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What's Wrong With Terrorism?

Robert E. Goodin

ISBN: 978-0-745-63498-2 April 2006 Polity 256 Pages


Terrorists perform terrible acts. They maim, mutilate and kill in pursuit of their goals. The horrifying events of 9/11 and the regular suicide bombings around the world have made terrorism one of the central preoccupations of the twenty-first century. But what is the distinctive wrong of terrorism? Criminal acts such as murder and hijacking are already on the moral statute books, so why is it that we regard terrorists as different from and morally worse than ordinary killers and kidnappers?

Some see terrorism is an ideology, others claim it is a deep-seated social or psychological failing, others that it is a form of fighting unfairly judged by just-war standards. In this provocative new book, Robert Goodin puts forward the view that terrorism is, in fact, a deliberate tactic of frightening people for socio-political gain. Fear affects peoples ability to reason clearly and undermines their capacity for autonomous self-government.

In this way, Goodin contends that terror is not only the weapon of organizations such as al-Qaeda; it also benefits democratic politicians who profit from the climate of insecurity induced by terrorist threats and violence. Political figures conducting a campaign of fear as part of their war on terrorism may therefore be committing wrongs akin to those of terrorists themselves. This, Goodin argues, is what is distinctively wrong with terrorism in the contemporary world.

Preface vii

Acknowledgements x

1 Introduction 1

2 Terrorism as Unjust War: Killing Innocent Civilians 6

Three problems with the just-war analysis of terrorism 9

A different sense of ‘innocence’ 18

War crime, ordinary crime or a special offence? 21

3 Terrorism as a Political Tactic: Intending to Instil Fear 31

What sort of ‘ism’ is terrorism? 32

What terrorists want 35

Fear is the key 45

Summing up 48

4 States Can Be Terrorists, Too 50

The definitional ploy 53

States terrorizing other states 60

States terrorizing their own people 66

State-sponsored terror and crimes of complicity 73

5 Warnings Can Be Terroristic, Too: Profiting Politically from Fear 78

Threats and warnings 80

Impure warnings: ‘terrorist warnings’ versus ‘warnings of terrorism’ 85

Politicians’ intentions matter, too 91

Terrorism as an aggravated wrong: is ‘violence’ required? 100

Better ‘terrorist warnings’ than none at all? 108

6 Warnings Bound to Be Misheard 111

How big a deal is terrorism? 114

Calibrating risks 118

Mechanisms of misperception 123

Mass-mediated terror 131

Risks of really mass destruction 136

Imprudent precautions 142

7 Terrorizing Democracy 156

Terrorism as a political wrong 156

Fearlessness as a response 159

Hobbesian solutions to non-Hobbesian problems 170

Of tyrants and terrorists 176

8 Conclusions 179

Notes 187

References 218

Index 238

"This book is an indispensable guide to anyone seriously interested in how to think about the complex question of terrorism. It exposes subtle and blatant biases that characterize much contemporary discussion of the subject and offers a judicious, closely argued, and ultimately the only realistic response to terrorism."
Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh, University of Westminster

  • A provocative and challenging book from one of the world’s leading political theorists
  • Provides a detailed analysis of the way in which the ‘war on terror’ has changed the contemporary political landscape
  • Argues that ‘the war on terror’ is also an act of terrorism, waged by states against the civilian population for their own political ends
  • Offers bold solutions and suggestions for safeguarding democracy in the face of the terrorism perpetrated both by overt terrorist organisations and by states