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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 20, 2004

War and Terrorism

Matthew R. Silliman
Pages 129-136

Weighing Evils
Political Violence and Democratic Deliberation

Even if war, terrorism, and other acts of political violence are inherently wrong, in so radically imperfect a world as our own there remains a need, as Virginia Held suggests, to evaluate such acts so as to distinguish between degrees of their unjustifiability. This essay proposes a notion of deliberative democracy as one criterion for such a comparative evaluation. Expanding on an analysis of the psychologically terrorizing impact of violence borrowed from Hannah Arendt, I suggest that it is principally this that makes for the special wrongness of terrorism, though that by itself does not show that it is never necessary. An effort to distinguish clearly the superiority of states over non-state actors (or vice versa) in this regard proves futile, so I conclude that there is no automatic legitimacy to be gained by either sort. It follows that we should weigh an act of political violence on its own demerits irrespective of whether it is done by a state or by a group in opposition to states, and further that we should resist the propagandistic labeling of non-state violence as “evil” or “terroristic,” where such terms beg the question of its relative merits, in context, vis-à-vis state violence.

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