liars.

In long-term historical perspective, it is possible to simply close the gap. A generation is not a long time in historical perspective. All that is asked of the British people (for instance) is that for one generation, they simply give away about two-thirds of their economic production. All that is asked is that, for one generation, they accept the living standards of Romania or Bulgaria. That is all that is asked of the other western EU member states. Romania and Bulgaria themselves are already near the theoretical 'world average standard of living', so they will be unaffected by such a transfer policy. It is not a disaster to have their standard of living - and it would not inherently bring the corruption and racism typical of Romanian politics.

The problem is that there is no way, not in a million years, that the British electorate will freely consent to anything like that. Nor will any other western EU country. So either it will be forced on them, or the appalling suffering elsewhere will continue.

I know you have a clear answer to this moral dilemma.

The present case is, that children under five are 26 times more likely to die in Sub-Saharan Africa than in rich countries. Now what if the choice is between the following alternatives...

a. Aid continues at present insufficient levels and millions of African babies and children die of avoidable disease and malnutrition.

b. Terrorists blackmail EU governments with a series of bomb attacks on Intercity and metro trains. After 1000 people have died in such attacks, the EU governments give in, and agree to meet the terrorists demand, of adequate health care for all children in sub-Saharan Africa. As the programme comes into effect, excess child mortality ceases, and millions of lives are saved.

Your clear and unhesitating answer will be: "terror is wrong, surrender to terror is wrong, and given the choice, the children must die".

The present case is also that, according to the World Health Report 2004, about 4 to 8 million people need immediate treatment for AIDS, and at most 10% are getting it. More people will require treatment later, since tens of millions are infected with HIV, but by then most of those now requiring treatment will be dead anyway. Now what if the choice is between the following alternatives...

a. Health assistance continues at the present level, 80% to 90% of the HIV-infected die without treatment until a vaccine is developed, in total about 40 million dead.

b. Terrorist suicide bombers, demanding an AIDS treatment programme in Africa, hijack aircraft and crash them into tall buildings in major EU cities. About 500 people die in each attack, and after the sixth attack, the EU governments give in, and set up a comprehensive AIDS treatment and prevention programme. In the years until a vaccine becomes available, the programme reduces mortality by 75%, saving 30 million lives.

Again you have a clear answer: "terror is wrong, it is not acceptable to save lives by killing the innocent, even in the ratio of 10 000 to 1, and given the choice, millions of Africans must die".

This is what is so disturbing about the ethics of the war on terror, and about your own personal ethics. When the ethical premises are made explicit, as relating to global inequality, they amount to a repeated mantra: "the poor must die, the hungry must starve, the Africans must die, the children must die, the mothers must die, the patients must die, millions must die, millions must die, let them die, let them die..." Of course you, and your colleagues in the European police and security services, and the governments themselves, quote arguments in support of their position. They would quote the anti-utilitarian human rights tradition, which says that one life may not be sacrificed for another, and the doctrine of the rule of law. But if you look at the sme governments' behaviour when their own interests are threatened, the story is different. A bomb attack on a restaurant is a typical 'terrorist attack' in your eyes: perhaps you have seen the results of such an attack and been horrified. But your own government found it perfectly acceptable to bomb a Baghdad restaurant, on information that Saddam Hussein was eating there. The Geneva conventions say clearly, that the presence of military personnel among civilians does not make the civilians a legitimate military target, but the coalition bombed it anyway. The civilian dead were Arabs, and somehow the absolute value of human life, and the absolute protection of the rule of law, don't seem to apply to Arabs. Or to Serbs, because it was apparently acceptable to kill some of them, in order to save a greater number of lives in Kosovo.

Racism, specifically the idea that non-western human life has a lesser value, is the real underlying ethic, in your rejection of terrorism to correct global inequalities and resulting excess mortality. You simply are not capable of feeling the same sorrow and regret, when a black child dies of cholera in Africa, as when a white Londoner is killed in a bomb attack. That, and not a rational rejection of utilitarianism, determines your refusal to accept the sacrifice of one life to save many lives. Similar attitudes determine the policy and practice of your anti-terror colleagues in other EU states, and the ministers responsible for their work, and the policies of the EU anti-terror coordinator Gijs de Vries, and his boss Javier Solana. This double standard on the value of human life undermines the moral pretensions of the 'war on terror'.

Global inequality and excess mortality show exactly why terror is both legitimate and necessary. In an October 2003 letter to Jürgen Storbeck, director of Europol, I quoted three grounds to justify political assassinations, beyond the traditional justification (tyrannicide): the scale of the ideal, the scale of the problem, and the degree of social and political stagnation preventing its resolution. They are appropriate here as well. The inequality is extreme, huge numbers of people are affected, their individual and collective suffering is acute, and all this is both permanent and structural.

6. Terrorism is also a legitimate response to certain policy issues, and a legitimate and necessary means to implement policy goals. There are relevant issues within the European Union, and they are probably best raised with de Vries and Solana, but here are some examples related to spatial and transport planning.

Terrorism is necessary to counteract urban sprawl in the EU countries, an accelerating phenomenon. Here too, scale affects ethics. In 1950 urban Europeans lived at relatively high density: the journey to work was by foot, bicycle, or public transport. Technology made higher densities and more intensive transit systems possible, but that is not what happened. Instead, since 1950 a cumulative transfer has dispersed perhaps 200 million people to low-density housing. They travel to work by car, and not only to work, because all other activity has also been spatially dispersed. Inherently, lower density means that every single destination - schools, shops, hospitals - is further away. Car ownership increases, leading to further sprawl. The end result, which is no longer remote, would be total disaggregation of the settlement pattern in Europe. Individual decisions can collectively determine an irrational continental spatial structure. That is, after all, how a market is supposed to work - collective outcome of interactive process. It also accords with the long-standing anti-urban tradition in Europe, which is at least 2000 years old.

Any rejection of this market-driven and conservative urban structure would necessarily be terrorist, again because the existing political structures can simply not respond to it. They can not respond to other related problems - such as gentrification, which is now visible in rural areas, as well as older city centres. (In recent plans in the Netherlands, certain rural areas are officially reserved for high-income households). The inability of the European Union to enact its stated policy on the modal split shows how illusory it is, to seek resolution of such issues inside the democratic process. The modal split is the share of passenger-kilometres or ton-kilometres carried by different modes - car and train, for instance. No shift to rail (passengers or freight) has resulted from the pious exhortations of the European Commission, or the member state governments. Not surprising, because they were not prepared to invest the thousands of billions of euros in new rail lines, which even a 50-50 modal split would require. They were certainly not prepared to prohibit private cars, or raise petrol prices to 10 euro/litre, which would probably be needed as well. In terms of passenger travel, rail is now so marginal that complete abandonment would have little impact. The shift is now from car to air travel, as happened earlier in the United States.

Europe not only failed to build new rail lines, it failed to preserve the existing network. A specific failure - which illustrates the limits of the European Union itself - is the closure of cross-border rail lines. Despite all the rhetoric about open borders, rail networks have not only shrunk, but 'withdrawn into the nation'. Eleven lines across the Netherlands-German border were closed, for instance, and nine across the Netherlands-Belgian border. On surviving lines services are often restricted: no local trains for instance, or a compulsory change of trains at the border. Fares are always higher - you pay simply to cross a border - and services rarely integrated. The operators see the lines as a burden, and even high-speed trains make a loss. Left to the market, all international rail travel in the EU would probably cease. As with all cross-border issues, no improvement from within the democratic process can be expected, because national democracy is itself inherently national. The 'demos' in democracy really is the people. It stops where the people stop - at the border. The EU has a cross-border parliament, but it can not remedy this deficit in transport planning: like the European Commission, it has no authority on planning issues.

The closure of the rail lines stands in contrast with the growth of low-cost air carriers, but the combined effect is bad transport policy. Airline routing policy is another example of a spatial policy issue, that can only be resolved by force. The low-cost carriers distort the European transport structure, because they operate services on market principles in a cost-oriented market. The plane flies by the most profitable route, regardless of how cost advantage was obtained. Hidden subsidies from airport operators - usually local governments themselves competing for inward investment - determine the airports, and thus the routes. The carriers then use misleading advertising, to present these routes as alternatives for established intercity routes, abstracting traffic by low fares. The result is an irrational and environmentally damaging pattern of air travel. A rational airport and routing policy would often mean closure of the regional airports, and who would do that? Not the democratically elected regional governments, which don't want to, and not the European Commission, which can only act against illegal subsidies. Rejecting the terrorism option, for these spatial and transport issues, means accepting a bad, irrational and damaging structural outcome.

That seems a relevant comment to close this letter. In your rejection of terror, you reflect a common attitude among supporters of liberal democracy, namely the passive acceptance of evil. A bad democratic world, you say, is better that a good non-democratic world. Democrats, it seems to me, regard the democratic process as a sort of moral detergent, which washes all evil white. Consequently, the outcome of the liberal-democratic process must be accepted, they say, no matter how absurd, no matter how bad, no matter what the suffering. Not to accept democratically processed evil is wrong in their eyes, and actively to campaign by force for the non-democratic good is 'terrorism'. But whatever their rhetoric, their choice for evil is still a choice for evil.

Paul Treanor