Greenwald and the problem of legitimate political violence

Anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon of 188...

Anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon of 1884 (cropped from the front page of “The Judge” magazine), captioned “Another voice for Cleveland”. Reference is to the story that Cleveland had had an illegitimate child (giving rise to the infamous campaign chant “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” by Cleveland opponents, to which Cleveland supporters replied “Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his essay for The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald comments on the terrorist attack in Canada in which two soldiers were struck by a car driven by an Islamic convert.[1] He makes a particular point about the use of the word terrorism. He argues that the term is empty of meaning, which allows commentators to use it for their own purposes. He accepts the common view of the term so that it can be discussed.

But to the extent the term has any common understanding; it includes the deliberate (or wholly reckless) targeting of civilians with violence for political ends.

Mr. Greenwald accepts that terrorism is a political act. Unlike like acts of nature, all political acts aim at some good or end. They represent a conscious human choice. The effect and the intent of that choice can be judged. If we cannot judge political acts by their effect and their intent, then decent politics is impossible. We have no way to distinguish between a government and a gang of robbers.

Terrorism is not an act of war.

In the article, Mr. Greenwald is not willing to judge the act. In the piece he cites Prof. Kapitan’s article on the term “terrorism”. Prof Kapitan is also unwilling to judge the terrorist act as readily as he wants to discuss its cause. However, we cannot separate an event’s cause from its justification. If the event is not justified, it is almost meaningless as its cause, what makes it unjustified is what will create the response. When he refuses to judge terrorism or use the term because it is open to abuse, Mr. Greenwald suggests an alternative approach to the issue. He wants attacks, such as the one in Canada, to be considered as acts of war.

The point is that targeting soldiers who are part of a military fighting an active war is completely inconsistent with the common usage of the word “terrorism,”

He argues that the attacks are focused on soldiers and the country (the West) is at war. On the surface, this seems logical. The West is at war so it is best to admit it. If we look at this closely the approach is problematic. Mr. Greenwald’s proposal is more radical than what the Canadian government (or the West) are willing to follow. If we describe these events as acts of war, rather than terrorism, it makes decent politics impossible. The state would be forced to declare war on any citizens who acted in this way. This would radicalize the domestic politics to extremes.

If we cannot judge political violence as legitimate or illegitimate decent politics is impossible

The term terrorism, with its focus on the use of violence for political ends, suggests illegitimacy. In liberal democracies, the common good is based the belief that violence for political ends is not acceptable. All liberal democracies, even those at war, have a democratic or legitimate means for political change. Political violence is considered illegitimate as it goes outside the agreed or legitimate means for political change. Political violence undermines the political mandate based on consent, which is necessary for decent politics. Mr. Greenwald’s focus on violence, rather than its legitimacy, avoids the political question. Was the act justified? What was the good it sought to achieve or avoid? For governments, and the public, this is the most important question rather than its cause. If a cause has to use violence, then it must justify it to a higher standard.

In contrast to Mr Greenwald, the Canadian government would appear to be taking a moderate approach to the problem by its use of the term terrorism. The government has used the term “terrorism” to focus on the act’s illegitimacy. The term reminds the government and its citizens, that violence for political ends that is not justified within the domestic realm is illegitimate. If violence for political ends were acceptable within the domestic realm, then decent politics would be impossible as all change would be based on coercion. In the domestic realm, the community provides a standard to decide or judge whether political violence is legitimate or illegitimate. Without that standard we would face a stark world. If the state used force or political violence and that was automatically illegitimate, it could not ensure justice or defend the public. The alternative would be that political violence would be the normal way or legitimate way for the state and community to o act. Neither is a position I would hope that Mr Greenwald nor Prof Kapitan would support.

Legitimate political violence is what we need to defend the common good and deliver justice.

What we have to understand, which Mr Greenwald ignores, is that the state is responsible for justice. The community, through its democratic consent, authorises the state to use violence to deliver justice and to defend the common good. Thus, a “terrorist” is someone who uses force to overturn the politics of consent, which everyone else has agreed to follow. By contrast, the international domain does not have an agreed political discourse so such acts are consider an act of war. The international realm is different because it does not work on consent. Sovereignty recognized by other states confers legitimacy on a state. In the modern state system, states ascribe responsibility to states, organisations or institutions, but rarely (if ever) to individuals. When someone, other than a state, uses violence it is “illegitimate” within the terms of the modern state system. When states use violence against each other it is usually consider a war as there is no sovereign above them to judge the cause. If we accept Mr Greenwald’s argument that terrorism is an act of war, then the difference between the domestic realm and the international realm is removed. This is problematic because one realm is based on consent and the other is not.

Does Mr Greenwald want to live in a world where might makes right?

If a citizen cannot distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate violence, then they are forced to live in a community where might makes right and justice is impossible. I am not sure if this is what Mr Greenwald and Prof Kapitan want to say, but it is where there argument leads.




About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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