It feels like I’ve had this conversation a thousand times:
Angry Person: The Israelis are once again attacking Gaza! Who will stop this tragedy?
Me: Hamas will stop it, once they renounce terrorism.
Angry Person: Over 1000 Gazans have died during the war, only a few dozen Israelis. Who are the real terrorists?
Me: The ones that target non-combatants.
Angry Person: And how many hundreds of non-combatant Gazans have died!
And so forth.
The conversation is useless, because underneath it are two incomparable systems of ethics.
The Western tradition of warfare is based on nation states protecting their interests within an ethical framework. This is not to say that the ethical system is always applied or that it cannot be cynically abused, but there is a system in place: not everything is permitted in war. Combatants act as representatives of the state, and have certain rights and responsibilities as such. Non-combatants are off limits, but it is understood that a certain amount of “collateral damage” (a sad euphemism) will take place in combat.
The idea of collateral damage falls under what is called the principle of double effect: a human can preform an action with one goal in mind, knowing that a second result that he does not desire is possible, or even likely. It is common enough in war: a pilot bombs a military target knowing there may be civilians in the area. He does not want the civilians to be harmed, but it is a secondary effect of a legitimate wartime action. Given a level of proportionality and reasonable efforts to avoid collateral damage, the conventions of western warfare do not hold him responsible if civilians are in fact killed.
We can feel uncomfortable with this sort of ethical reasoning, but I think everyone should recognize that 1) it is not the same thing as wanting civilians to die and 2) without this distinction, the western tradition of ethics in warfare falls apart.
In this vision of ethics and war, the intentional targeting of civilians is an intolerable evil. If a national government kills the civilians of another, they know perfectly well that they are committing an indefensible act under standards of international law, which is why nation states generally do not target civilians (except perhaps through non-state proxies, with plausible deniability).
But the intentional targeting of civilians is how terrorists prefer to operate. They kill civilians not as an unfortunate side effect of an attack on military targets, but as a desired outcome which furthers their political goals.
Why do terrorists operate this way? There are several motives, which may all be mixed together. First, they may not have the means to attack military targets. Second, they may feel that killing civilians is a more effective way to force the state they dislike to give them what they want. Third, they may be operating under a primitive tribal notion that does not distinguish between combatant and non-combatant, only our tribe vs the other tribe. Fourth, they may want to delegitimize the entire notion of the nation-state: what the state calls “the ethics of war” and “international law” is a farce; the idea that the state represents a stabilizing legal regime is untrue; and the justice or injustice of war has nothing to do with legality or illegality, state-sanctioned or non-state sanctioned, ethical or unethical, but the the simple righteousness of the cause.
While plenty of groups are guilty of terrorism, the two most active terrorist ideologies of modern times have been Communism and certain movements within Islam. For a Communist terror group, like the Italian Red Brigade or the Colombian FARC, the revolution justifies all means, and anyone who unconsciously participates in the superstructure is a legitimate target. For Islam, the goal that justifies all means is universal submission to Sharia. (Historically, Palestinian terrorism has been influenced by both movements.) Both Communism and political Islam represent a conscious rejection of the modern nation-state.
Remember, the nation-state does not have as its goal the creation of an eschatalogical paradise, only the protection of internal order. The nation state is answerable neither to the dialectic of history, nor to the will of God, except through maintaining the common good of its citizens. The state’s justification for existence therefore is a boring legal regime that is more or less adequate for its citizens.
What then could motivate a Westerner raised in the bosom of the nation state, and enjoying the pampered existence life in a competent state allows, to internalize the logic of ideologies opposed to the whole western tradition of legal regimes and war governed by ethics? It cannot be attributed to mere disgust at the waste and wreckage of warfare, because he simultaneously excuses acts of terror. He equates what western tradition calls murder with what western tradition calls a regrettable, though foreseeable, accident.
Perhaps it is ideological arrogance, or a totalitarian impulse. Maybe he has no intention of living under Sharia law or abolishing private property, but he does see the plodding, modest, legalistic nature of the modern state as being an obstacle to reforming the world as he sees fit. Deep down, maybe he would like to treat people with whom he disagrees in the same way the Red Brigade treated random police officers or the way Hamas treats random Israeli school children.