I’m writing today about a few things I would have written about last year if I’d had somewhere to write.
In the wake of 9/11, the question arose of how to tell the difference between war and terrorism. In particular, a lot of people tried to come up with a definition that made the attacks of 9/11 terrorism but not our response. How can it be that hijacked airplanes crashing into defenseless Americans in buildings are acts of terrorism, but glide bombs smashing into defenseless Afghans in buildings are a acts of war? It wouldn’t do to say that American attacks aren’t terrorism, but foreign attacks are. We need a definition that makes sense without being arbitrary.
Could it be that the 9/11 dead are civilians and the Enduring Freedom dead are soldiers? No, because some of the 9/11 victims were soldiers in the Pentagon, and most of the Afghan dead were civilians because Afghanistan didn’t have a formal army. So that’s not quite right. We can fix part of the problem by saying that the Afghan dead were combatants, and the 9/11 dead were non-combatants, thus avoiding the legalistic meaning of civilian in favor of a more practical description of behavior and activity. Anybody acting in support of a war is a combatant, which is how we justified our attacks on railroads and factories during World War II.
But aren’t we killing innocent non-combatant Afghans? Yes. We’re even killing Afghans who are on our side. This is a nearly inevitable consequence of warfare, especially warfare that uses modern long-distance weapons. In fact, if we could avoid all harm to innocents, it wouldn’t even be war. It would be law enforcement. Contemporary liberal justice systems strive to punish only the guilty while harming none of the innocent. War is what happens when justice is not possible. If Afghanistan had a working liberal democratic government, then the responsible parties would have been hunted down, arrested, and punished by the Afghan justice system. The killing of innocents as a side effect of war doesn’t make the war into terrorism. Intent matters.
Perhaps we should define terrorism as the intentional killing of non-combatants. That’s not quite strong enough. We know American war efforts will kill non-combatants with statistical near-certainty. We can’t very well claim not to intend to kill non-combatants when we know they’re going to die. An arsonist who sets fire to an inhabited building can’t claim he didn’t intend to kill the people inside. What’s happening is that we’re trying to stop combatants, and killing non-combatants is an unfortunate and unavoidable side effect. Purpose matters.
We’re almost there: Terrorism is any act committed with the purpose and intent of killing non-combatants. By this definition, our attacks against Al Queda are not terrorism. Likewise, the attacks against the World Trade Center and the passengers of all four planes are terrorism. What about the attack on the Pentagon? The people in the Pentagon were acting in support of our military, and were therefore clearly combatants, right?
Maybe. Not that it matters. Even if we classify all the attacks of 9/11 as warfare instead of terrorism, it doesn’t change the nature of our response. Terrorist acts between nations are acts of war.
I would argue that the people in the Pentagon were not combatants in this case, because they were not acting in support of a war. Yes, many of them were warriors, but there was no war, so the attacks did not further anyone’s war goals. In this, the attacks of 9/11 differed from the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were trying to suppress U.S. naval activity in the Pacific to advance their goals of conquest. Attacking the Pentagon did not further the aims of any war. It was done just to cause fear and death.