Counterterrorism as an ethical challenge

IS figh­ters in Janu­a­ry, 2014 in the pro­vin­ce of Anbar in Iraq © picture-alliance/AP

Ter­ror­an­schlag auf das World Tra­de Cen­ter in New York, am 11. Sep­tem­ber 2001. © AP

9/11 marks a, if not the, defi­ning moment in the histo­ry of ter­ro­rism and was unders­tood world­wi­de as a dra­ma­tic expres­si­on of the new cha­rac­ter of glo­bal con­flict. Ter­ro­rism is just as dest­ruc­tive as it is unsett­ling as it departs from the “rules” of clas­si­cal con­flict; for examp­le, that through ter­ro­rist attacks, non-combatants by defi­ni­ti­on must be har­med. This and other cha­rac­te­ris­tics of ter­ro­rism lead to the domi­nant claim that, from an ethi­cal per­spec­tive, ter­ro­rism is high­ly pro­ble­ma­tic, if not com­ple­te­ly repre­hen­si­ble. Com­bat­ting ter­ro­rism has con­se­quent­ly beco­me increa­singly one of the utmost prio­ri­ties in inter­na­tio­nal poli­tics in recent years. Not just ter­ro­rism, but also coun­ter­ter­ro­rism is accom­pa­nied by con­si­dera­ble moral ques­ti­ons. Ter­ro­rism is the­re­fo­re not just a poli­ti­cal or legal chal­len­ge but, in many regards, an ethi­cal one. Ter­ro­rism pres­ents not just one ethi­cal chal­len­ge, which crosses many moral bounda­ries and the coun­tering of which is also often moral­ly strai­ned, but also pres­ents a chal­len­ge for ethics its­elf as it pushes the con­ven­tio­nal scope of ethi­cal ana­ly­sis to its limits.

The pro­ject deals with the mul­ti­pli­ci­ty of ethi­cal chal­len­ges pre­sen­ted by ter­ro­rism. The main aim of the pro­ject is to dis­cuss the so-called defi­ni­ti­on pro­blem in ter­ro­rism rese­arch and to find a spe­ci­fic “seman­tic” of ter­ro­rism. In a second step, the pro­ject will ela­bo­ra­te on the many facets of the ethi­cal pro­ble­ma­tic in the con­text of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism.

The fol­lo­wing ques­ti­ons (among others) are the focus of the rese­arch:

“Which ethi­cal bounda­ries must be adhe­red to when figh­t­ing ter­ro­rism?”

“How effec­tive are mili­ta­ry mea­su­res against ter­ro­rism?”

“Can Just War Theo­ry be used at all in cases of com­plex, trans­na­tio­nal and non-state vio­lence?”

“Are pre­ven­ti­on mea­su­res a pos­si­ble effec­tive coun­ter­ter­ro­rism tool?”

Fur­ther­mo­re, media stu­dy and dis­cour­se ana­ly­ti­cal stu­dies will be taken into account as the per­cep­ti­on and judgment of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter ter­ro­rism stra­te­gies are ine­vi­ta­b­ly influ­en­ced by how they are pre­sen­ted in the media. This is also accom­pa­nied by many ethi­cal issu­es.

The for­mer inma­te of the US-American pri­son on the mili­ta­ry base Guan­ta­na­mo Bay in Cuba, Murat Kur­naz, taken on Mon­day (05.01.09) in Bre­men during an inter­view. Credits: David Hecker/ddp

In the last sta­ge of the pro­ject, the fin­dings from this cri­ti­cal eva­lua­ti­on should be brought into con­tact with eccle­si­al con­si­de­ra­ti­ons of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism. The pro­ject aims to clo­se­ly ana­ly­se the stand­points from the “Bischofs­wort”: Ter­ro­rism as an Ethi­cal Chal­len­ge. A recom­men­da­ti­on for the revi­si­on of the church’s stand­point should fol­low from the­se con­si­de­ra­ti­ons. Final­ly, it should also gene­ral­ly be deter­mi­ned what addi­tio­nal value the Chris­ti­an peace ethics tra­di­ti­on has for the ethi­cal ana­ly­sis of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism and which role the church can play for long-term pre­ven­ti­on and com­bat­ting of ter­ro­rism.

The Ethics of Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Am 13.2.2013 schwin­gen sun­ni­ti­sche Demons­tran­ten auf einer Anti-Regierungs-Demonstration isla­mis­ti­sche Fah­nen in Fal­lud­scha. (© picture-alliance/AP)

The inten­ti­on of the dis­ser­ta­ti­on ori­en­ta­tes its­elf towards the topic of the rese­arch pro­ject “Ter­ro­rism as an Ethi­cal Chal­len­ge” lead by Prof. Dr. Hajo Schmidt. The star­ting point for the pro­ject is the assump­ti­on that ter­ro­rism rep­res­ents an ethi­cal chal­len­ge on many dif­fe­rent levels.

Ter­ro­rism pres­ents this chal­len­ge becau­se it exceeds many ethi­cal bounda­ries. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, howe­ver, ethics its­elf is pre­sen­ted with new chal­len­ges becau­se, through ter­ro­ris­tic vio­lence, the con­ven­tio­nal frame­work of ethi­cal eva­lua­ti­on is stret­ched to its limits. This dis­ser­ta­ti­on pro­ject lies in the – up until now litt­le rese­ar­ched – field of the ethics of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism and attempts to con­tri­bu­te to the fur­ther deve­lop­ment of this area of rese­arch.

To this end, the first step will high­light the con­tem­pora­ry ethi­cal deba­te and domi­na­te moral per­spec­tives in the post 9/11 con­text. This illus­tra­tes that ethi­cal con­si­de­ra­ti­ons in the area of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism often pre­do­mi­nant­ly ori­en­ta­te them­sel­ves towards the clas­si­cal ethi­cal tra­di­ti­on of war und the theo­re­ti­cal frame­work of Just War. Ethi­cal ques­ti­ons in the con­text of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism are the­re­fo­re inter­pre­ted as inte­gral parts of the ethics of war. It is demons­tra­ted that this results in a lack of con­sen­sus with regard to the natu­re of ter­ro­rism. Sub­se­quent­ly, the­re are con­si­dera­ble dif­fe­ren­ces and pro­blems in defi­ning ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism. As long as the ques­ti­on of the “seman­ti­cs of ter­ro­rism” goes unans­we­red, the­re is much stan­ding in the way of the deve­lop­ment of the ethics of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism as its own field of ethics.

In the past 15 years, several stu­dies on ethi­cal ques­ti­ons of ter­ro­rism have been con­cei­ved, but have remai­ned rather gene­ral in scope. The­re is a clear lack of attempts to deve­lop an auto­no­mous ethi­cal approach to ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism. This dis­ser­ta­ti­on pro­ject will attempt to fill this gap.

After atten­ti­on is drawn to whe­re the limits of pre­vious ethi­cal approa­ches lie and why the issue of ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism is too com­plex to be ana­ly­sed wit­hin the frame­work of Just War Theo­ry, an alter­na­ti­ve approach will be intro­du­ced. This alter­na­ti­ve approach con­scious­ly distan­ces its­elf from con­ven­tio­nal forms of ethi­cal reflec­tion and rese­ar­ches the pos­si­ble advan­ta­ges of an approach using vir­tue ethics to ana­ly­se ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism.

Such an approach is not wit­hout pro­blems. Howe­ver, an attempt will show how vir­tue ethics deli­vers several inte­res­ting per­spec­tives on how to over­co­me the pro­blems that ter­ro­rism pres­ents to ethics. In a final step, the prac­ti­cal and poli­ti­cal con­se­quen­ces of an ethi­cal stu­dy of ter­ro­rism will be dis­cus­sed. It is show how the domi­nant ethi­cal pat­tern of thin­king can lead to inef­fi­ci­en­ci­es in com­bat­ting ter­ro­rism and how this can lead to long term dete­rio­ra­ti­on of the con­flict. Con­se­quent­ly, the extent to which the pre­sen­ted vir­tue ethi­cal approach to ter­ro­rism and coun­ter­ter­ro­rism con­fronts the limits of the pre­vious coun­ter­ter­ro­rism approa­ches and how this can con­tri­bu­te to a sustainab­le coun­ter­ter­ro­rism poli­cy will be ana­ly­sed.


Project Researcher

Nore­en van Elk, M.A.


Project Supervisor

Prof. Dr. Hajo Schmidt