On the Rights and Wrongs of Terrorism – Anthony Lesser (review) – Engage Journal Issue 3 – September 2006

Ted Honderich, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7, London: Continuum, 2006, 206pp.

As can be seen from the author and title, this is a philosophical inquiry into the rights and wrongs of terrorism, with special reference to the situation in the Middle East. The main conclusions are that, unlike 9/11 and 7/7, Palestinian terrorism is justified (p 118); that, though 9/11 and 7/7 were unjustified, they were largely caused by American and British support for Israel (p 133); that going to war in Iraq was unjustified (p160); that there should be an “immediate and unnegotiated withdrawal” of Israel from the West Bank (p124); that Britain should leave Iraq (p161); and that Iran is entitled to the possession of nuclear weapons(p180).

In this review I will concentrate mainly, though not only, on the argument regarding Palestinian terrorism, which is the major theme of the book, and is as follows. The basic principle of morality is the Principle of Humanity, which asserts, to paraphrase Honderich, that our first priority should be to save people from being forced to lead bad lives. Lives are made bad by being unduly shortened, e.g. by disease or violence; by poverty; by lack of freedom; by lack of opportunity for relationships with others; by denial of respect; and by lack of opportunity to belong to a culture (pp58-9). All these are inflicted on the Palestinians because they have no state of their own. Therefore the Palestinians have a right to a state. But the only way they can obtain a state is through terrorism, defined (pp87-8) as violence which is illegal, small-scale (in comparison with war) and politically motivated. Hence, although terrorism is prima facie wrong, it is not wrong for the Palestinians. It was also, according to Honderich, for the same reason, namely necessity, not wrong for Jews in 1948 (p106).

The Principle of Humanity is similar to the well-known principle of utilitarianism, but differs in two ways. It is like utilitarianism in that it judges actions by their consequences, and holds that the right action is the one which does most to increase human welfare and happiness. It differs from it, first, because it gives priority to the relief of suffering over the increase of positive happiness: so in practice do most utilitarians, but, with a few exceptions, such as Karl Popper, they usually have a problem justifying this in theory. Secondly, it regards the basic conditions for avoiding a bad life not simply as very desirable but as a matter of right. Hence the Palestinians have a right to a state, not a mere claim to one.

It should be noted that, even if one accepts the Principle of Humanity, as many of us would be happy to do, it is by no means clear that having their own state will do much to improve the lives of Palestinians. A great deal of the suffering of the Palestinians has causes other than the occupation itself: the widespread poverty under Jordanian and Egyptian rule before it began; the failure of the leaders to pass on the money given for economic and social development; the measures Israel has had to take to deal with the intifada; the social bigotry. Indeed, the lives of Christians, homosexuals, and perhaps women in general may well become worse under Palestinian self-rule. However, there is a reasonable argument that in the long term self-government, democracy and respect for individual rights are all necessary conditions for making bad lives unlikely. If a people does not rule itself, if its internal arrangements are not democratic or if individual rights are not respected, then the quality of life, and often even life itself, is, for some, or even for all, of its members, at the mercy of others: they may in fact be benevolent, but there is no way of guaranteeing their benevolence. All three conditions, and maybe others, are needed, and should be pursued. In any case, many of us—probably most of the readers of this journal– already believe that the Palestinians have a right to a state, and have no wish to dispute this issue. So the first stage of Honderich’s argument is acceptable, even though self-government will not solve all that many problems.

There is, on the other hand, a serious moral objection to the second stage. Many people would argue that even if we grant that terrorism is the only possible means to this admittedly just and desirable end, it remains wrong, because the deliberate killing of the innocent is always wrong, regardless of any good consequences it may have. Honderich’s answer to this is given on pp111-118. It is in two stages. First, he makes the fair point that our morality does not rule out all killing, and in particular Israelis and their supporters commonly argue that killing by the Israel Defence Forces is justified (Honderich mischievously talks about “Neo-Zionists” rather than the IDF; but the point is valid, even if put needlessly offensively). If we accept this, then the fact that terrorism involves killing cannot on its own rule it out morally. Honderich then argues that if the Palestinians have a right to self-government they must logically have a right to the necessary means to self-government, even if those means are, as he says, “terrible”. Therefore, if terrorism is necessary to this end, as Honderich claims, they have a right to use it.

But this argument, that if one has a right to the end one has a right to the means, is fundamentally flawed. It holds if and only if the means do not themselves violate other rights or if they are not themselves fundamentally unjust. Indeed, Honderich himself concedes that point on page 118: “I do not have a moral right to save my life by the only means available, if that is the killing of three children”. He also points out that one cannot consistently hold both that a person has a right to something and that they have no right to the only available means to obtaining it. Not everyone agrees with this: but I do not myself wish to challenge it. The problem is that Honderich goes on to draw what many would regard as the wrong conclusion, that, in the case of statehood, there is therefore a right to the necessary means, however terrible. The alternative, which many people would adopt, is to say that the right to self-government is not absolute—just as the right to preserve one’s life is, as Honderich’s own example shows, not absolute. In other words, one should say , not that all peoples have a right to self-government, but that they have a right to self-government provided that they can obtain it without violating the rights of others. If statehood can be obtained only by killing the innocent indiscriminately, by the kind of random killing of civilians that Palestinian terrorism involves, one has no right to statehood.

To this it might be objected that the same argument can be used against Israel: if Israel’s self-defence necessarily involves civilian casualties, then, according to this argument, Israel would have no right to defend itself! There is, though, a clear moral difference between targeting civilians and seeking to maximise their destruction and targeting enemy soldiers—especially enemy soldiers who do not always wear uniform and who deliberately take up positions among civilians—while reluctantly accepting that some “collateral” civilian loss of life, however many precautions are taken, is inevitable. It is true that Honderich (pp156-9) denies, with much rhetoric, (A that there is any such moral difference, and argues that the only relevant moral consideration is whether the deaths are foreseen. But there is surely a difference between those who, while knowing they will cause some deaths of this sort, seek to minimise them, and those who seek as a matter of policy to maximise them. Moreover, if there is no such moral difference, the consequence that follows is that both sides should be condemned, not that Palestinian terror is justified. The same consequence would follow even if one were to accept the view that the IDF, in Lebanon and elsewhere, has in fact been targeting civilians. There is much evidence that these allegations, though regularly made, are largely false. But even if they were true they would in no way justify the methods of terrorism used on the other side.

This emphasises the falsity of the idea that a right to the end entails a right to the means. Israelis have a right to self-defence and to live in safety, but not everything that might be done, or indeed everything that has been done, in the name of self-defence is justifiable. Palestinians have a right to self-government, but no right to employ terrorism in order to obtain it. And in 1948 and the preceding years Jewish self-defence was fully justified but Jewish terrorism was not.

However, we should note that Honderich might have tried to reach his conclusion without using the notion of rights at all. He could have argued that the benefits of self-government would so obviously outweigh the harm of terrorism that, given that terrorism is necessary if self-government for Palestine is to be obtained, it is justified, even though evil in itself, by the good it would bring about. As I said above, many people would simply deny that it is morally permissible to make any such calculation, and hold that the proposed means are simply wrong. But even those prepared to make it should not conclude that terrorism is justified. The harm done, even if only to a few people, is both very great and quite certain, while the benefits, though potentially affecting a much larger number of people, are very uncertain: even if self-government is achieved, self-government needs to be combined with a respect for individual rights in order to do much real good, and that this would happen is very uncertain. This is not a peculiarity of the Palestinian situation: in general political violence is open to the objection that it will certainly do harm in the short-term but only might do good in the long-term. Indeed, on p160 Honderich uses precisely this argument, that the harm was certain but the benefits only possible, to condemn the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

One other moral defence of Palestinian terrorism might be made. It is not made explicitly by Honderich, but is implied but several things he says. It is the argument that in this particular case terrorism is actually a form of self-defence, and to be judged as such: it has been “self-defence, resistance to ethnic cleansing, self-preservation, the preservation of the existence of a people, a humanly necessary opposition to the excessive self-interest of others” (pp110-11). This would presumably be how he would distinguish the violence of the Palestinians from the violence of British and American forces in Iraq: in Iraq the violence aimed to bring benefits, of a problematic nature, whereas in Palestine the violence aims at removing an obvious source of harm. To evaluate this argument we need to turn to Honderich’s account of the facts. This is in any case vital, because his whole argument rests on the claim that violence is absolutely necessary if a Palestinian state is to come into existence.

Now this claim is quite clearly false. Indeed the truth of the matter is that, so far from being the only path to a Palestinian state, the policy of terrorism and violence insisted on by the Palestinian leadership is the principal cause of its non-existence. Such a state could, after all, have been set up in 1948 if the Arab governments and leaders had accepted the UN partition plan instead of going to war. It might even have been set up in the late 30s, if the British partition proposal had been adopted. And, while both sides must accept some responsibility for the fact that it still does not exist, the main reasons are the refusal for many years of the Palestinian leadership to enter into any negotiations, the refusal of an important section of the leadership even to recognise Israel, the refusal to give any guarantee that such a state would not be used as a springboard for attacks on Israel, and the breaking off of negotiations and unleashing of the intifada by Arafat in 2000.

To see this, we need to consider in more detail this factual part of Honderich’s argument for the necessity of terrorism. He distinguishes between Zionism, defined as the “justifying, founding and defending of the state of Israel within more or less its original borders, those of 1948” (p 2) and neo-Zionism, defined as “the enlarging of Israel since 1967 into still more of the land of Palestine” (pp 2-3). Honderich’s claim is that the war of 1967 was “aggression by way of a pretence of believing something about an imminent attack” (p 101). Since then Israel has been determined “to take possession in perpetuity of the remaining 20% of the land of the Palestinians and control of all of it” (p 102) and has constantly used terrorist violence—“attacks, killings, maimings, destructions and depredations of every kind” (p 102)—in pursuit of this aim. It has also refused to enter into genuine negotiations, those of 2000 being “false” and their offer amounting to “a dog’s breakfast of bantustans without control of its own borders, not a state at all” (p110). Hence the only option is violent resistance. Further evidence of the necessity of this violence is, he says, provided by the very fact that it has been so unsuccessful: “that it has produced so very little has surely established that anything less would have produced nothing” (p110). (A more plausible conclusion, though, would be that something quite different is needed).

The distinction between Zionism and neo-Zionism, and the distinguishing of both from actual historical Zionism, are good distinctions to make, though the account of historical Zionism (pp97-100) is prejudiced and inaccurate. In particular the claim that most Zionists never had any commitment to sharing the land—“impossible to believe”, according to Honderich—can be refuted by quoting the Declaration of Independence: “we call upon the sons of the Arab people dwelling in Israel to keep the peace and to play their part on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its institutions”—an ideal, sadly, not always lived up to but never repudiated. Worse than this, the account of what happened in 1948 fails to make it clear that the war was begun by the Arabs after the UN resolution, accepted by the Jews, which gave the Arab population 44% of the land, including two-thirds of the cultivated land. That said, it is a relief not to be faced, as one often is, with an “anti-Zionist” who makes it totally unclear what they are “anti”. Here we have someone who supports the existence of the State of Israel, and opposes the view that it should stretch from the Mediterranean to the Jordan; and he is right on both counts. Where he is totally wrong is in claiming that the actual policy of Israel has been, in his sense, “neo-Zionist”.

To begin at the beginning, with the 1967 war. This war was a response to a build-up of threats and arms from three of Israel’s neighbours—Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It was admittedly pre-emptive, but, as was said at the time “if a man advances on you with a knife, proclaiming his intention to cut your throat, you are not obliged to wait until he makes the first incision.” It is, I suppose, possible that the threats and military build-up were bluff; but it would have been the height of folly not to take them seriously. The Pilger-Honderich view that this was an aggressive war cannot be seriously entertained. Nor can one take seriously the suggestion that Israel was too powerful to have to worry about these threats. Even now, let alone in 1967, Israel is not, as Honderich (p104) and others claim, the fourth greatest military power in the world, but the thirty-first, and only the eighth in the Middle East: and it was faced not with one enemy but at least three.

For most of the nearly forty years since the war Israel has been willing to negotiate peace agreements that would involve withdrawal from most of the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. “Neo-Zionism” has existed on the political Right but not had majority support or influenced government policy. The exception, perhaps, is the period from the late 70s to the early 90s. Even then, the only actual neo-Zionist activity was the establishment of the settlements. This was wrong, in the opinion of many; but nothing like the violent attempts at ethnic cleansing which Honderich claims took place. Again, the occupation of southern Lebanon in these years, whether or not it was in fact justified, was aimed at protecting Israel’s northern border, not at seizing territory: recent events perhaps show that the protection of the border really was necessary.

Four further pieces of evidence are often brought forward to demonstrate Israel’s intention of seizing the West Bank, if not Gaza as well: Honderich himself deals only with the second and fourth, but it is worth mentioning all four. They are the supposed steady expansion of the settlements; the supposedly derisory nature of the offers made to Arafat when he did finally negotiate; the siting of the security barrier; and the supposed persistent harassment of and violence towards the Palestinian people. As regards the first of these, there has been an expansion in the numbers of people living in the settlements, but no expansion of the land held (apart from small illegal forays by the settlers themselves) since the Oslo agreements. As regards the second, Arafat was offered Gaza, over 90% of the West Bank, a connecting bridge or tunnel, and a readiness to discuss (with suggestions as to possible solutions) the problems of the Holy Places, the refugees, and East Jerusalem. This might have not yet been good enough to accept; but to call it a “dog’s breakfast” or deny that it was a sound basis for further negotiation, is not only a piece of unpleasant rhetoric but false and untenable.

As regards the security barrier—only a small percentage is a wall—it is true that many parts of it are sited east of the Green Line, and that this is connected with a wish to include some of the West Bank in Israel, both in order to incorporate the large settlement blocs and to make the frontier more defensible. But this involves only around 5% of the West Bank, and it is open to the Palestinians to negotiate compensation: in Honderich;s words it is still “more or less” the 1948 borders. One can certainly raise the question whether it is justifiable to put the barrier so far east. But it should be noted that were it not for terrorism there would be no security barrier; that the Israeli Courts, sometimes in response to Palestinian representations, have required several modifications of the original route; and that its presence is evidence against, rather than for, the Israeli Government’s commitment to “Neo-Zionism”, particularly when combined with the withdrawal from Gaza, and the readiness to withdraw from the rest of the West Bank, which plan has been suspended only because of the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah.

As regards violence and harassment, most of what Israel has done has been necessary for self-defence. The record is by no means perfect: there has been on occasion violence by settlers, up to and including murder, unnecessary harshness and humiliation, and recklessness with regard to civilian loss of life. But there is no evidence of any sustained policy of harassment or any attempt at ethnic cleansing. It is worth remembering that this last round of violence was begun by Palestinians, at a time when the prospects for negotiation looked particularly good, and took forms particularly hard to deal with, such as suicide bombing; that Israel is one of the few countries to have policemen and soldiers in jail for brutality, or to have a Press prepared to question the actions of the military; and that, while 3000 Palestinians killed in the 6 years of the intifada is 3000 too many, (however necessary), the Jordanians, when faced with an intifada, killed about 5000 in a week, and Syria did something similar. Finally, we should remember that during the occupation the population of the West Bank and Gaza has increased—not a common consequence of genocide or ethnic cleansing. (To be fair, Honderich never makes the accusation of genocide, though he does accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing, eg on p110).

This all shows that as a means of ending the occupation terrorism has been consistently counter-productive. Indeed the aim of the terrorists may have been precisely that: if their long-term aim is the destruction of the state of Israel—and this is certainly the declared and unconcealed aim of many of them–, they need precisely to keep the occupation going, in the hope of mobilising more and more people against Israel. However that may be, it is clear that for many years negotiation has had an excellent chance of ending the occupation and terrorism has had none. Hence the factual element in Honderich’s argument stands up even less well than the moral element.

But why is this book so inaccurate on the facts? There seem to be two reasons. One is the pervasive “epistemological recklessness”. Repeatedly matters of interpretation, sometimes of highly implausible interpretation, are said to be certain or almost certain. The aggressive nature of the war of 1967 “cannot be much disputed” (p101). That Israel could be destroyed is “absurd illusion” (p148). That 9/11 would not have happened without neo-Zionism is “indubitable” (p133). The Palestinians have “proved” that they were a people in 1948 (p109). This last rests on the argument that since they are a people now, they must have been a people then—an argument as invalid as the one heard from some “Likudniks” that because they were not a people then they cannot be one now.

Secondly, there is the highly biased choice of sources for the factual material. Noam Chomsky, David Hirst, Michael Neumann, Ilan Pappe are the main names.(p 195). It is simply assumed that the standard account of events in Israel produced by its enemies, internal and external, is correct, no attempt being made to check it against other sources, who are assumed to be “partisan”, as if these ones were not. (Honderich is not an enemy of Israel, in intention, but he gets his “facts” from those who are). On p 124 we are even told that we “should” get hold of Michael Neumann’s book. It is not surprising that the combination of confusing possibility, sometimes extremely low possibility, with certainty and consulting only highly biased and inaccurate material produces considerable inaccuracy in its turn!

However, Honderich has one reply left. He could reply that, even if terrorism is counter-productive with regard to a negotiated withdrawal, it could, if combined with a change of policy in America and Britain, produce an unconditional withdrawal, which is what would be right anyway ( p124). First, this is most unlikely, given the history of Israeli responses to terrorism. Secondly, if successful, it would be a disaster for Israel: simply to withdraw, with no guarantee that the West Bank would not be used to concentrate men and arms for an attack on Israel, on a scale far greater than that already seen in Lebanon and Gaza, would be not mere folly, but madness. It would be not anti-neo-Zionist, but anti-Zionist: and Honderich is not, he says, anti-Zionist.

Honderich might finally reply that we must keep in mind that the occupation of the West Bank is a basic cause of terrorism, so that to end it, even if by terrorism and even at the cost of imperilling the state of Israel, would reduce the amount of terrorism in the world, and is therefore required if we are to be “ tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism”. But, first, the causes of 9/11 and 7/7, and the aims of the perpetrators, remain obscure: Honderich’s confidence that they could not have happened without Neo-Zionism– more accurately, without the (false) belief that there is a policy of Neo-Zionism—is far from justified by any evidence. Secondly, in so far as aims can be inferred from the statements of the terrorists, they involve much more than withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank, much more even than the destruction of Israel, and include the re-establishment of the Caliphate. Thirdly, all experience shows that giving way to the demands of terrorists is highly counter-productive as a way of ending terrorism, and is a disastrous policy, even when one is sure that the demand is being made and is of major importance to the terrorists. In short, not only is there no moral case for supporting Palestinian terrorism; there is also no pragmatic or Realpolitik case.

Similarly, we should note that Honderich’s arguments for allowing Iran to have nuclear arms do not hold up. The argument that they are needed to counter Israeli belligerence is based on a false factual premise. (Perhaps it is unfair to attribute this argument to Honderich, but it seems to be implied). The argument that Iran will be no more irresponsible than any other state also fails. It is true that Iranians as a people are no more stupid or blood-thirsty than anyone else, and no doubt less than many. But it is not true that their present leader is to be trusted on either of these counts, given his public pronouncements: what he says may be no more than rhetoric or bluff, but there is no sense in taking the risk. The argument from consistency also fails: even if Iran has as much, or as little, right to nuclear weapons as those who currently have them, the fact that increasing the numbers of states who have them increases the risk of their use is a quite sufficient reason for preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, if this is at all possible. Finally, if we accept the Principle of Humanity, it must follow that we should oppose allowing Iran to become a nuclear power, even though Honderich himself draws the opposite conclusion.

Two other considerations remain. First, is this book an incitement to terrorism? Secondly, is it anti-Semitic? Honderich discusses the first question on pp118-24, and argues that there is a clear distinction, not invented by him, but existing in English law and defended by Mill, among others, between stating an opinion that something is right, which is what he has done, and urging or inciting someone actually to do it. I think he is right on this point: he has not urged the Palestinians to carry out more terrorism, but merely refused to condemn them morally. Indeed, it seems clear that the effect he would like his book to produce is not that it should increase terrorism, but that it should be a small part of a movement leading to the unconditional withdrawal of Britain and America from Iraq and Israel from the West Bank. This means that the book should not be censored or suppressed. But it also means that those who disagree with it morally, and who think that its effect, intentionally or not, will nevertheless be harmful and will, whatever he says, tend to encourage terrorism, have a duty to say so, and to argue against its conclusions as strongly as possible. We should also point out that, though Honderich should be allowed to defend terrorism, he is both gravely mistaken (for the reasons given) and morally wrong in doing so. In particular, even if he does not intend what he says to have the effect of increasing terrorism, this is a foreseeable likely effect—and he has specifically argued that there is no moral difference between the foreseen and the intended.

In the final section of the book Honderich raises the issue of anti-Semitism. Having already indicated that he is not attacking the state of Israel as such, he says here, by implication, that he is not displaying hate for Jews as such. Indeed, it is true that he does not give any evidence of holding the belief that Jews as a group have particular unpleasant qualities, nor is he advocating attacks on Jews or discrimination against them. Nor does he deny that the state of Israel has a right to exist—though he thinks its founding was in fact a mistake, albeit one not obvious at the time (p109). Unfortunately, he overlooks the fact that there really are a lot of people who do believe Israel has no right to exist. As a result he accuses Israelis of crimes of which they are innocent; he refuses to condemn terrorism; and he passionately advocates forcing Israel to an unconditional and even unnegotiated total withdrawal from the West Bank, a policy all too likely to be bad for Israel and also—and no less importantly—bad for the Palestinians.

Anthony Lesser is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Manchester, who works in particular in Ancient Philosophy, Ethics and the Philosophy of Law. His recent publications include papers on “Dementia and personal identity” and “The case of backstreet abortion”.

Centre for Philosophy
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL


Mill, J. S., On Liberty, chapter 3

Morris, Benny, “The ignorance at the heart of an innuendo: and now for some facts”, New Republic, 5/8/2006

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