Terrorism and Moral Response
Author: Hye Young Kim
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 10/05/2011
the 11th of September 2001 (9/11) the World was shocked and
horrified by the Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, the symbolic
headquarters of global power and globalization. 9/11 was followed by a series
of terrorist outrages and attempts in Bali in 2002, Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in
2004, London in 2005, Islamabad in 2008, and many more. At this
critical juncture, where the Global Community is commemorating the 10th
anniversary of 9/11, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, there are
hundreds of stories are reproduced, reinterpreted, and redistributed throughout
the world, which in turn consciously or unconsciously shape “our” collective
Indeed, 9/11 is one of the significant events of the early 21st
century in that the attack has changed not only the United States, but also
shaken every corner of the world by putting the “terrorism” and “war on
terrorism” rhetoric into the heart of international agenda. Terrorism, by
definition, “employs horrific violence against unsuspecting civilians, as well
as combatants, in order to inspire fear and create panic, which in turn will
advance the terrorists’ political or religious agenda”; therefore
poses a great threat on world peace and security through the systematic targeting
of innocent civilians.
is more significant with regard to 9/11 and the Al-Qaeda led attacks against
the United States and the rest of the West, however, lies in the fear that it
seems the Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization become a truism. As Barber
argues, on the one side, there are “the forces of disintegral tribalism and reactionary
fundamentalism,” which he calls jihad and on the other side, there are
the “forces of integrative modernization and aggressive economic and cultural
globalization” which he calls McWorld.
As simplistic and reductionist as this view might be, the dichotomy
encapsulates how world is divided – haves vs. have-nots, modern vs.
traditional, city vs. rural, center vs. marginalized, North vs. South…etc. In
this essay, I would like to examine why and how the global terrorism since 9/11
and the unilateral response of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq in the
name of “War on Terror” set the agenda, challenging global order. Then, I will
present some of possible ways to overcome current challenges.
in a New Era
is not new: in the 1980s 5,431 international terrorist incidents occurred which
killed 4,684 people, in the 1990s there were 3,824 incidents with 2,468 deaths.  Of course,
state-sponsored terrorism is not included in this figure. Yet, the 9/11
Al-Qaeda attack is different from the old terrorism in two key respects. First,
unlike the conventional belief that the cause of terrorism lies in despair or a
sense of hopelessness rooted in oppression, ignorance, poverty, and perceived
injustice, though these elements are not un-founded; this conflict is hegemonial
and ideological, about power and the norms around which society should
To fight this war, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have intelligently manipulated
the fear of losing the identity in the wave of globalization among
Muslim communities in the Middle East. This narrative is well-blended with
historical wrong-doings of colonialism, the sense of marginalization and
grievances, and religious fervor propagating the “pure Islam”, whereby
provoking disproportionate retaliation and creating extremism. For example, Osama
Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda often placed themselves and their enemies in a
theological context calling the US is the ‘Hubal of this age’ and uses
such terminologies as Crusaders, Zionist, the imperialists. According to
Fukuyama, this kind of radical Islamism can be called Islamo-fascism,
which is to say, the radically intolerant and anti-modern doctrine.
like the old terrorism, the war on terror since 9/11 is an asymmetric war
between a State well-equipped with hard military power and a non-State actor
without any uniformed solider to fight; however the difference is that now we
are living in global information era. As Joseph Nye argues, Al-Qaeda has
benefited from the globalization, especially in information, communication and
technology through which they have been able to establish and maintain contact
base among different groups scattered in different areas, also they could
easily disseminate their propaganda to get support from Arab Muslim communities. Publicity
is the oxygen of terrorism. The American counteraction has been no less than
that. Think about this: who defines what is terrorism and who are the terrorist.
Obviously, the terminology applies only to terrorism against us, not the
terrorism we carry out against them.
Therefore the US can name others as terrorist and can declare war on
terror; but none of the rest can name the US as terrorist. This is
also related to the selectivity of history – what to remember and what to not.
Chomsky furiously argues that along with the 9/11 of 2011, the world also has
to commemorate the 1973’s 9/11 when the US succeeded in its intensive efforts
to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a
military coup that placed General Pinochet’s brutal regime in office. The moral
truism – the principles we expected to be applied to others must apply to us as
well – is difficult to be satisfied in any case.
to respond to terrorism
acts of terrorism cannot be, for any reason, justified since, in Kantian
language, terrorists treats use ordinary people as means to an end. Terrorism
aims not only at the direct target, but at the same time at sending a message
to the indirect target through the terrorizing action. The challenge we face
then, is how to respond effectively to terrorism without doing further evil. In
the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks a decade ago, the Bush
administration declared “war on terror” and responded unilaterally in the name
of justice. Without any clear target of military defeat, the US first
chose Afghanistan where it believed the Taliban government harbored and
supported Al-Qaeda. The rationale behind this behavior was the frame which
viewed terrorism as attacks on the US as a state and its people. The legitimacy
of the state-to-state coercive military intervention, however, has been
challenged and US tried to justify its war on Taliban by shifting the focus on the
humanitarian defense of freeing the Afghan people, especially its women, from
Then the Invasion of Iraq was followed in 2003.
the discourse of legitimate force in defense of national security and public
safety, again the US has failed to reflect on its lesser evil which actually
resembled with the perpetrators of terrorism. As a matter of fact, the struggle
against terrorism took place at the expense of the fundamental freedoms and the
basic dignity of individuals. It is no longer a secret that the US government
has committed regular abuses, tantamount to torture, against the detainees at Guantánamo
Bay Detention Camp which was set up in 2002 in order to hold the “enemy
combatants” from war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush
administration deliberately asserted that detainees in the war on terror do not
fall into the Geneva Conventions, thereby denying the prisoners their basic
human rights. More importantly, the war on terror provided an all-pass
justification for the kinds of military adventures, invasions, bombings,
interventions, and atrocities, while at the same time placing restrictions of
civil liberty and political freedom in the same way as was done during the Cold
War period. The rhetoric of war on terrorism constantly heightens the fear in
people’s mind and reinforces dehumanization processes depicting the enemy as an
evil monster, which in turn leads to the cycle of revenge.
us follow Rosenberg’s thought experiment of an alternative road: What if
the US has responded to the 9/11 attacks through multilateral, international
cooperation and global governance? What if the response was more to seek
redistributive justice rather than retributive justice, by dealing more with
the driving forces behind fanatic hatred – perceived collective humiliation? The
rationale behind this logic is that we could have framed the 9/11 attacks and
consequences differently. The day after 9/11, both the UN Security Council and
the General Assembly adopted resolutions strongly condemning the acts of terrorism
and urging all states to cooperate to bring the perpetrators, organizers and
sponsors of the terrorism to justice.
Acting along with the United Nations, it was possible to interpret the
situation as “crimes against humanity”
as Mary Robinson, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, asserted. In this
way, the whole discourse could be conceptualized in people-to-people, rather
than state-to-state terms, which was a correct response given that the
attackers were not representatives of a state, but members of private
organizations. Another worth mentioning fact is that there was a deep feeling
of shame, humiliation, and revulsion in the Muslim world against the terrorist
acts which dishonored and disgraced Islam. Through collective action and global
solidarity, the US could have had the chance to unite with Islam world. The
irony is that by responding to the attack with military option, the US has “validated
his [bin Laden’s] fantasy of being a holy warrior, rather than a fanatic mass
murderer,” and lost its moral credibility.
of Law and Global Justice
11 has resulted in a global alliance against terrorism. What we now need is not
just an alliance against evil, but an alliance for something positive – a
global alliance for reducing poverty and for creating a better environment, an
alliance for creating a global society with more social justice.
is not done by evil ghost; but by human beings. While terrorist acts cannot be morally
justified and deserve to be punished and pre-empted; it is equally important to
look into the underlying causes and the specific contexts where hatred and
radicalization flourish. Although it is not quite appropriate to say the root
causes of the terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda and other Islamo-fascists
lie in so-called structural violence like poverty, unequal distribution of
wealth, or other perceived injustice since the extremism has been largely
successful through ideological indoctrination perpetuated by some of the
radical groups, it is also true that there is underlying grievances originated
from a sense of collective injustice among Muslim World. There must be reasons
why otherwise decent ordinary men and women build up enormous rage and hatred.
At the deepest bottom of the hatred, I argue, is a history of global injustice:
colonialism, Cold War polarization, unilateral acts of superpower upon their
interest, Imperialism, aggressively imposed liberal values such as democracy
(most of time not genuine) and market economy, selective application of rule of
law, ‘American exceptionism,’ and so on.
light of this situation, I will suggest the following three recommendations as
a way of moving forward. First, narrow down global inequalities –
the growing disparities in wealth and subsequence indifference amidst affluence
certainly fosters resentment in many corners of the world and provides a good
reason for the perpetrators’ propaganda. Second, spread the message of a
universal morality with universal human rights – focusing on our common
humanity rather than sticking to identity politics through the lens of specific
racial, nationalistic, religious, ethnic or other factors would ultimately lead
to establishment of world governance structures, and institutional Cosmopolitanism.
Understanding that we are all intertwined in an interdependent global web would
confirm this view. Thirdly, initiate intercultural dialogues between
Western and Muslim (and other) societies to “deepen mutual understanding, to
expand sympathy and imagination, to exchange not only arguments but also
sensibilities, to take a critical look at oneself, to build up mutual trust,
and to arrive at a more just and balanced view of both the contentious issues
and the world in general.”
However, significant change must come from inside each society. Like any other
identities, so-called Islamic culture or society is not homogeneous nor fixed;
rather, it is diverse, multi-faceted and transformative. Knowing this, it is
time for Muslim community to decide whether to make its peace with development
and modernity, in particular with the principle of a secular state and
religious tolerance. As the recent Arab Spring indicates, there is a wind of
change blowing from inside.
terrorism poses enormous challenges on the international community. The right
response to this challenge is collaborative international action through the rule
of law in the short term; at the same time in the long term, we should put more
emphasis on global justice, common humanity, and cultural diversity.
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Bio: Hye Young Kim is an MA candidate in the Department of International Law at the University for Peace.