Terrorism. It’s a hard subject to discuss rationally, because the very essence of terrorism is to stir up emotion. Fear or terror in the populations being attacked. Exultation and joy in the terrorist organisation. Horror and disgust in those not directly affected.
It demonstrates the relativity of morality. From the point of view of the terrorists there is nothing wrong with targeting people in the streets because they are considered less than people for believing differently from the terrorist, and therefore deserve to die. From the point of view of everyone else, this is callous sickening nonsense.
An interesting argument which bring home this point is the contention that, in the Star Wars films, that the rebels, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Hans Solo and all the rest are simply terrorists and not freedom fighters at all. After all, they kill people, destroy property and cause mayhem. They consort with criminals, use violence and trickery to advance their cause.
Since we only see their side of the issue, can we be sure that the Empire is the evil entity that it is portrayed as? For all we know the Rebel Alliance may be causing untold damage within the Empire, and their support may only come from a few disaffected planets.
Of course, in the real world it is easy to see who the terrorists are. Targeting and killing innocent people who can’t fight back is a heinous crime and cannot be justified in any way. People who use their religion to try to justify such actions are not right in the head.
The religious bigots interpret the words of their holy book or books to justify such things as punishing women who have been raped, and stoning to death people who have been caught committing adultery.
Some would try to excuse terrorists by pointing out that all religions tend to lead to murder and torture, and this is so. Christians have raped, tortured and killed people who subscribe to other religions. Even sectarian disputes (such as that between the Christian Protestants and Christian Catholics) frequently lead to violence between the parties involved.
Some people use such facts to argue that religion causes its adherents to perform such violence against non-believers, but it is evident that adherents to mere ideologies will on occasion torture and kill non-adherents. Nazi Germany and Communist Russia are cases in point, but even the American military has been caught using torture on prisoners.
Torture and killing, along with random bombing and shooting targeted at killing or maiming and inducing terror in a population is never justified. That’s as close to a moral absolute as there can be.
Is there something in the human psyche that makes us want to kill and harm others, perhaps. Certainly a fear of strangers is large part of our make up, especially if the stranger is large. The big guy with the leather and the tattoos may be only returning the keys which you dropped in the street, but that doesn’t help when he comes up to you.
It doesn’t take much for fear to turn into violence, but that only helps a little with understanding terrorists. It is probably true that terrorists are scared of the religion or society that they are attacking. It is likely that they are incited by religious leaders who see others’ religions or beliefs as wrong, and that they believe that the end result of their actions will be rewards in the next world and the destruction of the “evil” that they are attacking.
The idea that you will die one day is scary to some people and the concept of an after-life is some consolation for that. In general religions tend to describe the after-life as like real life, but better. Or like real life, but worse, if you contravene any of the rules and laws of the religion. That’s a powerful incentive to follow the religion, and even if you can’t fully believe in God and the after-life, Pascal’s Wager suggests that it would be a good idea to try.
Terrorists act as if they fully believe that their religion or belief is true, in an absolute sense. They act convinced that they are doing God’s work in blowing men, women and children to bits, not to mention maiming many more. They must truly believe that they are working for the greater good, and that is true of any extremist. I can’t help thinking that either the fanaticism has crowded out any common sense that they might possess or they are so fanatical because they want to squash a small amount of doubt which cannot be assuaged.
The difference between terrorist and rebels is that a rebellion mostly doesn’t bring God into it, though exceptions exist, and generally a rebel will do his/her utmost to avoid hurting those who are mere bystanders, but it is not a black and white thing. Suppose I told you that to save billions of people you would need to kill, say, a thousand people in cold blood? Most people would have a problem with that.
As an example of this sort of thing is the example of the Death Star II in Star Wars. When building something that size, the Empire would have had to have employed millions or even billions of people, depending on how far the building process could be automated. If we assume that most of them were neutral about the Empire/Alliance conflict, then they were, in the horrible phrase, collateral damage.
Obviously that’s a contrived example, but it is true, as someone once said “History is written by the winner” (variously attributed to many people). If the Empire eventually wins the Alliance will be reviled as traitors. If the Alliance wins, then the rebellion overthrew a corrupt and oppressive regime. The winning side’s acts will be whitened and the losing side’s acts will be blackened.
None of the above should be seen as an apologia for the acts of the terrorists in Paris. In that case, the situation is as clear as it can be – these were terrible acts directed at those who were not able to defend themselves, who would have no idea that they should defend themselves. Who were murdered without warning, and mowed down without mercy, by people whose sick minds were harnessed by the sick terrorist organisation behind these crimes, to cause chaos, havoc and suffering. Terrorist pawns who were recruited from among the very people that they massacred.