Counter-Terrorism--How Far Can We Morally Go?
SUBJECT AREA General
COUNTER-TERRORISM--HOW FAR CAN WE MORALLY GO?
Col Robert J. Berens, USA(Ret)
In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements
for Written Communications
The Marine Corps Command and Staff College
Major E. J. Robeson IV
United States Marine Corps
April 1, 1984
COUNTER-TERRORISM--HOW FAR CAN WE MORALLY GO?
Thesis Statement: Terrorism is becoming increasingly common,
and poses great dilemmas for those seeking
to balance individual human rights with
the obligation to protect the masses.
What's to be done?
II. The nature of terrorism
III. Does terrorism's nature really matter?
IV. Presently accepted defensive countermeasures
A. General purpose measures
B. International agreements
V. Proposed offensive countermeasures
A. Increased public awareness programs
B. High technology initiatives
C. Legislative repeals/reforms
1. Intelligence enhancements
2. Aut dedere aut judicare
3. Media curbs
D. Pragmatic retribution
2. Coersive interrogation (torture)
3. Psychological operations
COUNTER-TERRORISM--HOW FAR CAN WE MORALLY GO?
Early on a quiet Sunday morning in October 1983, a yellow
Mercedes truck circled in a vacant parking lot adjacent
to the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon. Steadily,
the truck gathered speed and then headed on its course.
Crashing barriers and ignoring commands to halt, the driver
guided his deadly cargo into position under a large building
where hundreds of Marines were sleeping. A thunderous explo-
sion followed.... Amid the debris of broken concrete and
crushed, lifeless bodies there lay a shattered hope--that
America would be exempted from terrorism and the dilemmas
that countering it might bring.
But we have not been exempted, and, as professional
military officers, our efforts to defeat the terrorist may
confront us with some serious moral dilemmas. How should
we respond to the outrages of terrorism? What effective
counter-terrorist actions can be taken which will not be
as abhorrent as the terrorist acts themselves? What are
the moral dilemmas for the counter-terrorist who knows that
the bomb is ticking somewhere, but the suspect is disinclined
to cooperate? At what point do we lose our moral ascendancy
by permitting coersive interrogation (torture), even for
a "higher good?" Terrorism is becoming increasingly common,
and poses great dilemmas for those seeking to balance indivi-
dual human rights with the obligation to protect the masses.
What's to be done?
All of these questions need resolution, but there may
be an even more fundamental question. This question concerns
our understanding of terrorism itself. Even though terrorism
is indiscriminate, unrestrained violence, is it inherently
immoral, or is it simply an unusual, but legitimate, tool
of warfare? We cannot really design countermeasures without
a convincing answer to this question.
Accepting the premise that terrorism is immoral
presupposes that each man, as a unique creature, possesses
"...certain inalienable rights." Since terrorism seeks
to deny or destroy those fundamental rights, the terrorist
is operating beyond mere criminality. By his own desires
and preconceived malice, he has chosen to step outside the
bounds of civilized conduct and bring fear and violence
to those who are harmless or uninvolved--whether men, women
or children. Consequently, are not his actions so despicable
as to be patently immoral?
If the military officer accepts this argument, then
under what moral constraints must he labor in fighting
terrorism? Do normal rules still apply? After all, the
terrorist is exposed as:
...something more than a common criminal. He not
only violates particular rights, he also rejects
the principles on which rights exist, and aims at
destroying the capacity of the government to protect
Once the terrorist is seen...as an enemy of
rights in general, an argument can be made that
he has forfeited all of his [own] rights. How can
one who actively engages in a campaign aimed at
destroying the effectiveness of the rights of all
others in society now come forward and coherently
ask that any of his rights be respected while still
maintaining that he need not respect the rights
This is a powerful argument, but it leads the military profes-
sional toward a conclusion which is not easily reconciled
with present law and international conventions.
Perhaps we can escape this dilemma by hypothesizing
that terrorism is not immoral after all, but could be appro-
priate, depending upon the circumstances. Could our revulsion
to terrorist acts simply be an artificial humanistic
conditioning that hinders our ability to view terrorism
pragmatically? Could terrorism, in fact, be nothing more
than war as it should be fought without Victorian regard
for "innocents?" Perhaps our loathing of terrorist acts
is merely selective. How appalled are we when Afghani
terrorists (or are they freedom fighters?) bomb a Soviet
diplomat into socialistic paradise? Could terrorism really
be simply another appropriate tool of warfare?
This question has been debated at length in many forums.
The delegates to the United Nations during the discussion
of the Draft Convention for the Prevention and Punishment
of Certain Acts of International Terrorism have provided
a majority opinion. This sentiment of most of the governments
of the world today was expressed by the Indonesian delegate,
Mr. Joewono. He stated:
A distinction should be drawn between terrorism
perpetrated for personal gain and other acts of
violence committed for political purposes. Although
recourse to violence must ultimately be eliminated
from relations between peoples, it must be borne
in mind that certain kinds of violence were bred
by oppression, injustice, and the denial of basic
human rights, and the fact that whole nations were
deprived of their homeland and their property. It
would be unjust to expect such peoples to adhere
to the same code of ethics as those who possessed
more sophisticated means of advancing their
interests....Such acts could not be classified as
terrorism; on the contrary, they were to a certain
extent to be regarded as anti-terrorist acts aimed
at combatting a much more repulsive kind of terrorism,
namely colonialism and other forms of domination.
These forces of violence were legitimate, being
founded on the right of self-determination proclaimed
in the Charter and often reaffirmed by the United
As Americans in a westernized culture, we are probably
astonished that other governments could formally equivocate
on the question of terrorism, but we shouldn't be. Our
own traditional moral foundations, derived from our
Judeo-Christian heritage and its basic document, The Bible,
could also be seen to advocate terrorism or other unrestricted
violence under certain conditions. In The Bible we find
numerous accounts of battles and wars fought at God's
direction and by his rules. Over and over again, the children
of Israel were commanded to attack evil countries and peoples
and to kill them all--the men, the women and the little
children. Because God had declared that their cause was
just, the Israelites were permitted to practice systematic
terrorism and could, furthermore, view it as being a righteous
act. Based on this evidence, could there be a dichotomy
between our absolute condemnation of terrorism, and our
concern that counter-terrorist acts be effective, but not
brutalizing? If our cause is just, why should we restrain
Scholars and theologians would certainly be quick to
note in rebuttal that the Israelites had direct revelation
from God, while today, we no longer share that privilege.
They might further ask, how then can terrorism or unrestrained
counter-terrorism be condoned if the cause cannot be proven
to be just? This argument is persuasive and it could perhaps
be used to deter American military officers from those prac-
tices, but it neglects the fact that several terrorist groups,
particularly in the Middle East, have already declared their
cause to be just and have embraced terrorism as a means
to further their aims. Therefore, a more relevant question
might be, if your opponent is already operating in
fundamentally evil ways and without any moral restraints,
what could not be considered an appropriate countermeasure?
In other words, why would not the depravity of terrorism
elevate any countermeasures to the status of a righteous
act? How can unrestrained violence be effectively contained
without resorting to every available resource and means?
Doesn't international law recognize the right to defend
oneself by matching the level of violence of the response
to that of the offense, as in a reprisal? Unfortunately,
answering these questions could lead the military professional
toward the same conclusion from which he might be seeking
It would appear, then, that regardless of whether terror-
ism is viewed as a legitimate tool of warfare, or as a
contemptible immoral act, that there are persuasive arguments
which would permit the counter-terrorist to respond based
solely on military effectiveness without incurring any moral
dilemmas at all.
Even if one accepts that this reasoning is logical,
he is still confronted with the obligation to obey the current
laws and international conventions, and these are quite
restrictive. Still, we who have pledged to defend "...against
all enemies, both foreign and domestic" must do so within
the framework of those laws. Has the time not come then
to reexamine the present legal constraints in light of today's
threat of international terrorism? Is it not essential
that the guardians of our freedoms not be artificially con-
strained from taking those measures which could be required
to ensure that our liberties continue?
If this is true, then what countermeasures are presently
acceptable, and which additional methods should be added
to make our response more effective?
First, there are the general purpose measures already
in effect. These include the screening of travelers and
equipment crossing over our national borders or passing
through our major communications centers. As Kupperman
and Trent stated, there is considerable merit to these
measures because "...screening limits potential terrorism
to the most talented groups (a high-pass filter) and so
tends to inhibit terrorism."3 In recent years, these measures
have become even more effective with the implementation
of improved sensors, metal detectors, x-ray machines and
better training for security personnel. Other responses
to terrorist threats have included executive protection
procedures, risk analysis programs and armored vehicle
services.4 All of these efforts to "harden the target" are
designed to create conditions under which it would be very
difficult for a terrorist to conduct a successful attack.5
There have also been numerous legal attempts to develop
an international consensus for countering terrorism. These
agreements have been on-going for over twenty years and
a partial list includes:
1963 Tokyo Convention on Offenses and Certain Other
Acts Committed Onboard Aircraft
1970 Hague Convention for the Suppression of the Unlawful
Seizure of Aircraft
1970 U.N. Declaration of Principles of International
Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among
States In Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations
1971 OAS Convention to Prevent and Punish Acts of
Terrorism Taking the Form of Crimes Against Persons and
Related Extortions that are of International Significance
1973 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful
Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation
1973 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment
of Crimes Against Diplomats
1980 North Atlantic Assembly Resolution on Terrorism6
Statistically, it can be demonstrated that these measures
have not dissuaded terrorist groups from continuing their
activities. The reason for this has been succintly stated
by Admiral James D. Watkins, USN, Chief of Naval Operations.
He has said:
While there are many things that we can do defen-
sively, this is just not good enough. After all,
will building bunkers and fences higher and higher--or
stringing roll upon roll of concertina wire--or
wearing more and more flak jackets--really provide
lasting additional security from these terrorists?
Can these defensive measures really stamp out this
creeping cancerous growth? No.7
It would appear then that a defensive strategy is
insufficient. In addition to increased security and improved
crisis management structures and techniques, there must
be offensive responses. William Waugh calls this the
"two-front war." Unfortunately, he then limits his offensive
options to the alleviation of legitimate grievances, while
prohibiting extra legal countermeasures, extra legal
intelligence gathering, detention of suspects, and even
This is a very weak response indeed, especially in light
of the numerous nihilistic terrorist groups whose only
grievance is that the present governmental systems still
function effectively. Fortunately, others recommend more
vigorous schemes. The Long Commission, following its
investigation of the Beirut bombing concluded:
... that state sponsored terrorism is an important
part of the spectrum of warfare and that adequate
response to this increasing threat requires an active
national policy which seeks to deter attack or reduce
its effectiveness.. this policy needs to be supported
by political and diplomatic actions and by a wide
range of timely military response capabilities....
The Commission recommends that the Secretary of
Defense direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop
a broad range of military responses to terrorism... and
direct the development of doctrine, planning,
organization, force structure, education and training
necessary to defend against counter terrorism.
If, as the Long Commission suggests, our present counter-
measures are inadequate, it would seem relevant to examine
what we could be doing to improve our situation. Certainly,
one of the basic elements of a response strategy must be
to maintain confidence in the government and its legitimacy,
while ensuring public order.9 To accomplish this, any
counter-terrorist activities must be not only acceptable,
but also achieve popular support. Since the importance
of this support cannot be overestimated, the government
must be able to define its actions so as to protect its
base of legitimacy, while denying any terrorists' counter
claims.10 One of the best means to accomplish this according
to Mr. J. B. Motley is to "...establish within the public
community a greater awareness of and sensitivity to...the
type of decisions that may be required by
What decisions should we be making? What response will
solve the terrorism dilemma? Unfortunately, the problem
appears to be multi-faceted, and many analysts believe that
there is no single "magic formula" solution, and only a
combination of responses will be effective.12 However, the
application of highly specialized technology would appear
to be one very effective response for controlling terrorism.
One approach would be to utilize computer technology
to share information on the international level much more
extensively than is presently done. This could create
difficulties due to possible infringement of civil liberties,
but without extensive, hard, intelligence data,
counter-terrorist plans will be ineffective.13 The use of
heuristic computer models could also enhance and sharpen
terrorist-type identification and potential target
projections.14 Other high-tech solutions could involve
impregnating detonators and explosives with easily detected
taggants15, and greatly expanding video, audio and other
electronic surveillance.16 Non-brutalizing suspect
interrogation through the use of lie detectors, hypnosis,
or drugs should also be considered. However, as Kupperman
wrote, "The problem is far more than technological. It
is political, it is economic, it is regulatory, and it is
It is in this legislative area that many of the present
"moral dilemmas" could perhaps be solved. Recognizing inter-
national terrorism as a clear and present danger today could
save the nation from the quandary faced by President Lincoln
over a century ago when, under other difficult conditions,
he declared, "I conceived that I may, in any emergency,
do things on a military ground which cannot constitutionally
be done."18 This reality was demonstrated more recently
by Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau's response to the terrorist
campaign of the Front de Liberation Quebecois. On October
16, 1970, he authorized the government "...to do anything
it deemed necessary for the security, defense, peace, order
and welfare of Canada."19
Sensitizing the American public to the threat of terrorism
and demonstrating the need for stronger security measures,
up to and including the military option, would provide the
political climate needed to resolve some of the present
legal constraints, especially those surrounding the use
of military force in responding to terrorist acts. This
should be done, not only because it is right, but also because
it is practical. As one writer stated "...rules made with
too much disregard of the issue of military utility are
not likely to survive. Any legal rule, on the basis of its
own authority as law, can bear only so much weight of contrary
interest;"20 and when the nation is threatened, there will
certainly be that contrary interest, as Rudyard Kipling
so graphically reminded us in his stirring poem, "Tommy."
While restructuring our laws, however, it is important to
clearly differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate
uses of violence, i.e., the use of "force" by authorized
agents of the state as distinguished from the use of
"violence" by those challenging the state's authority.21
Another critical area needing legislative relief is
intelligence collection, processing and dissemination. Mr.
J. B. Motley suggests the following list:
Repeal those portions of Executive Order 12036 which
restricts intelligence collection techniques and
other intelligence functions.
Restore the Internal Security Division of the
Department of Justice.
Reinstitute the security research files and index...of
the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
Exempt intelligence agencies from the Amended Freedom
of Information Act and the Privacy Act.
Reassess current limitations imposed on intelli-
gence agencies by the Foreign Intelligence
There should also be strong attempts on the international
front to obtain agreement from all states to accept the
obligation aut dedere aut judicare--extradite the terrorist,
or try him or her yourself23. Consensus on media curbs
on the reporting of terrorist and counter-terrorist activities
should also be reached.
Beyond these legislative changes which could, by fiat,
create a climate where a stronger security framework could
be more easily defended on moral grounds, there are the
counter-terrorist activities themselves. As President Reagan
has stated, "Let terrorists be aware that when the rules
of international behavior are violated, our policy will
be one of swift and effective retribution."24
Of course, the form that this retribution should take
must be "morally" acceptable. As the earlier discussion
has proved, however, there are strong grounds--morally as
well as practically--to argue that the pragmatic approach
is not only defensible, but even commendable because of
its effectiveness. As retired ambassador, John David Lodge,
If we could stop preaching, we might even be
able to learn something from our friends in Argentina,
Uruguay and Chile regarding how they have successfully
handled and are handling the most cunning, cynical,
vicious, brutal, relentless challenge of our time.
When will we catch on that the conflict is taking
place in a jungle world?25
Such a tough line approach would combine harsh and effective
temporary measures with a consistent policy of maximizing
the risk of punishment run by the terrorists and minimizing
their potential rewards.26
We should begin these operations by acquiring the
necessary intelligence. Col Tuilard of the French Army,
while fighting Algerian terrorists had this to say about
gathering needed information:
If the suspect makes no difficulty about giving
the information required, the interrogation will
be over quickly. Otherwise, specialists must use
all means available to drag his secret out of him.
Like a soldier, he must [now] face the suffering
and perhaps the death which he has so far avoided.27
Although there are political risks to such measures, this
type of activity, if properly presented to the public, would
be devastating for the terrorist. He would have unleashed
approved counter-terrorism, and reaped few political benefits.
This same no-holds-barred approach could be used in
counter-terrorist psychological operations. The old Chinese
proverb, "Kill one and frighten 10,000 others," can be
effective for the counter-terrorist too. As one unnamed
official put it:
We have got to get our hands dirty, really
dirty.... Cut off a few Moslem heads, stick them
in the belly of a pig, deliver the package to their
comrades with the message: "You aren't going to
Paradise. You're going to be nothing but pig _
Certainly the lifting of restrictions on assassinations
would provide important opportunities to conduct surgical
strikes which could have great deterrent effects.
These special powers, even if granted by law, would
represent a partial curtailment of the normal liberties
found in a democracy, but having such temporary expedients
already available to be used as ultimate weapons could prove
to be highly effective in deterring or defeating terrorism.
Another advantage to having these difficult decisions made
now is to preempt a possible heated public debate at the
hour of crisis when harsh techniques, not rhetoric, are
critically needed. A protracted counter-terrorist campaign
using "classical" methods of informers, infiltrators, coersive
interrogation, detentions, assassinations, and military
operations would not necessarily be any less repulsive to
a liberal, democratic society, but, once approved, it could
be conducted on a comparatively low visibility and clandestine
basis. The virtue of such quiet operations would be the
avoidance of sympathy-generating publicity for the terrorist
In summary, it is essential that the United States develop
a coherent, well-planned strategy to combat domestic as
well as international terrorism. Such a strategy must be
capable of swift implementation, follow public policy state-
ments of U.S. response to terrorist acts, allow for contingen-
cies, spell out limits of American patience, and specify
the types of punitive measures which terrorists can expect.30
This strategy must be reasonable and acceptable to the
American people. This can be done if the emphasis is shifted
from the questionable rights of the terrorist to the moral
necessity to observe the social norms, defend our
institutions, and preserve law and order.31 Historically,
once war has been declared, United States citizens have
been very supportive of extremely strong responses. This
can be easily demonstrated by citing approval of Sherman's
"total war" campaign during the War Between the States,
the activities of the Bomber Command in World War II, and
even the use of the atomic bomb to force cessation on our
terms. Once the American people become convinced that
international terrorism has become a "third form of
warfare,"32 having taken its place alongside conventional
and guerrilla warfare, they will undoubtedly accept the
premise that the truly moral response is the one which is
1David C. Rapoport and Yonah Alexander, The Morality of
Terrorism (New York, 1982), p. 294.
2Ibid., p. 85.
3Robert H. Kupperman and Darrell M. Trent, Terrorism:
Threat, Reality, Response (Stanford, 1979), p. 76.
4Patterns of International Terrorism 1980, National Foreign
Assessment Center, Central Intelligence Agency Publication,
June 1981, p. 17.
5Kupperman and Trent, p. 79.
6Walter Laquer, The Terrorist Reader (Philadelphia, 1978),
7James D. Watkins, Admiral, USN, CNO, "All Hands," Shipmate
(Annapolis, 1984), p. 10.
8William L. Waugh, Jr., International Terrorism (Salisbury,
1982) pp. 238-241.
9Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism and the Liberal State (New
York, 1977), p. 105.
10Ibid., p. 116.
11J. B. Motley, U.S. Strategy to Counter Domestic Political
Terrorism (Washington, D.C., 1983), p. 99.
12Waugh, p. 240.
13J. Shaw et al., Ten Years of Terrorism (New York, 1979),
14Kupperman and Trent, p. 313.
15Ibid., p. 81.
16Shaw et al., p. 30.
17Kupperman and Trent, p. 81.
18R. C. Clark, Technological Terrorism (Old Greenwich,
1980), p. 210.
19L. R. Bess, Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear
Threat (Boulder, 1979), p. 87.
20Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York, 1973),
21Henry Biener, Violence and Social Change: A Review
of Current Literature (Chicago, 1968), p. 4.
22Motley, pp. 100-01.
23J. Shaw et al., p. 163.
24Richard Harwood et al., "Terrorism," The Washington
Post, February 12, 1984, Section A., p. 16.
25Clark, p. 198.
26Paul Wilkinson, British Perspectives on Terrorism (Boston
1981), p. 161.
27Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace (New York, 1978),
28Harwood, p. 16.
29Bess, p. 86.
30Motley, p. 98.
31Dr. John Burton, Deviance, Terrorism and War (New York,
1979), p. 83.
32Maj Robert L. Wolf, "Anticipating Trouble," Marine Corps
Gazette, February 1984, p. 18.
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