Thinking about terrorism and just war
Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Volume 23, Number 1, March 2010
Since 2001 a new urge to moralize the use of violence as an instrument of state policy has appeared in liberal democracies. The American idea of a War against Terror, and the European notion of confronting a global terrorist threat, have together merged with a discourse on humanitarian military action: the political/moral ‘responsibility to protect’ is no longer to be confined to one’s own citizens. Renewed interest among academics in ‘just war’ theory, the tradition that seeks to humanize war through law, reflects this development. This article questions the assumption that there is an essential difference between war (civilized violence) and terrorism (barbaric violence). It argues that their similarity appears more clearly if we set intentions aside—such as the deliberate or accidental killing of ‘innocents’—and focus instead on three main facts: (a) modern war strategies and technologies are uniquely destructive, (b) armed hostilities increasingly occupy a single space of violence in which war and peace are not clearly demarcated, and (c) the law of war does not provide a set of ‘civilizing’ rules but a language for legal/moral argument in which the use of punitive violence is itself a central semantic element.
This article is presented by Prof. Asad as keynote lecture at 2010 EASA at Maynooth (a review of the event)