The ethics behind fighting terrorism

Jeff McMahan, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, delivered his talk “War, Terrorism, and the War on Terror” to a mix of faculty and students in the library auditorium on March 6, giving his vision for an ethically permissible war on terror.

Anti-terrorism operations, McMahan said, are more like police work than war fighting. Yet he said there were some considerations that might make it permissible to kill, rather than arrest, terror suspects.

The essence of terrorism, McMahan said, is that it is an “intentional effort to inflict serious harm onto innocent people, usually because they’re part of a group, to terrorize other people part of the same group, usually for a political purpose.” Thus, McMahan said, while it captures traditional cases of terrorism, it would also cover things like the United States’ use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Key to McMahan’s works, on which his talk was based, is the difference between just and unjust combatants. Just combatants are fighters who are fighting for a just cause. The United States in World War II, he said, had a just cause, making its fighters just combatants. Unjust combatants, he said, have an unjust cause. In McMahan’s view, it’s morally impermissible for unjust combatants to kill even in self-defense during wartime.

He said that terrorists may not have unjust ends, although they do use unjust means. Unjust combatants, in contrast, have a variety of good excuses for their actions. They might have been duped into fighting an unjust war by unscrupulous leaders or misleading propaganda.

McMahan asked how terrorists should be treated by nations fighting them. He said terrorists can’t be treated like ordinary combatants; the combatant category exists to restrain war. It promises combatants they will be treated humanely and let go when hostilities are over to go back to civilian life.

McMahan said instead terrorists should be treated like criminals, and anti-terrorism operations should be more like police investigations than war. Yet in police work, there is the duty to take criminals alive.

“There are good reasons for a presumption of a requirement of arrest in anti-terrorist operations,” McMahan said. He added that there are several factors that might weigh in favor of killing terrorists on sight.

The three factors that need to be taken into consideration, he said, are that terrorists are generally more dangerous than ordinary criminals, that attempts to arrest terrorists rather than killing them are less effective in protecting innocents, and that it’s more dangerous to anti-terrorist operatives to arrest than simply kill terror suspects.

When all three factors are in favor of the anti-terrorist operatives, it would create more danger to civilians to try to arrest terrorists, and capturing them is very difficult compared to killing them outright – it may be justified to kill the suspects instead of bringing them to trial.

“I’m not proposing anything particularly radical here,” McMahan said.

He said the right to kill terror suspects comes from the right to protect the innocent. Yet, he said, it doesn’t give the government license to kill terror suspects in foreign countries where many innocents might be harmed.

“If there’s a terrorist in a hotel,” McMahan said, “and you have to attack and kill innocents to get the terrorists, would you be willing to do it if the terrorists were in a U.S. hotel?” If not, said McMahan, it’s not justified to do it in a foreign hotel either.