Politics and Philosophy

Exploring Political Issues Through Philosophy


Terror and Torture

Terror and Torture

The Ethics of Random


Antoinette Bergson



a. What is Terror? 

b. What is ethics? 

c. Ends justifying the means 

d. Ethical Conditions 

e. The tool of terror established ethical conditions  


a. The usual questions 


a. The Issue of Human Rights  

b.  Conclusion 



          Historically, torture has been used for many reasons, but in today’s world it is primarily associated with the ‘war on terror.’  This association is reflected in this paper, where consideration of torture will only be discussed as part of that relationship.  Torture to extract confessions, gain a recant of position, or forced implication of others, etc., are not part of the current discussion.  The explored position here is specific: whatever ethical questions surround torture can only be understood within context, in this case, through its association with anti-terrorist campaigns.  There is a dynamic link between the terror and torture that must be carefully looked at before any ethical conclusions can be drawn regarding the use of ‘enhanced interrogation.’  Such an examination of this relationship between terror and torture will lead to results concerning ethics not apparent at first glance. 


            a. What is terror? It cannot be stated forcefully enough that terrorism is not a political doctrine, a political theory or an ideology.  Terror is not a strategy for change, for revolution, nation building, or a coup d’état.  Terror, as such, has no endgame. Terror is a tool.  Terror is a means, not an end.  Understand this and you can begin to understand the reason that so many different political persuasions can use terror in the pursuit of their policies.  The fascist can use terror, and so can the anarchist.  The imperialist can use terror, and so can the guerrilla insurgent.  This arouses a question: is it possible to discuss the ethical implications of terror without referring to either the strategic intent or the political ends to which terror can be put?  Can we discuss the means separate from the ends?  The answer is not only yes, but as terror has no fixed end the only way the relationship between terror and torture is to grasp the ethical conditions established by terror as a means, as a tool.

            In one way or another, actions always reflect the moral thinking that goes on behind the deed. It also goes that the consequence of the deed impacts moral thinking. This sets up an ever evolving dialectical relationship. It is difficult to imagine that the relationship does not eventually shift the way in which we conceive of right and wrong.  This shift does not mean that one’s moral standards go out the window, or that those standards are merely a condition of the actor’s sense of right and wrong, but only that the old standards must be adjusted to meet the demands of the new conditions.  This sounds a bit like a backdoor way of introducing relativity to the position.  However, this is not a relativist position as an example will illustrate:  Consider the arrival of a new tool on the battlefield: the machine gun.  This new development caused the old standard of taking on an enemy combatant as an equal to become tweaked, affecting the ethical conditions of the battlefield. 

            Developing conditions: In WWI, the wide use of entangling wire, coupled with the introduction of the machine gun, set up new ethical conditions which caused the machine gun crews to fear for their lives in a brand new way.  On capture, machine gun crews were viewed as little better than murderers, and they were very often killed on the spot.  Note that the old moral standards were not lost, but were adjusted to meet an unexpected change in the material conditions.  The introduction of a new tool of war did not cause the old moral standards to disappear, but rather to mutate to fit a new set of ethical conditions.  The moral universe of the soldier had shifted under the weight of newly developed tools for his destruction. 

            The tool of terror, in-and-of-itself, possesses no more ethical pre-disposition than does a hammer or a fork-lift – or a machine gun.  Terror is merely one of the tools used in conflict.  However, terror, as a tool of conflict, builds ethical conditions that are greatly influential in the development of responses, such as martial law, or torture. This seems painfully obvious.

            Now consider terror more closely.  Terror as a tool of conflict is designed to pry a social populace loose from stability.  The tool is a psychological assault on the social and political security of a defined group.  This assault is designed to compel the established order to behave in ways not completely of its own choosing.  The designs of terror have be analyzed elsewhere a great length.[1]  Terror, as examined here, is discussed as a means, as a tool, to achieve certain goals.  This tool of terror is wholly dependent on stealth, which gives terrorist violence a facade of apparent randomness.  Secrecy and apparent randomness are the defining characteristics of terror.  Secrecy and randomness create the appearance of arbitrary conditions – conditions that generate fear and widespread frustration.  Note the similarity between terror and the introduction of the machine gun.  It was the appearance of a random condition brought by the machine gun that so frustrated and enraged infantry soldiers.[2]  The WWI victim of the machine gun felt way-laid – unfairly ambushed by a creature that lay-in-wait. 

            Randomness, as a tool, cannot lay claim to moral principles, but randomness, as a deed, can generate an ethical condition that greatly impacts an entire moral universe. This means that an act of terror directly provokes questions of right and wrong action and thereby brings our capacity to judge good and bad into question.  Morality, in this case, becomes a dependent variable of ethics rather than the other way around, as is the usual perspective.

            b. Ethics: The above suggests that in order to make analytical sense of the tool of terror a distinction needs to be drawn between morality and ethics.  Quite simply, ethics is morality in action.  Ethics is the behavior we choose in order that moral principles are put into action.  We might say, for the sake of facility, that ethics is the study of the rightness, or appropriateness in deed, while morality, as such, is the consideration of the ‘goodness’ at work behind the deed.[3]  For the sake of continuity a moral principle must be clearly seen as a factor within the result of the deed.  The result conceptually links the principle with the deed. Or in other words, ethics is the study of a choice of actions, but in a needful relationship with the morality of a pre-established rule or principle. Another way to grasp this relationship is to say that morality is the provider of ends, while ethics is the strategy of means.  However, the relationship is dialectic and they separately can only be fully understood as they appear in a dialogue with each other. 

            An example will be helpful.    The Ends: It is immoral to lie.  The Means: Jill’s ethics forbid her from lying.  Jill did not lie.  Jill’s ethics act out the moral principle that lying is not good with the result that Jill does not lie.  Because ethics is the action, or means, the moral principle, although a priori, is revealed in the ends of the action (i.e. Jill did not lie.)  The ethics of the deed, as the fulfillment of a moral principle, is only fully comprehensible as it is revealed in relation to that principle. To merely state that Jill did not lie reveals the means, but nothing regarding intent or motivation.  The statement that ‘Jill did not lie’ alone explains nothing of the morality behind the ethics.  That explanation I revealed by the relationship between the two.

            I am making a big deal out of the relationship of ethics to morality for the following reason:  Unless we are to argue for a metaphysically fixed set of moral principles that show little attachment for the real world, this dialogue between means and ends is a metamorphic process that takes place within a living context.   This living context is a fluid development guided by larger social and historical considerations. In other words, moral principles are a pointless head-game unless they are acted out ethically in a real world scenario, which means that a real moral universe must bear a real time relationship to earthly reality.  Ethics must therefore be seen be as contextual in the face of changing circumstance.  Thus, ethical vision can sometimes expose a weakness, or force a revaluation of the moral principle the ethic is based upon.  It is certainly possible for one to argue a universal set of moral principles,[4] but it must be conceded that ethical conditions (i.e., the boundaries governing the actualization of the ends) must accommodate reality in the implementation of those principles, such as they might be. Unfortunately for fixed moral principles, such changes as would be necessary for implementation are often beyond the reach of human action.  Such shortcomings appear most obvious in medical cases where the high moral standards of the preservation of life and health are routinely beyond current human capabilities.  More often, however, the changes necessary to achieve some approximation of fixed moral standards are deliberately factored out by human calculation as it addresses circumstance.  An event such as the fire bombing of the German city, Dresden, an ethical cause célèbres of WWII, serves to epitomize just such a human calculation that sends existing moral standards into a tailspin.  There is no way around this reality.  Any change in the means, which is to say a change in the ethical conditions, must necessarily impact, and sometimes overwhelm, the ends, that is, the moral universe it purports to actualize. 

            c. Ends justifying the means. For clarity on this point of circumstance, an example from history:  To ready a nation for war, for a life and death struggle, for where annihilation of the state appears in the offing, any means to acquire the ends of survival of a national population appears to overwhelm any other moral principle. This was at least part of the reasoning underlying the approach taken by Joseph Stalin when confronted by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  The single mindedness and ruthlessness of Stalin’s sometimes irrational methods in this regard are well known. Such an approach is sometimes reported to be the ‘ends justifying the means.’  This platitude misses the importance of connecting structures that operate the ‘means.’  The question of ends as justification is not an altogether irrelevant point, but more aptly an inaccurate perspective.  Let me say that it is more precise to assert that ends, as justification, are, in many realities, an extraneous consideration to ethical action.   From a moral point of view, as opposed to ethical, it is better to argue that the underlying weakness of this argument, as exampled by Stalin, is the begged question of whether or not the survival of a particular nation state (or any nation state), as an end, has any ‘moral’ standing whatsoever. This brings into the light the dynamic of a hidden moral question and its relevance to existing conditions. As a universal moral principle the survival of the nation state is circumstantially questionable; the moral universe in which the viability of the nation state is a creature of the ‘good’ can be said to be more historical than universal.  Such an example illustrates the uncertain and sometimes enigmatic nature of the dialectic between the moral universe and the changeability of ethical conditions.

            Let me clarify the meaning of stable dialectic by offering an instance more universal in its strength of dialogue.  When the ‘ends’ for a soldier on a battlefield is the survival of himself and his comrades, and then the ‘means,’ i.e., killing enemy soldiers, is understood as ethically justified. In the moral universes of war, it is ethical appropriate for a soldier in battle to seek survival, which often means to kill the enemy. The moral claims of individual and group-survival are not questioned in this circumstance; battlefield conditions, as sited here, makes for a vigorous means-ends connection by any realistic line of reasoning.  Ordinarily, of course, the taking of a human life is, as a fixed principle, morally reprehensible, but given the material realities on the battlefield that alter conditions radically enough to create new ethical conditions, the fixed moral universal is interrupted, arrested, and deferred.  Any question of murder is extraneous to the conventional moral universe.  The interruption of moral principles here is not only supported by the conditions, but more to the point, the ethical conditions also reshape a consideration of the fixed moral ends.  This example illustrates what it is that I have been laboring to present:  pre-established moral notions of good and bad may be immensely satisfying, but in reality are often ethically impossible to translate into action without stepping beyond the established moral universe.

            Such thinking as that which makes ends (moral principles) fixed and dominant in the dialogue with means (ethical action) is unsustainable.  The supporting reciprocity observed in the above illustrations demonstrates the kind of balanced dialogue that must exist between moral principles (ends) and ethical action (means) for any sustained coherency.  I will add that if either is dominant, it would be the ethical conditions that command the revaluation of the practical side of the moral coin.

            d. Ethical Conditions – Terror and Torture : In a very general way, and in regards to torture, changing ethical conditions are what bring revision to the playing field of morality – or, if you will, changing ethical conditions can insist on a reconsideration of the right and wrong of torture.   Mutable ethical conditions, if I may repeat, are the result of morally driven actions as they are massaged by social context and historical circumstance.  However, ethical conditions do not stop with merely being a dialogue between action and circumstance; changing ethical conditions result in the development of new circumstances that provoke new moral considerations.  Within that scope, ethical conditions are an ongoing and continually developing set of moral relationships between the ends of action and the kind of day-to-day reality with which we deal. In our contemporary world, these types of relationships obviously pertain to both terror and torture.

            To the point: the relationship between terror and torture serves to define the strategic correctness of the actual deed, rather of terror or torture, with reference to the goal of the action but always within the current social context. Ethical conditions are circumstantially generated by the terrorist, which is to say that the circumstances established by the terrorist generate the conditioned response.  Any pre-established and fixed system of moral intention has a role to play, of course, but that fixed moral system ultimately plays a catch-up role with respect to fast changing circumstance (recall the introduction of the machine gun). The ethical conditions, as a part of that sequence of circumstance, cannot stand on fixed moral principles but must be, in reality, an elastic mode of reaction that drives the action as it responds to a dialogue with the goal – in this case, combating terror.  This is a very general description of ethical conditions as they arise in a confrontation with terrorism.

            If I seem to be harping on this distinction between means and ends, it is because of the analytical advantage gained from distinguishing between a fixed moral principle and the circumstantial difficulties in acting out those principles.  This should be readily apparent.  Such a situation would be found where there is a conflict of fixed principles.  Take, for example, Kant’s famous pronouncements on the moral duty to always tell the truth even when it collides with the murderer at the door.[5]  This is not such a fanciful scenario, not when I consider the Nazi Gestapo standing at the door of a boarding house demanded to know if there are any Jews inside.   What am I to do?  If I cannot slip out of an outright lie about the whereabouts of the intended victims then there is a clear cut conflict of moral ends.  It is all well and good to say telling a lie is a universal moral negative, until circumstance present this fixed principle with a conflicting moral principle, in this case saving the life of an innocent. What hard-and-fast rule can dictate which of the moral principles is chosen and acted upon?  Kant himself attempts to weasel out of the moral dilemma through a subterfuge of misdirection (i.e., avoid answering the question; instead report that there might be Jews on the next block).  The weaknesses here are obvious, and it is just as obvious that there is no universal rule to resolve the antagonism.  The actual factors on which the elasticity of the response might be hinged are too numerous to list in a brief paper.

            Applying any prescription to the special circumstances of torture is more complicated.  But first note that these conditions do not imply any ‘ethics of torture’ (or terror), but only describe an aroused ethical atmosphere that makes torture one type of inevitable possibility.  This is a possibility not so easily dismissed as merely illegal or personally offensive.  Such ethical conditions that allow for the possibility of torture represent a new criterion that develops into actual responses that are more or less predicable and inevitable.  It seems to me that to make clear the relationship between the ethical conditions and the predictable responses an illustration will be helpful.

            Let us again sketch a picture of a soldier (lets say from WWII) and look at what happens when he puts on a uniform to go out onto the battlefield.  What are the ethical conditions that the soldier has set in motion?   First, his action has allowed for the possibility of his death or physical injury.  In a manner of speaking, we might say that this is part of his job description. The high possibility of death or injury is an unavoidable condition of the role he has elected to play. Then too, if the conditions he set in motion cause the death of an enemy soldier this can be thought of as a predictable response to the situation given the existing ethical conditions.  If our World War II soldier is killed by an enemy soldier, his death must also be considered one of the predictable responses given the ethical conditions our soldier has set in motion by his participation. “Thou shall not kill” is a moral precept that is strangely out of place on a battlefield. I think it is entirely fair to say that applying the terms right and wrong (and certainly good and bad), in the ethical sense of bringing harm to another, seems utterly misplaced in these circumstances. 

            None of this should puzzle the soldier.  The soldier exists in a different moral universe, a universe that exists symbiotically through an ethical relationship with the material conditions of the battlefield.  Any soldier at any time in history will have an intuitive grasp of these material conditions as I describe them here, as well as the impact of their ethical conditions on moral systems.  The circumstances that he set in motions have brought him to a point where the enemy that he has been sent to kill will try to kill him first.  This is a predictable and inevitable response on the part of the ‘enemy.’  Further, to say that the enemy’s response is the predictable and inevitable reaction sets the response beyond the pale of moral judgments concerning good and evil.  In a consideration of right and wrong it is clearly ‘right’ that the enemy kill our soldier, while the question, ‘Is it good that he kill our soldier’ seems an awkward fit to the circumstances  Given the ethical conditions established by our soldier the word correct, or right response, seems more fitting in this case.  The bottom line here is that by his actions, the WW II soldier has generated the ethical conditions, together with a predictable response, beyond the moral scope of good and evil.[6]

            We can see that gathering ‘ethical conditions’ places morality within a wider constellation of events and thus places greater circumstantial pressure on moral questions.  The moral ends of defeating the enemy and ethical means of winning the war are related, but do not govern the immediate circumstance of the ethical conditions.  The ethical means themselves must be in sympathetic contact with the moral ends but, as the illustration with the WWII soldier demonstrates, ethics cannot be governed exclusively by an abstract morality. This runs against the grain, for we nearly instinctively grasp the extended implications of this and want to reject them.  It seems to place the cart before the horse, where ethics drives morality instead of the other way around, which is how we are accustomed to viewing things.  Again, an illustration will be helpful. The ethical conditions on a battlefield allow our soldier to kill with a gun, knife, or even a rock, but all things being equal, and for what should be obvious reasons, most of us would say the to kill with a gun is preferable to the rock. To kill with a gun or a rock is an element of the means, a means that stands outside any larger moral consideration of killing.  Morality is present, but is only in the marginally capacity of minimizing pain, which softens the psychological difficulty of carrying out the act.  In this case, and many cases like it, ethical conditions often render questions of morality merely academic.

If the soldier has established and entered into a dialogue with ethical conditions, conditions that exist beyond the usual boundaries of right and wrong, then why not the terrorist?  Has not the terrorist generated a specific means that also establishes ethical conditions that has considerable bearing on subsequent moral questions?  Unless conscripted, the soldier has freely chosen to step into a situation where the morality of everyday life become suspended in favor of a more fitting set of ethical conditions often having uncomfortable ends. Once the means are chosen, the ends follow as part of the package deal. The soldier has chosen and consented to the repercussions. Similarly, the terrorist has chosen, and consented to all the possible consequence to follow.

            e. Terror as a tool.  As I suggested at the very beginning of this paper, the tool of terror is deeply involved in the generation of novel ethical conditions.  To be sure, the terrorist is not a soldier in any conventional sense, but the terrorist dramatically alters circumstance in a similar way that definitely engages one or more moral principles.  We need to analyze this engagement so that the ethical conditions thrown off by the tool of terror are better understood.

            At this point it will be useful to draw a distinction between two events – the destruction of the Twin Towers, which is terrorism, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are arguably war crimes.[7]  These two events are sometimes incorrectly compared.  Both attacks resulted in the wanton destruction of civilian life, but the key difference was this:  the Japanese cities were bombed in an acknowledged state of war.  Therefore, when Japanese civilian targets were hit here was no sense of ambush – horror and outrage, most certainly – but nothing like shocked surprise.  It is this element of surprise and ambush that represents the key difference between terror and war crimes.  This single element of unpredictability will surface again and again as a defining characteristic of terror.

            The terrorist tool does not primarily target enemy infrastructure – highways, pipelines, power grids, and so on – where the goal is to disrupt the political system’s ability to deliver the necessities underlying social cohesion. These targets lie within the prevue of the guerrilla or insurgent.  Instead, terrorism traffics in human blood.  The source of that blood is not the strategic consideration. Within a specific context the terrorist appears to select targets at random.  This is typically done for symbolic purposes, which is a strategic consideration, not an ethical one.  It is this randomness that is a major shaper of the ethical conditions set up by terror.  The precise motives behind this-or-that random attack are beside the point here.  The ethical point is that terror, through the initiation of apparent random violence, establishes ethical conditions unlike any other in human conflict.  The soldier on the battlefield does not select targets at random. Within circumstances there is a predictable connection between the soldier and the target.  For the terrorist that necessary connecter is broken with the outcome being an utter lack of predictability.  This has a great impact on the gathering new ethical conditions.

            What are these new ethical conditions?  If ethics consists of certain actions carried out pursuant to moral prerogatives, then there must exist – to adopt the words of C.D. Broad – a state of appropriateness or fitness in relations to the moral universals that guide them.[8]  Whatever else that can be said about morality, we understand that the fitness of the deed to moral principles must be universally understood by rational people.  If we are to avoid incoherence, this is a rationality that is an implicit assumption that underlies all our moral thinking. If this is not the case, then the fitness principle cannot be universally understood, and either there is some internal incoherence within the system, or we are dealing with an entirely alien moral universe. For example, cannibalism and incest are today, in nearly the entire modern world, morally repugnant, isolated, and rejected by the most extreme taboos; there is no ethical path in this modern world to carry out these activities.  However, for some societies, (nearly all in the past) both cannibalism and incest were morally acceptable and acted upon without hesitation.  This is not to say that morality is relative, but only that the world that generated those moral systems has long disappeared.  Cannibalism and incest were ethically viable (possessed fitness) only within a very different moral universe.

            How does this apply to the terrorist?   The fact of randomness as a central strategy of terror distinguishes the terrorist’s tool from the typical tools used by a guerrilla or a soldier.  For these others, either infrastructure is targeted or the human targets are closely defined.  The narrowly defined targets develop into rules of engagement, rules that act to restrain the soldier or rebel guerrilla.  Within this moral universe, targets beyond the scope of definition are called collateral damage – negative and unavoidable consequences of engagement. For the terrorist this is not the case.  The terrorist stands these rules of engagement on their head.  In the ordinary universe, what is considered collateral damage becomes part of the target. Like the cannibal, this puts the terrorist in a different moral universe. For the ethic of terror the blood may flow from a banker, a store clerk – or a child. The ethic is randomness and is indicative of a symbiotic relationship with a moral universe distinct from modern warfare.  Even in the ancient world, when the conquerors devastate a foe, killed off all the males, sent the females into slavery, and sowed salt into the earth, the target totally destroyed – but the target was always specific.   

            The strategy of terror centers on apparently random acts of violence against civilian targets.  Whether the strategy is successful in moving the terrorist closer to a political goal is part of another discussion and I will ignore it here.  What is relevant is that the terrorist’s strategic design establishes a field of ethical conditions, a set of dialectical relationships, which are rooted, deliberately and with great calculation, in a lack of predictability.  Terror is a campaign literally waged by the stealth of unpredictability.  This unpredictability is a direct psychological assault on the socio-political psyche of a nation or group of people. This is a campaign designed to undermine any confidence the citizenry might have in the ability of their government to protect them.  The field of ethical conditions thus set in motion has far reaching implications and considerable impact on the psyche of the individual. 

            For the polite and law abiding citizen this randomness of terror is unsettling. This is what sets terror apart from the ‘normal’ conditions of war, as well as specifically targeted acts of political violence, such as assassination.  Terror seeks to destabilize social cohesion by random violence.  This promotes a widespread anxiety that removes the psychological foundation required for general security.  It follows, that to assert stability the psychological conditions established by the terrorist demands a reaction leading to the reestablishment of predictability.  The actual instability may be less than the perceived damage, but that is an analytical issue, not a psychological one.  The bottom line is the urgent need in the part of the established political forces to establish that sense of security undermined by the lack of predictability.


            I did not title this section “What is Torture?” for the simple reason that we all have a fairly good idea what torture is.   We all know the rough outlines of physical torture without an elaborate description or haggling over the details.  Psychological and emotional torture is another matter.  Here, definitional lines are a bit fuzzy making torture hard to define, e.g., is shouting questions in someone’s face emotional torture?  However, none of these definitional issues is to be examined in this paper.  The meaning of torture in this discussion is to be found in the analysis of the singular relationship torture has to the tool of terrorism – for there is a distinct and unique relationship and it is the nature of this relationship that surrounds and influences the ethics behind any application of torture.  Bear in mind, here, that the key word is relationship.

            The usual questions asked of torture tend to ignore this relationship.  Instead, torture is typically examined out of its contextual meaning and using analytical devices from a moral universe that do not necessarily apply to the relationship between torture and terror.  This does not mean that terror goes unnoticed when discussing torture, but rather that the typical analytical strategy adopted in an examination of torture ignores the relationship as a contextual focal point.  For example: ‘All torture is evil because it violates human rights,’ would be at least one typical framing of the question.  It should be obvious that in this way torture is pulled out of specific context and condemned by the standards of a moral universe that only apply in the absence of a relationship with terror. 

            I realize that this is somewhat unclear because torture is frequently presented and argued as a response to terror.  This was the stated implication in the above section on terror.  However, this is a different position than arguing an ethical connection between terror and torture.  The first presentation – that of torture as a response to terror – is often a legal, constitutional, or human rights argument, or a pragmatic argument, i.e., does torture work, does it combat the general anxiety over terrorism and reassert the government’s ability to provide security for a population?  What is presented in this paper is not a pragmatic argument.  It is a presentation of the ethical relationship that draws terror and torture into a dialectical whole. 

            Torture, as it is treated in this study, is analyzed as a relationship.  It is the position in this paper that torture cannot be morally judged with any sense of completeness apart from the dialectical progenitor, in this case, terror; moral speculation does not take place in a vacuum.  And further, that torture, like terrorism, also generates ethical conditions, but these are conditions that are passed down by its dialectical relationship with terrorism. This is not exactly saying that one cannot be understood or judged without the other – though this is also a viable position – but that only the whole makes up the dialectic and the moral understanding

            Finally, this is a paper on ethics, yet strangely enough I am going to avoid the question of: Is torture right or is torture wrong?  Like the WWII soldier in relationship with battlefield conditions, the issue of right and wrong is misplaced.  Unless I have done a terrible job of preparing the reader, this approach will come as no surprise.



            Understand that the terrorist act of random violence is random only to the targets.  The terrorist knows full well the nature and value of the target.  The terrorist also realizes that the target is largely unsuspecting; hence the violence unleashed is strongly enhanced by a lack of predictability.  By deliberate design, the terrorist campaign is dependent on cloaking the violence in a mantel of secrecy.  Sub-rosa action is the heartbeat of the terrorist condition.  Ambush through stealth is the basic strategy for this kind of warfare.  As I have been arguing throughout this paper, terror is literally a war of sudden and unpredictable violence to destabilize a socio-political order, not by destruction, per se, but by secrecy and ambush. 

            The ethical conditions established by the terrorist create a field of fear generated by secrecy. In order to regain a minimum of stability necessary for social function, it is not the violence the established governments must overcome, but the secrecy.  Violence in war is commonplace and fully comprehensible to the citizen.  Violence alone does not destabilize the social order or threaten political legitimacy.  It is fear of the unpredictable that will unhinge the population.  It is this element of an unpredictable fear that established governments will inevitably seek to overcome.  Governments exist and thrive by control.  They will not long survive in an environment of chaos.  To overcome the fear generated by the terrorist, the terrorist must be disarmed of secrecy.  Disarming the terrorist of secrecy will re-align predictability with the security mandatory for a stable functioning social order.  This would be the point of view – no doubt a correct one – of official governmental agencies.  This will be a predictable reply to the violence of ambush.  It will be the inevitable reply to ambush

            Up until this point the focus of this analysis has rested largely on abstractions.  This is the typical approach taken by researchers and theoreticians.  Let us bear in mind that such abstract elements as civil security, terrorism, torture, the national state, etc., are all conscious impressions of real things and concrete events.  However, they are the ideas of things and events, not the actual.  We need to remind ourselves that ethics is not automatic and intrinsic to conceptualizations in our heads.  The tendency to offer moral judgments to the abstractions of things and events, such as the state, or a revolutionary movement, is a neo-Hegelian metaphysical tool that obscures the fact that it is people, in the individual and concrete sense, that lay out their personal moral prerogatives and render ethical judgments on both their own actions, and the actions of others.  It is with the individual actor that ethics must be analyzed.  How does this play out with regards to the terrorist?

            The job description of the terrorist includes eroding the power of the opposition by sewing insecurity.  To reiterate, this insecurity is a product of fear deliberately created by apparent random acts of violence. For the terrorist, fear is the deliberate weapon of choice.  This fear is instigated by a strategy of hidden warfare where the targets appear to be chosen at the whim of a madman, or the caprice of fate, and where success depends in large part on preventing the opposition from finding a predictable pattern to the violence.  As I have already discussed, this is the perspective of the organized political state.  For the terrorist this perspective may not be accurate.  For the terrorist, the target may, in fact, be selected with great care.  But this is a process known only to the terrorist.  The shadowy nature of the standards by which the targets are selected is a calculated part of terrorist’s strategy.  This produces that lack of predictability that is a cornerstone of terrorist strategy, a strategy that is dependent on secrecy for success.  When choosing this strategy the terrorist knows full well the meaning of secrecy and its vital role in the campaign of terror.  Frequently, secrecy is the meaning of the target.

All of this will come as no surprise to the terrorist who knows that the opposition will attack the heart of the campaign by attacking the authority of secrecy. The terrorist has chosen secrecy as part of this war-by-ambush.  The terrorist has chosen to create a condition where keeping secrets is a principle demand of the job.  By choice, the terrorist may be called on to continue the terrorist strategy of secrecy during enhanced interrogation, i.e., torture.  By choosing to be part of a secret war the terrorist has consented to be in that place where the combatants will use complimentary weapons of war.  The terrorist has chosen the weapon of secrecy, and thereby consented to the possibility of torture.  And as Thomas Hobbes so famously pointed out:  “Nothing done to a man by his own consent can be injury.”[9]

The soldier on the battlefield doesn’t want to be shot and the terrorist doesn’t want to be tortured, but both possibilities are inherent to the nature of their respective occupations.  The soldier, campaigning on the battlefield, has a predictable target.  That target, the enemy soldier, is fully aware that he is a target and takes an appropriate response to the enemy soldier.  There is nothing hidden here, nothing secret.  Stealth can be employed, and most certainly is.  But the enemy is certainly aware of the hovering bulls-eye, and routinely takes steps accordingly. The ethical conditions of the open battlefield allow for openness by the participants.  In general, the citizenry can remain on the side lines.  And even where the citizenry is targeted (e.g., the WW II German air campaign over Britain) the citizenry knew they were targeted and for the most part knew where and how the attacks will take place.  The clarity of this knowledge creates a certain kind of dismal security that became part of the resolve of the civilian population. Terrorism, on the other hand, built on secrecy, allows for no such clarity and therefore threatens any resolve on the part of the population.  This is the condition that the established governmental forces must defeat.

            The bottom line here is that the terrorist has chosen the path of secrecy as a tactic of conflict.  The terrorist has chosen to be responsible for this secret nature of the terror campaign.  Therefore, just as the soldier on the battlefield would not be surprised that his violence will be met by a counter-violence, neither should the terrorist be surprised that secrecy will inevitably be met by measures of counter-secrecy.  To reestablish predictability is a primary goal of any government’s anti-terror campaign.  This goal is predictable. Just as the soldier in combat knows the ethical condition of the battlefield, and accepts them, likewise the terrorist must know the ethical conditions of action when choosing the campaign of terror.  If this sounds a bit like I am suggesting that the terrorist is responsible for the torture inflicted and this is exactly correct.  Just as we all choose our fate, so does the terrorist.  The ethical conditions established by the terrorist do not just allow torture, they insist on it.  Breaking secrecy is a key element to breaking the terrorist strategy, and the terrorist knows the ethical situation he is in just as surly as the soldier on the battlefield knows the ethics of the situation he is in.

            The Issue of Human Rights.  The question of human rights inevitably arises.  These are typically legal questions, debated on numerous levels, i.e. human rights, constitutional guarantees, etc.  Human rights” are generally held to be rights or freedoms to which all people are entitled merely on the basis of the fact that they are human. Human rights are considered to be universal, applying to all humans equally, without  consideration of their location or of their station in life.  However, there is absolutely no consensus as to the nature of what should or should not be regarded as a human right. One need only point out the conflict between the United States and international treateies on the basic nature of Human Rights, or rather what consituties a ‘right.’ 

For example, President Jimmy Carter, in his 1978 State of the Union address, announced that to earn a decent living was a basic human right.  Much of the world agrees with Carter, yet such a ‘basic right’ has never been enacted into law in the US.[10] 

Likewise, the abstract concept of human rights has been a subject of intense philosophical debate and criticism.  From where do basic human rights come?  Why are they a given?  Are they by ‘nature?’  Can ‘nature’ be legitimaely tested in court?  Are human rights bestowed?  If so, by whom or what?  These are just some of the examples of the philosophical puzzles that surround human rights.  Interesting questions, to be sure, but they are also questions and issues that will sidetrack the basic thrust of this paper, which is the question of the ethical relationship between terror and torture.

This is not a dismissal of human rights.  Human rights are a profound study, and they are fundamental to a great many legal questions.  However, the levels and arrangements of any legalities involving ‘human rights’ – and legalities in general – are historically contextual and therefore shifting and contingent.  As the details of every event and idea, rather legal or moral, contains elements of the contextual, so will be the question of terror and torture.   However, certain characteristics of actions, and therefore characteristics of ethics, show great consistency.  One of the characteristics would be the frame within which the event takes place.  In this case: a dialectic.  There are certain dialectical responses, I have been arguing, that are so utterly predictable that they cannot be considered in the absence of their counterpart.  This arrangement sets up a certain inevitable dialogue that can be examined in a way that avoids the monologue of legal issues in favor of an ethical discussion. 

                                    ***   ***   ***   ***   ***

            Conclusion:  Secrets have been at the heart of the ethical position I have staked out. Here is a concluding way to get a line on the argument I have been making.  There is something in the nature of secrets that offends. Secrets are a source of power. For the terrorist, secrets are the chosen ethical conditions. 

            We think very little about the spy who is executed for unearthing secrets and spiriting them off to an enemy.  Like the terrorist, what stands out about the spy is the relationship to secrets.  The difference is that the spy is a conduit of secrets while the terrorist is the embodiment of secrets. With the spy, there is something underhanded and dishonorable about the work.  We feel personally violated and threatened by the revelations of state secrets.  Somehow, we think, the spy deserves what fate has in store.  We even have a grim sort of satisfaction in seeing the deserts dished out. 

            The terrorist, on the other hand, goes one step further than the spy.  The spy is a secondhand threat.  The terrorist is a primary threat.  The terrorist directly threatens social cohesion and political legitimacy with secrets.  Secrets are the traffic of the spy, but they are a weapon for the terrorist.  The spy is executed for transporting secrets.  The terrorist must be pried loose from the secrets.  There is an inevitability about this that marks the ethical condition chosen and established by the terrorist.

            Ethical consideration of torture cannot be rationally discussed in the absence of the dialectical counterpart enacted by the ethical conditions generated by random acts of violence.  This is not a chicken and egg question where all parties can wash their hands of the matter and walk away crying puppets of happenstance.  Taking part in a campaign of terror is a voluntary and intentional act.  This voluntary act precedes any complementary reciprocity of ‘enhanced interrogation.’  The terrorist has voluntarily launched this dialogue with the ‘interrogator.’  Thus, it is a fair argument to claim that the ethical conditions for torture are the responsibility of the terrorist, much more than the torturer.  I do not claim that the ‘interrogator’ is off-the-hook, for the interrogator must make an ethical choice,[11] though this choice seems far more circumscribed than that choice made by the terrorist. It is also true that certain individuals possess a personality fitting for the work of enhanced interrogation, but in the need to get at the clandestine nature of a terror campaign these personalities are required, no matter how much we recoil at the imagery.  From an established government’s point of view, the secrets must be revealed for the sake of social stability.  There is an undeniable inevitability linking the means as choice to the ethical conditions, to the ends.

            Recall, that the random acts of violence are only apparent.  For the terrorist, these acts are not at all random.  They are by design.  It is in the secret of the design is the battlefield on this war is fought.  The ethics of this battlefield – the ethics of random – are made by the terrorist, not the interrogator.  It is the terrorist that is responsible for the way in which this war is fought.  In the final analysis, and just as surly as the soldier chooses to be shot at and thereby chooses the possibility of death on the battlefield, the terrorist chooses the possibility of torture.  





[1] For example, see Michael Scott Doran, Somebody Else’s Civil War, found in How Did This Happen?

Ed. by James Hoge and Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs, Public Affairs Publishing, New York, 2002  especially pp. 31- 33

[2] Note that in WWI aerial combat the machine gun was used without this same sense of outrage.  This is likely because the combat remained largely a one-on-one contest and the element of randomness was removed from the fight.

[3] For an expanded coverage on this distinction you might look into such philosophers as David Ross, and

his book The Right and the Good, (Oxford University press, New York, 2002)

[4] The obvious example here is the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  See Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, various editions.

[5] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, various editions, section 427

[6] At this point it is tempting to say that ‘ethics trumps morality,’ but such a statement, while philosophically important, opens a new line of discussion that is well beyond the scope of this paper.

[7] As USAF General Curtis LeMay famously told his assistant Robert MacNamara, that "If the Japanese had won the war we would’ve been prosecuted as war criminals."

[8] See C.D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1971)

   pp.164 - 166

[9] Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, various editions, Chapter 15, section 13.  Before it is suggested that I am unfairly using Hobbes in this capacity, a reading of the entire section (#13, which falls under the Third Law of Nature, ‘Justice’) will show that Hobbes carefully suggests that all voluntary actions are by individual will, and therefore consequences fall as a matter of the consent by will. It is also worth noting that this entire section (#13) seems slightly out of context, as though Hobbes was attempting to cover all his bases regarding volunteerism, ensuing consequences, and consent.

[10] It might be argued that US federal minimum wage laws provide for this basic human right.  But clearly the minimum wage hardly qualifies for supporting a ‘decent living’.

[11] This is even truer when the interrogator selects the ‘terrorist’ at random.  Fishing expeditions create vast problems, both ethical and practical.

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