In the wake of the shocking events of 11 September 2001, terrorism and the “war on terror” became the number one issue for the US government. But terrorism has a far longer, more global history.

Political, religious and national/ethnic groups have resorted to violence to pursue their objectives – whether full recognition of their equal citizenship (in Apartheid South Africa), a separate national state of their own (Israelis in the 1940s, Palestinians from the 1970s onwards), or the establishment of a religious/ideological state (Iranian terrorism against the Shah). In some cases former terrorists have made the transition to peaceful politics – for example Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland. Is it possible to justify the use of terrorist tactics if they result in the deaths of innocent civilians in bombings and shootings? This is an issue that calls into question the value we put on our ideals, beliefs and human life itself.

Points: Legitimacy

In extreme cases, in which peaceful and democratic methods have been exhausted, it is legitimate and justified to resort to terror. In cases of repression and suffering, with an implacably oppressive state and no obvious possibility of international relief, it is sometimes necessary to resort to violence to defend one’s people and pursue one’s cause.

Every individual or (minority) group has the right to express its discontent. The state, being a representation of the people, should facilitate this possibility. Even more, the state should support the rights of minorities, in order to prevent the will of the majority suppressing the rights of people with other interests. If this does not happen, the state has failed to serve its purpose and loses its legitimacy. This, in combination with the growing inequalities and injustices amongst certain groups, justifies committing acts of terror in order to defend these rights, that were denied in the first place.

For instance, Umkhonto we Sizwe, a liberation organisation associated with the African National Congress in South Africa and led by Nelson Mandela, decided in 1961 to turn to violence in order to achieve liberation and the abolishment of Apartheid. The reason they gave was:

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. (…) Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals. The methods of Umkhonto we Sizwe mark a break with that past.”


Terrorism is never justified. Peaceful and democratic means must always be used. If this cannot happen inside the state, there are international courts such as the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, which handle cases such as war crimes and oppression. Even when democratic rights are denied, non-violent protest is the only moral action. And in the most extreme cases, in which subject populations are weak and vulnerable to reprisals from the attacked state, it is especially important for groups not to resort to terror. Terrorism merely exacerbates a situation, and creates a cycle of violence and suffering.

Here are some points to think about:

  1. Terrorism can lead to discussion (think about how this may be a good point for or against)
  2. Terrorism can bring attention
  3. Terrorism is relative