Accurate Political Violence

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on terrorism:

‘In the second half of the 19th century, there was a shift in both descriptive and evaluative meaning of the term [terrorism]. Disillusioned with other methods of political struggle, some anarchist and other revolutionary organizations, and subsequently some nationalist groups too, took to political violence. They had come to the conclusion that words were not enough, and what was called for were deeds: extreme, dramatic deeds that would strike at the heart of the unjust, oppressive social and political order, generate fear and despair among its supporters, demonstrate its vulnerability to the oppressed, and ultimately force political and social change. This was “propaganda by the deed”, and the deed was for the most part assassination of royalty or highly placed government officials. Unlike the Jacobins’ reign of terror, which operated in a virtually indiscriminate way, this type of terrorism – as both advocates and critics called it – was largely employed in a highly discriminate manner. This was especially true of Russian revolutionary organizations such as People’s Will or Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR): they held that it was morally justified to assassinate a government official only if his complicity in the oppressive regime was significant enough for him to deserve to die, and the assassination would make an important contribution to the struggle. Their violence steered clear of other, uninvolved or insufficiently involved persons. Some instances of “propaganda by the deed” carried out by French and Spanish anarchists in the 1880s and 1890s were indiscriminate killings of common citizens; but that was an exception, rather than the rule. The perpetrators and some of those sympathetic to their cause claimed those acts were nevertheless morally legitimate, whether as retribution (exacted on the assumption that no member of the ruling class was innocent) or as a means necessary for the overthrow of the unjust order. Accordingly, in their parlance, too, the term “terrorism” implied no censure.’

Anti-Qing revolutionaries in the Tóngménghuì did not consider themselves above the use of assassination to fight an unjust order. When Americans today condemn terrorism, is it by principled thought or merely by reflex? Is their censure out of genuine respect for the rule of law, both for positive law and for the divine Right that stands above it, or is it rather for lack of moral courage?


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