Homeland Security

Fight against Terrorism and the Moral Dilemmas
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 26 Jan , 2011

.The problem of militancy in Punjab highlights the conflict in a liberal mind which recognises that a state must exercise its coercive power in a balanced manner when it is faced with an onslaught from those who threaten the peaceful order in which a citizen wants to live, through use of force and intimidation, and if such coercive power is not used, the peaceful order can collapse. Use of coercive power in such a situation becomes the moral duty of the state and its non use has to be seen as an exercise in irresponsibility and not as an expression of larger values of human conduct. When a state uses force, it has to act within the limitations of law but unauthorised use of force by so called self appointed guardians of public interests only target the innocents and the law-abiding. Not acting against the latter, in reality amounts to abetment by the former of the latter.

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The efforts to control militancy in Punjab received critical scrutiny from many, including apologists doubling as human right activists. The fact remains that success in controlling and liquidating the menace could be achieved only through the use of coercive force, as employed in counter terrorist strategies. All the measures such as political negotiations with the terrorists had failed and the interludes which accompanied the negotiations often were used by the terrorists to strengthen themselves against the state, thereby aggravating in the ultimate run the dangers to public order and the integrity of the state itself.

The dilemma becomes acuter when a political leadership seeks to discover a shortcut solution which will not involve political costs to itself. Often the resultant situation amounts to connivance of terrorism, creating confusion and demoralisation among law enforcement agencies, promoting a conflict of values and perceptions among different institutions of the state, to the great detriment of universal public good and interest. Sometimes the anomalies become absurd. The judiciary in Punjab which found it difficult to hold trial of or refuse bail to terrorists, feeling threatened by them, has been seen to be quite harsh to the policemen who brought the situation under control in Punjab,. which has now enabled them to function normally in an environment of peace and tranquillity.

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The fourth example is of taking of hostages which poses an acute and practical dilemma for a democratic society. Concessions to hostage takers may free innocent victims but it does not alter their mind set. Their success acts as an incentive to repetition. The hostage dilemma highlights the contradictory pulls of two great ethical traditions. For one freedom of the individual is the highest virtue but the other proposes the greatest good for the greatest numbers. Each case requires to be judged individually. There is no doubt that lives must be saved but should that be at the cost of capitulation?

Needs of counter terrorism demand imposition of restrictions on the privacy, freedom and certain rights of the civil society but if the civil society is unwilling to accept such restrictions”¦

The dilemmas which this discussion discloses may be summarised as follows:-

  • What is terrorism? There is no universal consensus on this question. One scholar has come up with 109 different definitions. One school of thought believes that violence, inherent in revolutionary struggles, national liberation etc. is not terrorism whereas the opponents of such acts label them as terrorism. The former would consider terrorism as a tool of warfare and therefore worthy of legitimacy. .This school does not label terrorism inherently immoral. .
  • Who is a terrorist? The distinction gets blurred because terrorism has no uniformly acceptable definition. Western powers call Al Qaeda and its supporters terrorists. To the latter West constitutes a group of perpetrators of terrorism.
  • Are issues of human rights involved? The terrorist respects no human rights. Does he, therefore, deserve the benefits of human rights? If terrorism is considered to be totally immoral, why should not any act of counter terrorism be held worthy of a moral standing and approval?
  • Which principle should be held supreme?
  1. Security of the state or rule of law. If a state or society is threatened with destruction, where will the rule of law operate if it gets destroyed?
  2. Liberty or security. Needs of counter terrorism demand imposition of restrictions on the privacy, freedom and certain rights of the civil society but if the civil society is unwilling to accept such restrictions, can the doctrine of necessity be invoked for the law enforcement, and if so, can a line be really drawn between the acceptable and the not acceptable?. How can civil society be convincingly sensitised about these requirements, in a milieu of utter fragmentation of polity for political gains?

Some of the moral dilemmas will cease if a definition of terrorism could be forged, accepted worldwide. A consensus seems to be developing that the means test should apply rather than the motivation test. Terrorists justify ends, not means. The suggestion is to define terrorism as intentional use of or threat to use violence against civilian targets to attain political, ideological or social aims.

Under this definition guerrilla activities against security forces in a situation of a non conventional warfare being waged between an organisation and a state will not count as terrorist acts, provided civilians are not targeted.

Acceptance of a definition will facilitate international cooperation in fighting terrorism and legislating uniform laws in various countries for the purpose. In its absence terrorism will mean different things to different people and moral dilemmas will continue to abound.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anand K Verma

Former Chief of R&AW and author of Reassessing Pakistan.

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