In 1998, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States, and followed it up with a series of attacks, the most spectacular occurring on September 11, 2001. His organization’s explicit targeting of civilians (as opposed to state-sanctioned fighters) marked a clear delineation between what most of the world community considered “legitimate” and “illegitimate” warfare. While many people would disagree with my suggestion that soldiers are murderers if they participate in offensive (rather than defensive) taking of human life, there is likely little disagreement that terrorists like bin Laden are truly murderers. The distinction is worth exploring.
When the U.S. used nuclear bombs to decimate two Japanese cities, it had two goals: to destroy part of an aggressor’s offensive capability, and to scare that aggressor into surrender. The targets were civilians who only indirectly posed a threat by supporting Japan’s military, but because their country was engaged in trying to take over other countries, and because they knew they were potential targets, killing them was considered acceptable.
During and after the Gulf War, radical Islamic fundamentalist like bin Laden saw the U.S. as an aggressor that was defiling holy land and attempting to impose its culture there. Those with economic power in our country were seen as enablers, and like the Japanese military-industrial workers, they were considered legitimate targets. Unfortunately, relatively few people in the U.S. even knew that a war had been declared, that they were involved in it, and that they might even partially be responsible for it.
Al Qaeda’s motivations weren’t totally defensive: it also had offensive designs on the Middle East and the rest of the world, wanting to forcibly globalize its favored religion and culture. It was this latter aim that U.S. leadership seized on in making the case for a defensive “war on terror,” classifying bin Laden’s organization and others like it as aggressors who were trying to western culture and its economic underpinnings.
The tactic of terrorism is particularly unacceptable to most of the world because, like much of what we typically identify as murder, its victims cannot identify their attackers until it is too late. With war, soldiers are usually well identified, and their goals are clear; they are even given special legal status in their own countries and the international community, officially sanctioning their killing of an adequately defined enemy. With terrorism, the soldiers are unmarked and their victims largely random within a broad civilian (non-combatant) population.