La Diritta Via: An Ethical Response to Terror


[1] Determining the ethical response to the al-Qaeda's terrorist acts is a difficult endeavor; analysts soon find themselves lost in the selva oscura arising midway through the path towards international order.  Positive initiatives intended to deal with the threat of terrorism often run aground on the requirement that a state adopt effective, rather than idealistic, strategies; the indiscriminately violent acts of al-Qaeda would seem to proscribe a focus on such initiatives, as they would have little use against a group intent on destroying Western culture.  However, a theoretical analysis of the tactics of  al-Qaeda indicates that, rather than a revolutionary movement, the group is instead a systemic reaction to inequality in the international system.  Thus, due to the group's participatory status in the global system, the just and ethical response to its actions must be directed in part at the inequalities that give rise to terrorism.     

[2] The nature of a just response to the terrorist acts of al-Qaeda is a function of the jus ad bellum requirements of the just war tradition, specifically the requirements that an action be proportional to the threat faced and possess a reasonable chance of success.  While the other jus ad bellum requirements, such as just cause and last resort, are certainly relevant to considerations of a just military response, they deal with aspects of the military response not directly applicable to its nature.   The proportionality and reasonable chance of success requirements deal with what the nature of the action will be; it is these requirements, therefore, that this discussion must satisfy.  However, in order for a military action to be in line with Lutheran ethics, and not merely secular just war considerations, the undertaking must also strive to fulfill what Gary M. Simpson refers to as Martin Luther's "divinely anchored [offices]" of "political authority," which call on governments to maintain "temporal peace" through the upholding of justice.[1] Thus, a just and ethical response to terrorism must not only be proportional to the threat faced and pose a reasonable chance of success; the success it achieves must give rise to lasting peaceful relations among the conflicting parties.

The Perception of al-Qaeda as a revolutionary force

[3] The proper response to the activities of al-Qaeda depends on a comprehensive understanding of what exactly al-Qaeda is.  Al-Qaeda is commonly perceived as a revolutionary reaction to Western influence; the United States sees itself in a "war against terror," with a foe that hopes to destroy the Western culture America has come to represent.[2] Unsurprisingly, this view of al-Qaeda is in accord with the movement's ideas concerning its struggle with America.  Osama bin Ladin, the leader of al-Qaeda, sees the United States as the primary enemy of the Muslim world, coinciding with the United States' belligerent rhetoric.  Moreover, bin Ladin sees al-Qaeda's acts against the United States as a titanic, revolutionary clash against an immoral system.  Thus, both sides in this conflict see themselves conducting a struggle of, almost literally, Biblical proportions.

[4] The perception of one's enemy as an existential threat results in a condition of unceasing struggle between the opposing forces.  Therefore, conceptualizing al-Qaeda as a revolutionary force contending with the United States will result in a rather grim conclusion.  If al-Qaeda were a revolutionary force against which the United States must strive, a force that aims to radically change the character of Western culture, then the possibilities for peaceful resolution of tensions, through economic and social development initiatives, would be slim.  Due to the consequences of this conclusion, a near perpetual war with ideological and religious undertones, the claim of al-Qaeda's revolutionary nature must be exhaustively analyzed.

[5] In order for al-Qaeda to be a true revolutionary movement, it must be theoretically and practically distinct from the system with which it struggles.  Revolutionary reactions are either outside forces brought under the sway of another power or an internal group that hopes to separate itself from the authority.  A group that truly revolts must either strive to force itself free of the system it is a part of or intend to subvert and transform the system itself.  Thus, the same condition must hold for al-Qaeda; it must be a theoretically distinct entity that is revolting against the United States and Western culture, not a group inextricably tied to such a system.  If the execution of and justification for its terrorist acts do not demonstrate the group's theoretical distinctness from the system it opposes, it is not a revolutionary movement.   

[6] The tactics of al-Qaeda, as demonstrated through ideological pronouncements and terrorist acts, offer readily available cases for analysis.  Al-Qaeda's tactics are often indiscriminate, with no distinction made between combatants and noncombatants, as evidenced in the group's major attacks; the reason for such indiscriminate actions was revealed in an interview conducted in 1998; bin Ladin stated rather directly that "we [al-Qaeda] do not have to differentiate between military and civilian…they are all targets."[3] Furthermore, al-Qaeda's attacks in Casablanca and Madrid show that Europe and US-affiliated non-European states are, unsurprisingly, included on the list of legitimate targets; this is due to bin Ladin's belief that states friendly with America are guilty in its crimes.[4] Thus, al-Qaeda targets American civilians and citizens of US-affiliated states in addition to military interests, indicating that bin Ladin has extended the purported guilt of the United States, arising out of its actions against Muslims, to all US citizens.

[7] The nature of al-Qaeda's tactics, indiscriminate terror attacks that extend to all states enjoying the benefits of Western culture, presents an interesting case for analysis.  The reason for the perceived involvement of US civilians in America's acts is not difficult to discern; Americans participate willingly in the Western culture that so disgusts bin Ladin and reap the rewards of US involvement throughout the world.  Thus, Americans' participation in American society and their enjoyment of the benefits of US actions allow bin Ladin to erase the distinction between combatant and noncombatant in his struggle with the United States.         

[8] The reasoning for the extended scope of guilt to all Western culture is not as direct, but is relatively apparent.  Bin Ladin believes America to be guilty of all aggressive acts against Muslims, even those in which it did not directly participate; this indicates that he, and al-Qaeda, must see the US sway over the world occurring through the workings of the global interdependent system itself.  This situation would result in two conclusions; that the United States is responsible for all crimes against Muslims due to its power over the global system, and that US-affiliated states are complicit in US actions due to their participation in this system.  Therefore, non-US civilians are seen as equally guilty of US acts as Americans, due to their participation in the global system through which America operates. 

Al-Qaeda and Tacit Consent

[9] This analysis of the rationale for al-Qaeda's tactics, guilt assigned on the basis of participation in and benefit from the aggrieving system bears a striking similarity to John Locke's concept of tacit consent.  Locke stated that members of a "Political Society" are obligated to adhere to actions of that society through their "consent" to its workings.[5] While not all members of the society give their "express consent" to it, they give a "tacit consent" through their "Enjoyment of any part of the Dominions" of the society; through this tacit consent, the citizens are "obliged to Obedience to the Laws of that Government."[6] Thus, an individual's enjoyment of the benefits of a society indicate, according to Locke, her or his tacit consent to the workings of that society; such an individual, by extension, would be responsible for the society's acts.

[10] Therefore, the above analysis of al-Qaeda's tactics can be reconceptualized along the lines of tacit consent.  That is, bin Ladin would believe that Americans, Europeans and non-Europeans friendly with the United States have tacitly consented to US actions due to their enjoyment of the benefits of these actions; these citizens would then be complicit in the perceived guilt of the United States, making them legitimate targets for al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks.  Such an analysis of al-Qaeda's actions sets up a distinct contrast between al-Qaeda's targets and the Muslims it claims to champion.  US citizens and civilians in US-affiliated countries enjoy the benefits of perceived crimes by the United States against Muslims, thus tacitly consenting to these acts; since Muslims are, according to bin Ladin, not enjoying any of these benefits, they are therefore not tacitly consenting to US acts.  This analysis would then set up a dichotomy between the Muslim "victims" of US policy and those who have benefited from it.

[11] This would seem to uphold the view of al-Qaeda as a revolutionary group.  Muslims have not tacitly consented to the global interdependent system and are, by extension, not participating in it.  Al-Qaeda, the supposed champion of the Muslim cause, targets those who have tacitly consented to the global system, demonstrating its distinctness.  Thus, al Qaeda's revolutionary nature rests on the tacit consent of its targets to both US actions and the global interdependent system, which contrasts to bin Ladin's rejection of this system.  However, while this conclusion appears sound, on deeper analysis some problems arise.

Problems with this Conceptualization 

[12] Just as al-Qaeda's tactics reveal an indiscriminate targeting, which seems to allow an application of the theory of tacit consent, the same tactics also give rise to problems in such an application.  One problematic aspect of its tactics is al-Qaeda's dependence on relatively open societies to carry out attacks.  The group has "[taken] advantage of freedoms enshrined in the liberal democracies of the West" to form its networks.[7] Concurrent with the openness of Western societies is the relative ease of travel between them; as Prof. Paul Wilkinson has pointed out, the group depends on Western recruits due to their ability to exploit the connections between Western states.[8] Thus, al-Qaeda not only exploits the openness of Western societies but also the interlinking of Western states, the same interlinking that allows bin Ladin to collectively condemn all such states as participants in the global Western culture.

[13] In addition to the nature of Western societies, al-Qaeda also exploits the benefits that arise from the global interdependent system, namely in terms of technology.  The most obvious example of this is the group's utilization of the Internet.  Al-Qaeda has made great use of the Internet for communications among its members as well as an outlet through which to disseminate its ideologies among like-minded Muslims.[9]  The use of globalized technology by al-Qaeda has led to the Internet "[creating] a multiplier effect" for the group's "ideas."[10]   Thus, al-Qaeda's attempts to foment a worldwide movement against the United States are greatly facilitated through the use of the Internet, which relies on the global system for its effective operation. 

[14] This situation, in which al-Qaeda relies on the nature of Western societies and the workings of the global system, both of which it has, in effect, condemned, creates problems for the use of tacit consent as a rationale for its tactics. As was shown, those who are benefiting from the global system are tacitly consenting to the actions of the United States through that system.  However, if tacit consent is derived from these conditions then al-Qaeda is tacitly consenting to US actions just as much as American and European civilians, since it is clearly benefiting from the system it condemns.  This conclusion, that a movement dedicated to the overthrow of a system is actually consenting to it, is an admittedly uncomfortable one; however, based on the parameters for tacit consent derived from the analysis of al-Qaeda's tactics this conclusion is unavoidable.

[16] Naturally, many would object to this conclusion, most probably by pointing to the strong theoretical arguments against such a broad scope for tacit consent.  As Carole Pateman argues, "to claim that individuals can be said to tacitly consent…because they habitually carry out their daily lives in a certain way, is to stretch hypothetical voluntarism to its furthest limits."[11]  Pateman's rejection of such an application of tacit consent is due to the fact that "the imposition of 'obligations' on free and equal individuals" is not justified under liberal theory.[12]   Thus, the above conclusion could be seen as flawed due to its hyperextension of consent theory.  

[17] This situation creates significant problems for the assertion that al-Qaeda is a revolutionary group.  The parameters of tacit consent that explain al-Qaeda's rationales in its targeting result in the group itself tacitly consenting to the system it opposes; al-Qaeda is therefore not theoretically distinct from this system and thus cannot be a revolutionary movement. Yet, even if the broad parameters of tacit consent in this analysis are rejected, the conceptualization of al-Qaeda as a revolutionary group is still faulty.  The revolutionary nature of al-Qaeda is defined by its targets' tacit consent to the global system; therefore, if tacit consent is abandoned in the analysis of al-Qaeda its revolutionary nature will be obfuscated.  However, an alternative conception of al-Qaeda, which avoids the complications of the tacit consent approach, is readily available.

An Alternative Approach

[18] Although the revolutionary nature of al-Qaeda is now seen to be questionable, the discussion of tacit consent has nonetheless revealed interesting aspects of the group.  The analysis shows that al-Qaeda is a part of the system it opposes; however, the basis for al-Qaeda's struggle with the United States, bin Ladin's perception that Muslims have been oppressed as a result of US actions through the global system, is valid.  As the 9/11 Commission points out, "the Muslim world has fallen behind the West politically, economically, and militarily," which has led to the acceptance of bin Alden's views by many in the region.[13]   Therefore, although al-Qaeda, and the Muslim community it claims to champion, is a participant in the global system, it holds a markedly disadvantaged position within that system.

[19] Thus, the use of tacit consent to analyze al-Qaeda has yielded fascinating results.  Although it is not a revolutionary movement, al-Qaeda is a participatory group in the global system that is marginalized in the system's workings.  However, while tacit consent is useful for determining participation in a system, it cannot address the consequences to the system of a disadvantaged participatory group; it consequently cannot define the true nature of al-Qaeda, as evidenced in the confusing conclusion arrived at through tacit-consent based analysis.  Therefore, a concept that is able to analyze this situation is needed; such a concept can be found in the writings of Carole Pateman.

[20] In The Problem of Political Obligation, Pateman analyzes many failings of liberal social contract theory, including the phenomenon of differential benefits.  As she notes, in liberal theory, individuals are said to consent to a society due to its satisfaction of their interests.[14]  Pateman argues that those groups that are oppressed in a society are "sharply differentiated" from the advantaged groups in terms of the obligations arising from their tacit consent.[15]  Due to the oppressed groups' disadvantaged positions, which undermine the interest-based justification for the liberal social contract, the tacit consent that these groups give to the system does not translate into a strong obligation to that system.[16]  In applying this to al-Qaeda, the tacit consent of Muslims in the Middle East, who have been marginalized in the workings of the international system, does not result in their being obligated to the system at all. 

[21] Thus, while al-Qaeda has tacitly consented to the global system, and by extension to the actions of the United States, it has not assumed an obligation on itself due to its disadvantaged position.  This approach avoids the confusing conclusion arrived at through a tacit consent- based analysis of al-Qaeda's actions.  Therefore, when al-Qaeda is analyzed through Carol Pateman's theory of differential obligations the theoretical complications that arose through the application of tacit consent disappear, allowing for a more complete analysis of the group.

[22] Pateman's theory presents a satisfying theoretical explanation for al-Qaeda's actions.  The terrorist attacks are reactive outbursts to the group's marginalization within the global system; although the group is a participant in this system, the marginalized status of its purported constituency precludes an obligation on the part of al-Qaeda to that system.  This conclusion does not argue that these acts are justified; it merely explains why they occur.  Therefore, the problems that arise in analyzing al-Qaeda through tacit consent reveal that the group, instead of being revolutionary, is instead a systemic outburst against unequal benefits in the global system.

Applications and Conclusion

[23] The utility of this conclusion to the United States' struggle with al-Qaeda would seem to be limited; the Department of State cannot dispatch a delegation of scholars to meet with bin Ladin and explain to him why his conception of al-Qaeda is theoretically unsound.  However, this analysis is more than merely an academic discourse; its applicability can extend beyond the ivory tower, presenting possibilities for a nuanced approach to the terrorist acts of al-Qaeda.

[24] Although the reconceptualization of al-Qaeda as a systemic outburst rather than a revolutionary group does not change the fact that the group is an immediate threat to the United States, it can provide a greater depth of understanding in regard to the group's nature.  Al-Qaeda, as a systemic outburst, can be viewed as a symptom of an underlying problem, as opposed to the vanguard of a "clash of civilizations."[17]   Therefore, the underlying problem of inequality in the global system, specifically the marginalization of the Middle East, must be addressed; although such an approach to terrorism has been suggested, it is reinforced through abandoning the analysis of al-Qaeda as a revolutionary movement. 

[25] Obviously, direct action must be taken to minimize the destruction caused by al-Qaeda.  However, as the group's actions are an expression of the inequality in the global system, military action alone will not solve the problem of terrorism unless it is coupled with positive efforts to end the causes of terrorism.  Thus, the conceptualization of al-Qaeda through Pateman's theory of differential obligations necessitates positive steps, such as economic and social development initiatives, for the elimination of terrorism, as opposed to only negative military acts.

[26] Despite its vituperative rhetoric, on close analysis al-Qaeda is seen to be less of a revolutionary movement and more of a systemic outburst against the inequality endemic to the global interdependent system, through which the group's purported nemesis, the United States, exerts its power.  Therefore, an effective strategy in the struggle with al-Qaeda must include more than military strikes, as these alone cannot solve the problems that give rise to the outburst.  Since a military focus would fail to adequately solve the problem of terrorism, an ethical response to al-Qaeda's terrorist acts, which strives for the establishment of a just peace, must involve social and economic development aimed at mitigating the inequalities of the global system that have given rise to the terrorism obscuring the diritta via of the international community.

[1]  Gary M. Simpson. "Puckering up for Postmodern Kissing: Civil Society and the Lutheran Entwinement of Just Peace/Just War." Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 2, no. 11 (2002): 5-6.

[2]  George W. Bush. "President Delivers State of the Union Address." (Accessed November 10, 2004), 1-2.

[3]  National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2004), 47.

[4]  Ibid., 51

[5]  John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 99:1-10.

[6]  Ibid., 119:14-17.

[7]  Rohan Gunaratna. "The Post-Madrid Face of Al-Qaeda." The Washington Quarterly, 27, no. 3 (2004): 91.

[8]  Neal Conan. "Paul Wilkinson discusses the continuing terrorist activities of al-Qaeda." National Public Radio: Talk of the Nation. August 11, 2003: 2.

[9]  Gunaratna (2004)

[10]  Bergen, Peter. "The New Face of Al-Qaeda." The Boston Globe. March 19 2004, Third Edition: A15.

[11]  Carole Pateman, The Problem of Political Obligation (New York, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979), 33.

[12]  Ibid., 33.

[13]  National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 362.

[14]  Pateman, 72.

[15]  Ibid., 93.

[16]  Ibid., 127.

[17]  Samuel Huntington. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs, 72, no. 3 (1993): 22.


© June 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 6