Gijs de Vries / justifications for terrorism

This May 2005 letter to EU anti-terrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries sets out the general justification for terrorism, and refers to specific justifications for terrorist campaigns in the EU context. Others involved in anti-terrorism policy received a copy of the letter, including DAC Peter Clarke of the Metropolitan Police in London, and Max-Peter Ratzel, the current director of Europol. In subsequent letters to Gijs de Vries, I presented specific cases of justified terrorism. See:

Amsterdam, 31 mei 2005

Gijs M. de Vries
Council of the European Union
Wetstraat 175
B-1048 Brussel

justifications for terrorism

In previous letters to EU anti-terrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries and DAC Peter Clarke, I explained why terrorism is necessary and justified, and in October 2003 I wrote to Europol director Jürgen Storbeck, to advocate political assassinations. In this letter I will give a general justification for political violence, including terrorism under the EU definition. This letter refers to terrorism in liberal-democratic states: some factors are not relevant for non-democracies.

Terrorism in democracies can be justified on four general grounds, to force changes in policy on specific issues. They are

The example I gave earlier - of terrorism to force western governments to give food and medical treatment to the starving - illustrates all four aspects. Hundreds of millions of people are threatened by famine at some time in their lives, and the individual suffering during famines is acute (it generates a trauma comparable to those of concentration camp survivors). The cause of starvation is the refusal of rich western countries to share their wealth, primarily from racist and selfish motives. Democratic majorities block all attempts to increase aid to the required level, which would imply income tax rates of 80% to 90%. Because the democratic process, by definition, does not allow any override (or alternative decision-making process), terrorism is the only way to save millions of lives.

I also cited European spatial planning and transport issues, as typical areas where terrorism is necessary. They are not usually considered in connection with terrorism, but they meet three of the criteria: the problems are very large in scale, they are the result of cumulated democratic decisions, and democracy usually obstructs any improvement. Vehicle particulate pollution is a good example. It results from the democratic decisions of European governments to promote roads and road traffic, since the 1920's, and it affects perhaps 200 million people in Europe. Yet the draconian transport and planning measures which would now be required to reduce it substantially, are totally unacceptable for the electorate. The pollution will probably get worse, although it is now a serious health problem. There are many other policy issues, not seen as related to political violence, where violence is in fact the only option. That in itself is a historical phenomenon, related to the inability of democratic systems to take unpopular decisions, and their inherent conservative bias. The longer democracies exist, the bigger the backlog of 'democratically impossible' policy changes.

As a general rule, if a democratic government can choose between a good policy and an evil policy, and chooses the evil policy as a result of the democratic process, then undemocratic means may be used to reverse the policy. Respect for the democratic decision, in such circumstances, would imply that 'democracy' is a higher value than the priority of Good over Evil. It would imply that any policy - no matter how evil, unjust or cruel - was morally right, simply because it was democratic. Although that suggestion is implicit in much pro-democracy theory, democracy is not the supreme moral value.

Beside these four general grounds for terrorism in democracies, there are other specific justifications. As I wrote earlier, political violence is inherent in geopolitics. It is a historical reality that state formation and boundary changes are violent processes, and that war is the normal geopolitical ordering process. The fact that some (or all) states are democracies is irrelevant here. Inherently, the democratic order is internal to the demos - democracy does not determine which democracies exist, or how many, or what their borders are. More specifically, most democracies provide no peaceful means of secession. No democracy, so far as I know, ever provided a means for simply establishing a new state, and neither does international law. If you want, for instance, a specifically egalitarian state, then you will have to fight for it. That is the historical, legal and political reality, which is unaffected by pious denunciations of violence.

Although it is often overlooked in EU context, Europe also has a history of religious violence, and here too is a specific justification for terrorism. Forced conversion, including the imposition of abhorrent religious values, justifies resistance by force. As you may know, I advocated (in my letter to Jürgen Storbeck), the assassination of the leadership of the Dutch orthodox-protestant party SGP, if they won a democratic mandate. The SGP is the only openly theocratic Christian party in Europe, and they consider it their duty to crush 'false religion', starting with the Catholics. That justifies armed resistance. However, the SGP electorate sees itself not as an aggressor, but as victims - condemned to live as a despised and persecuted minority, in an ungodly society which they abhor. There is no political solution to such conflicts of religious values, where one party considers the existence of the other party as morally abhorrent, and as a threat to its own existence. Three centuries of liberal 'tolerance' did not remove the threat of inter-religious violence in Europe, they just hid it from public view: Islamic immigration has made it visible again. The violence is inherent in the fact of contradictory universal doctrines, and no anti-terrorist policy can alter that.

Self-defence is a general justification for violence, and this is particularly relevant in countries with ethnic and religious tensions, where the risk of overt violence against minorities is always present. That is now the case in Dutch and British cities, it is not simply a 'Balkan issue'. Where the appropriate organs of the state fail to protect the minority, then they are entitled to defend themselves. That failure usually results from domination of the state by the majority ethnic or religious group - Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 1970's, for instance. In this context you should note that the Dutch Ministry of Justice has an official policy not to prosecute incitements to kill minorities, especially Muslims. As a result, there has been open incitement to kill all Muslims in the Netherlands, including a call to re-open the Auschwitz death camp for that purpose. As tensions with Islamic immigrants increase, and xenophobic movements become more aggressive, the issue of defensive armed force will re-appear on the political agenda of European democracies, as it did in Northern Ireland.

Many of these justifications also apply to violence by individuals, although it is not usually classified as terrorism. I wrote in an assessment of the politics of Tony Blair, that if he is assassinated, then probably by someone who suffered under the intense meritocracy in Blairite Britain, rather than at the hands of Al-Qaeda. For instance by someone from a deprived background who was refused entry into the elite university of Oxford, for 'lack of talent'. Under a democratic system and the rule of law, there is indeed nothing an individual can do to alter this, and a revenge assassination is understandable. It can be no more than revenge: it will not change policy, or bring an egalitarian state, and it would not fall under the EU terrorism definition. But remember, Tony Blair has no moral justification himself, for submitting individuals to a meritocracy, if they object to that. He could have offered an escape route - for instance a 'non-meritocratic zone' in Scotland or Wales, or parallel non-meritocratic institutions. He did not, because he sees meritocracy as a universal truth. The ethics of forced meritocracy are related to those of forced conversion.

There are other specific grounds for terrorism, and I might raise them later. You should remember that liberal democracy is not a self-legitimising system. It does not render all non-democratic action wrong, merely because democracy exists. Historically and theoretically, liberal-democratic systems are only one of many political systems. They need ethical justification themselves - and assessment of their emerging defects (something missing from the usually self-glorifying theory). Until you are prepared to do that, then you should refrain from blanket denunciations of 'terrorism'.

Paul Treanor

Gijs de Vries, European Union anti-terrorism coordinator
DAC Peter Clarke, head of counter-terrorism, Metropolitan Police, London
Max-Peter Ratzel, Director, Europol
M. van Erve, national anti-terrorism prosecutor, Netherlands
W. van Gemert, Netherlands Security Service AIVD
Josep Borrell Fontelles, President of the European Parliament
Lorenzo Salazar, cabinet of Franco Frattini, European Commission

Why destroy the nation state?