Is the Word "Violence" More Analytically Useful Than "Terrorism"?
Nicholas Johnson
Comment 6:43 Entered in the
Western Behavioral Sciences Institute
International Leadership Forum
(an online, invitation-only exchange on a number of topics, including "Terrorism")

6:43) 18-NOV-2001 21:33 Nicholas Johnson

Is "violence" a more analytically useful term than "terrorism"?

Upon reflection, I think that from an academic, analytical perspective (if anyone thinks that perspective appropriate here) "terrorism" as a word is simply not very useful -- for many of the reasons we have well illustrated. In the world of "purr words" and "slur words" it clearly falls in the latter category. It tells us almost nothing descriptive about the acts and perpetrators involved; like many judgmental terms -- from "cool" to "terrorism" -- it mostly describes a electro-chemical process inside the speaker's head.

Would a word like "violence" be less loaded and useful? It's far from perfect.

(Illustrative problems with it: Those who disagreed with our Iraq policy charge that it has caused the death of 500,000 young children (for lack of food and medicines). Without debating the merits of that charge, if it were accurate would those deaths fairly be called the result of "violence"? What if it could be shown that, by next spring, an additional one million Afghans have died from starvation, exposure and illness; that is, one million who would not have died but for our driving them from their homes by our bombing. Could those deaths reasonably be called the result of violence? Does "violence," used in such ways become not much more precise than "wrongdoing"?)

There are undoubtedly better words. But failing one, I'll leave the problems with it behind because it at least comes a little closer to the descriptive than "terrorism."

Then (if anyone cares enough about this analytical puzzle to want to continue to play the game) perhaps the next step would be to identify as many of the variables as we could come up with regarding the persons and situations involving violence.

This would be a very long list. And, having created it, we would probably come to the realization that individuals will usually differ in their bottom line conclusions as to whether the violence was, or was not, warranted and justifiable.

(Of course, if one is a pacifist, and purist, no violence is ever warranted. That makes the decisions administratively very easy. But I'm assuming most of us are willing to balance our values.)

For example, we might identify:

Discipline of children. Is it OK for a parent to spank a child, but not OK for a teacher to do so?

Spousal physical abuse. (Do not abused women sometimes use the phrase "terrorized" to describe their feelings?) Is it OK for an abused wife to kill her drunken husband with a kitchen knife when he comes at her one more time with a broken whiskey bottle? A judge/jury in her trial might recognize this as "self-defense" and justifiable homicide ("violence"). What if she shoots him in his sleep? That's a more difficult case legally (as no harm to her was imminent at that moment) but many would conclude, "He had it coming."

Can a benefit-cost analysis of lives saved justify lives taken? Hiroshima would be our example. And, as we've seen, our group differs on the conclusion (and perhaps the facts put into the benefit-cost formula as well) on that one.

How relevant are national boundaries? Does the international community have less concern about "violence" when it is applied by a government to its own citizens, or between two non-governmental groups within a country, than if one "country" attacks (or responds to the attacks of) another? Do we judge differently the justifiability of the violence used in our Revolutionary War and our Civil War?

Is violence involving individuals or groups within one nation who attack individuals or sites within another nation more acceptable if done in the name of a "nation" than if done in the name of an organization (or anonymously)?

Does it make a difference when a "nation" is the perpetrator (whether within or outside its boundaries) whether the head of the nation (or other decider on his/its behalf) is subject to some meaningful democratic control or not? In other words, can the decision to use violence reasonably be said to be a decision of a nation's people in some sense, or is it merely the decision of a single individual? Does that affect our decision about its justifiability?

Presumably we view differently (not that we accept, only that we view differently) the initial strike (e.g., Pearl Harbor) from the response/retaliation (e.g., our bombing Afghanistan after the World Trade Towers came down).

And that distinction presumes the retaliatory party has engaged in some adequate fact-finding (even if not a "trial" in the U.S. due process sense) to make sure they are responding to the correct party (e.g., are we applying the death penalty to the right accused? What is our evidence (the Talaban have been asking for) that Bin Laden, rather than some other Saudi-based, or other, individual/group was behind this particular act?).

[Are the targets military or civilian persons? Are civilians (a) deliberately, or knowingly and unavoidably, targeted (as in Hiroshima and the World Trade Towers), (b) never the target as such, but small numbers are known to suffer occasional "collateral" death or injury (as in the Afghanistan bombing), or (c) successfully protected from all harm (as only military personnel and material are ever targeted, and then only when civilians are known to be protected)? Do these distinctions make a difference?]

"Does the punishment fit the crime"? Is the violence that is applied in some way proportional to the act that provokes it?

A related issue is the nature of the violence. Is (1) dropping bombs (a) that, let us say, cause instant death, on (b) unknown individuals, to be distinguished, from the standpoint of justifiability, from (2) subjecting individuals confronted face-to-face with rape and other torture, lingering death, and post-death dismemberment? Both sets of victims are equally dead. If we conclude that any violence is unjustified under the circumstances of the case, is the former somehow less unjustified than the latter?

[How relevant are cultural differences? For example, many countries view our use of the death penalty -- state supported violence against an individual citizen -- as the most serious of human rights abuses. They have long since abolished the death penalty as barbarism. Is our state violence somehow less unacceptable because of our nation's long history of popular acceptance of the death penalty in the "wild west" and elsewhere? Would it be more unacceptable if the death penalty were adopted by a nation that has a long and proud history of opposing it? Are we willing to give a similar "base on balls" to nations, or religions, that engage in stoning, or the cutting off of hands?]

Finally, and particularly relevant in the context of current events, does a religious or other ideological (e.g., "make the world safe for democracy," "freedom," "free markets") motive make the violence worse, or better?

I presume this list of variables could be expanded almost infinitely. A little more -- if anyone cares to add to it -- might be useful.

But however long the list it would be of limited utility in predicting normative judgments about when violence is, and is not, justifiable.

It is, in that sense, not unlike the analysis we go through in deciding whether a "copyright violation" is, nonetheless, OK because it can be considered "fair use." (The multiple factors in that analysis being such things as: how much of the work was used, was it data/historical material or creative, was it taken for commercial purposes (to profit the "wrongdoer") or for educational or other non-profit purposes, and did it have an adverse impact on the true owner's market/income?)

But the fact that multiple-factor analysis does not lead to precise prediction of outcome doesn't detract from the fact that it is nonetheless worth doing.

Whether trying to analyze "violence" is a useful exercise or not (it's certainly not as much fun as debating definitions of "terrorism"), and whether Dick was right in his first judgment that "terrorism" is impossible of definition, it is probably not a very useful word for us.

[20011119 2200; 20011120 1130; bracketed material added subsequent to WBSI posting]