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Moral Frameworks of Terrorists

Info: 3361 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 18th Jul 2018 in Criminology

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This paper discusses, with reference to two examples, whether terrorists can appeal to a consistent moral framework. Terrorism can be, and indeed, most usually is defined in the literature, as a strategy of violence that is designed to promote a desired outcome through instilling fear in the public at large. There are, however, disagreements amongst many academics, from political science, law and human rights analysts, as to the definition of terrorism that should be used in practice, as some academics argue that the motives that fuel some terrorists are politically valid. The definition of terrorism currently in use by the UN is, “any act…intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do, or abstain from doing, any act.” (Annan, 2005).

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Regardless of the particular definition of terrorism that is employed, terrorist acts are generally defined through their violence, the psychological impact of the act, the political goal of the act and the fact that they are usually perpetrated against civilians, or non-combatants. Obviously, as a result of these factors, terrorism is regarded, everywhere, as unlawful and an illegitimate means of achieving the ends that are sought, but as the famous saying goes, “one man’s terrorism is another man’s freedom fighter”. Recent events have brought this to the fore, with the war in Afghanistan bringing back many memories for the United States government, who supported the Afghan Mujahideen as ‘freedom fighters’ during the United States war with the Soviet Union, but recently, the United States government branding breakaway Afghan groups as terrorists, and launching a war in Afghanistan to stop them in their terrorist acts. Nelson Mandela, ex-President of South Africa, and Nobel Laureate, was once branded a terrorist and was imprisoned for decades for his terrorist acts; a definition for terrorism, and the word terrorist thus seems to be flexible, depending on the political context and the aims that are trying to be achieved by the people supporting the country in which the terrorist is present. What is certain, however, is that the people committing the stated acts of terrorism wholly believe in what they are fighting to achieve, and, as such, construct some sort of moral framework to justify their actions and their beliefs. This paper is interested in how and why these frameworks are constructed and whether terrorists can ever appeal to a consistent moral framework for their actions.

As Bandura (1990) argues, terrorists are able to morally disengage through many psychological routes, and, as such, it is a societal responsibility to ensure civilised conduct through social systems which uphold compassionate behaviour and which denounce, and renounce, cruelty in any form. As Bandura (1990) argues, moral standards do not function as fixed internal regulators of conduct, but rather, self-regulatory mechanisms do not engage until they are activated, and there are many ways in which these regulatory mechanisms can be disengaged, allowing the emergence of different types of conduct with the same moral standards. Bandura (1990) further argues that political diversity and the toleration of public expressions of scepticism create the conditions that allow the emergence of challenges to suspect moral appeals, such that if societies are to safeguard against the occurrence of terrorism, they must establish social safeguards against the misuse of institutional justificatory powers for ends which are exploitative and destructive. As such, Bandura (1990) seems to be arguing that it is the fault of the state, which has not ensured a proper, functioning, framework for the non-appearance of terrorism, which allows terrorism to grow, not that terrorists themselves are at fault. This type of argument does not require an appeal to moral consistency or moral frameworks on the part of the terrorist, but rather argues that terrorists are a product of a dysfunctional society, which is responsible for the appearance of terrorists.

Further to this, Atram (2006) concludes that suicide terrorism cannot be explained by a single political root cause, such as the presence of foreign military forces or the absence of democracy, as other factors such as psychological motivations, or religious inspirations can also contribute to the desire to undertake terrorist acts. As Atram (2006) argues, any simplistic accounts of terrorism, why it happens and what leads people to become terrorists, are bound to failure as terrorists have underlying moral values and group dynamics which are complex themselves and also intertwined in a complex manner. Only when these root causes are fully understood by decision-makers will organisational and ideological solutions that could defuse the threat of terrorism be found (Atram, 2006). As such, as Atram (2006) argues, terrorists have a consistent moral framework within which they work, allowing them to unilaterally act, in concert, to achieve their ends.

There have been many terrorist acts in recent history, including the Munich massacre in 1972, during the Olympic Games, bombing of flights including Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, gas attacks in Tokyo, bombing campaigns in Ireland by the IRA, the 9/11 attacks on the United States and, following this, the Bali bombings, the London and Madrid bombings. Terrorism is a tactic that has been used for a long time to achieve political ends, but it has recently come to the fore through the massive loss of life in the 9/11 bombings, and the subsequent wars, as this was an attack against the currently most powerful nation on Earth, on home soil, killing thousands of innocents. Terrorism, as a political tool, has therefore come to be used almost as a daily term, in the media, by academics, in family homes, and, indeed, the populace is scared, perhaps by hyper coverage of terrorism in the media, perhaps by the attacks themselves, but, for whatever reason, the populace is scared, and so the terrorists are winning, under the definitions of terrorism which have been discussed herein.

The current paper will discuss two examples of terrorist groups in order to assess the moral framework to which they adhere, to assess whether this framework is consistent, and, if, indeed, it can ever be argued that terrorists can appeal to a consistent moral framework.

Colombia has been involved in what is termed an ‘armed struggle’ for the past four decades, since the death of Gaitan in the 1960s, when the FARC and the ELN were founded, ironically, as a call to stop La Violencia which had begun following Gaitan’s death. At this time, these two guerrilla groups campaigned for peace, for free elections and for the return of a leftist government. The FARC and the ELN have, however, in recent decades, become embroiled in the drugs trade, gaining money through the drugs trade in order to fund their ‘war’ on the Colombian government, and their fight for peace in Colombia. In response to this, it is known that the current administration funded paramilitary groups to fight against the guerrillas[1], although the paramilitary groups have themselves become embroiled in the drugs trade and are known to have committed acts of terrorism against civilians and non-combatants, such that there is now a war between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.

Thus, the situation in Colombia is extremely complex. FARC and ELN guerrillas began with the stated aim of returning Colombia to peace, through the instigation of free elections, seeking a solid political end to La Violencia. Their moral framework was just that: a moral framework through which they were seeking to return Colombia to some semblance of normality. However, as we have seen, and because it is so easy, in a country where it is so difficult to earn a living any other way, the guerrilla groups became embroiled in the drugs trade, and, as such, their moral framework for committing terrorist acts has changed, and indeed, the way in which they commit their terrorist acts has changed, with IRA terrorists training the guerrillas in bombing tactics, and these being used on Colombian military targets, unfortunately to great effect, with the concomitant loss of many lives. Thus, the Colombian case is extremely complex, with guerrilla groups starting out with mainly political aims, but with these same groups now largely fighting to retain control of their share of the drugs trade, causing armed combat between members of these guerrilla groups and government-backed paramilitaries whenever they come in to contact.

Thus, the FARC and the ELN, although they started out as political terrorists are now seen as groups which use their skills to dominate the drugs trade, through the taking of national territory and the submission of hundreds of thousands of farmers in the regions in which they hold territory. The moral framework that these terrorist groups adhere to has, therefore, firstly, radically changed over the period of activity, and has taken a far less ‘helpful’ turn, in terms of terrorising a whole country and causing problems for Colombia in terms of international relations, economic development and human rights issues. The FARC and ELN, if they adhere to any framework at all, for their actions, certainly cannot argue that this framework is in any way moral and it certainly has not been consistent. As such, for these groups of terrorists, who literally hold a country to ransom, there can be no argument of a consistent moral framework that is in place, and there can be no argument for the existence of any consistent moral framework for the human rights abuses they cause and the economic and political havoc they create for Colombia.

The next terrorist group we shall look at is the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) of Peru, which was formed as a political guerrilla group, in response to Peru’s military dictatorship, with the stated aim of achieving free elections within Peru and placing a communist party in control of Peru, through the Pensamiento Gonzalo ideology (named after the thinking of Guzman, the Shining Path’s leader). The Shining Path took to violent means as a way of achieving its stated aims, and, indeed, is known to be responsible for some of the worst massacres in Peruvian history, with Peru’s human rights record being atrocious, on account of the atrocities committed by the Shining Path. The Shining Path seized control of large areas of Peru, but their communist ideas were never popular with the Peruvian populace, and so their guerrilla war began to lose support and its base began to falter. The Shining Path support fell dramatically following Guzman’s capture in 1992, and the capture of his successor several years later, with its successor movement, Proseguir, having very few supporters and arguing mainly for the release of former Shining Path members.

In terms of the moral framework of the Shining Path, their aims were very clear and political in scope, although the situation was complicated as Fujimori, the Peruvian Prime Minister at the time, branded anyone who spoke against the government a terrorist (see Burt, 2006). Even though the Shining Path were obviously terrorists who, it has been proven, were responsible for many civilian deaths, the Shining Path had a consistent moral framework to which they subscribed and which dictated their actions: the installation of communism within Peru. This framework was the reason for the establishment of the group, and was consistent across the time during which the Shining Path was active within Peru. Thus, in this guerrilla group, unlike in the guerrilla groups active in Colombia, the moral framework for the Shining Path’s actions was very clear and fixed, and consistent across the history of the Shining Path.

We have therefore discussed two cases, of three guerrilla groups, two in Colombia, one in Peru, two of which (the FARC and the ELN) have evolved in their ideology and moral framework as they moved through time, and one of which (the Shining Path) had a consistent moral framework in place for their actions, which informed, supported and dictated their actions in terms of achieving their stated aims (i.e., the installation of communism within Peru). Thus, terrorists, and terrorist groups, as we have seen in the case of the FARC and ELN, can evolve and change, in terms of their aims and their objectives, and the means used to achieve these aims. As such, their moral frameworks also change and move with the new orientation.

Under this analysis, it is implicit that terrorists have a moral conscience, that although this moral conscience allows them to commit acts that are considered terrorist acts by society, they do have a moral conscience, and one that can be called upon to support their objectives and their aims, and which can be used as a way of justifying any terrorist acts that they commit. As we have seen, as Atram (2006) concludes, the emergence of terrorism cannot be explained by a single political root cause, such as the presence of foreign military forces or the absence of democracy, as other factors such as psychological motivations, or religious inspirations can also contribute to the desire to undertake terrorist acts. As Atram (2006) argues, any simplistic accounts of terrorism, why it happens and what leads people to become terrorists, are bound to failure as terrorists have underlying moral values and group dynamics which are complex themselves and also intertwined in a complex manner. Only when these root causes are fully understood by decision-makers will organisational and ideological solutions that could defuse the threat of terrorism be found (Atram, 2006). As such, as Atram (2006) argues, terrorists have a consistent moral framework within which they work, allowing them to unilaterally act, in concert, to achieve their ends.

Thus, the FARC and the ELN, and the Shining Path, although, as we have seen, they have, and continue to, commit terrorist acts, they can call upon a moral framework for these acts, in terms of having justifiable reasons for their objectives and aims, and the way in which these objectives are achieved, such that these acts are perpetuated under what they consider to be a moral framework. That the rest of society does not see this framework as moral, under normal societal definitions of moral, is beyond them, beyond their understanding for, as Bandura (1990) argues, moral standards do not function as fixed internal regulators of conduct, but rather, self-regulatory mechanisms do not engage until they are activated, and there are many ways in which these regulatory mechanisms can be disengaged, allowing the emergence of different types of conduct with the same moral standards.

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This paper has discussed the issue of whether terrorists can appeal to a consistent moral framework. As we have seen, there are many definitions of terrorism in use in the literature, as there are disagreements as to the definition of terrorism[2], as some academics argue that the motives that fuel some terrorists are politically valid. Indeed, ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ seem to have been, and be, somewhat flexible terms, depending on the political affiliation of the terrorist/terrorist act; many people would call the acts committed by the Israeli’s against the Palestinians, for example, terrorist acts, but these seem to be supported by the United States government, as Israel is currently one of the highest recipients of United States foreign aid. Similarly, as we have seen, Nelson Mandela, ex-President of South Africa, and Nobel Laureate, was once branded a terrorist and was imprisoned for decades for his terrorist acts; a definition for terrorism, and the word terrorist thus seems to be flexible, depending on the political context and the aims that are trying to be achieved by the people supporting the country in which the terrorist is present.

Although the word ‘terrorist’ and the term ‘terrorism’ are open to interpretation, by politicians, and under international law, as we have seen[3], terrorists do subscribe to what they consider to be a moral framework for their objectives, and to support their acts to achieve these objectives. As we have seen from the two examples used here, these moral frameworks can stay static throughout the history of the terrorist group (as with the Shining Path) or can change over time in response to external factors or political events (as with the FARC and the ELN). Thus, the issue of whether terrorists can appeal to a consistent moral framework, I will argue, is valid: indeed, although this framework may be seen as amoral by the rest of society, the terrorist defines their objectives as moral, under a moral framework, which for them is consistent in terms of leading to desired objectives. Whether this framework is consistent across time is a matter for discussion, for, as we have seen, some terrorist groups find their objectives changing with shifting external circumstances, and, as such, their framework, whilst remaining internally morally consistent, in terms of the objectives, is not externally consistent over time. As Atram (2006) argues, terrorists have a consistent moral framework within which they work, allowing them to unilaterally act, in concert, to achieve their ends: it is this framework which allows them to function, as a unit, in order to achieve their aims and objectives.

References

Annan, K., 2005. Larger Freedom. Speech given to the United Nations at the Security Council Meeting on 17th March 2005.

Atram, S., 2006. The moral logic and growth of suicide terrorism. The Washington Quarterly 29(2), pp.127-147.

Bandura, A., 1990. Mechanisms of moral disengagement. In Reich, W. (ed.), Origins of terrorism: psychologies, ideologies, theologies, states of mind (pp.161-191). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burt, J-M., 2006. Quien habla es terrorista: the political use of fear in Fujimori’s Peru. Latin American Research Review 41(3), pp.32-62.

Saul, B., 2006. Two justifications for terrorism: a moral legal response. Foreign Policy in Focus, FPIF Policy Report. January 10th 2006. Available from http://www.fpif.org/pdf/papers/0601justifications.pdf Accessed on 30th April 2007.

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Footnotes

[1] As part of their efforts to secure, and retain, money from the United States, through their War on Drugs programme.

[2] Although, as we have seen, the definition of terrorism currently in use by the UN is, “any act…intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do, or abstain from doing, any act.” (Annan, 2005). This definition is also used by the International Criminal Court, and by most human rights lawyers who are involved in prosecuting terrorist acts.

[3] with, as we have seen, for example, the war in Afghanistan bringing back many memories for the United States government, who supported the Afghan Mujahideen as ‘freedom fighters’ during the United States war with the Soviet Union, but recently, the United States government branding breakaway Afghan groups as terrorists, and launching a war in Afghanistan to stop them in their terrorist acts.

 

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