Home » Terrorism » The Dubious Moral Differences Between States and Terrorist Groups

The Dubious Moral Differences Between States and Terrorist Groups

“The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise”

Jesse Glenn Gray, philosopher and soldier

“Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.”

George Orwell

What is the moral difference between a conventional military and a terrorist organization? They both use violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of long-term political goals. Most people would presumably assert that what distinguishes a terrorist group, and what specifically renders it uniquely immoral, is the intentional targeting of civilians. However, this definition is fraught with inconsistencies. For example, when terrorist groups target soldiers, are these actions therefore not to be considered terrorist attacks? And when a state intentionally targets civilians, as they have so often, shouldn’t these also be considered terrorist actions?

Apart from being ontologically inconsistent, this definition seemingly ignores the paramount point of this article, which is: the intentional targeting of civilians has long been a central feature of modern inter-state warfare

Intentional State Targeting of Civilians

One study by George Washington University professor Alexander B. Downes found that in the post-Napoleonic era, participants in interstate wars used strategies that intentionally targeted civilians approximately one-third of the time (and no wonder, because it was also found that a policy of targeting civilians increases the probability of winning by 23 percent.)       

Another study concluded that “far from the unintended but inevitable side effects of combat, the killing of civilians in times of war [fifty million in the entire twentieth century from “war-related causes”] is often part of a deliberate policy of mass killing against non-combatant populations.”

Over the past three hundred years, civilians have constituted approximately half of all deaths caused by war (69 percent for civil wars). This increases to 60 percent when looking at only the past one hundred years, and rises to 75 percent in the 1980s, and 90 percent in the 1990s. At the turn of the century, five percent of casualties were civilian. In World War I, 15 percent were civilian, and in World War II, this rose to 65 percent. In Korea civilian casualty rates increased to as much as 84 percent (though estimates widely vary, as accurate data is very difficult to obtain), and in Vietnam, and wars during the 1990s, estimates reach as high as 90 percent.

But surely, all of this intentional killing of non-combatants has been done by non-democratic (and non-Western) states, right? Not so. Professor Downes concludes in a book on the subject that there exists “little support for the view that democracies treat civilians better in interstate wars.” His study of all interstate wars between 1816 and 2003 found that “the vast civilian death toll in modern wars indicates that governments frequently ignore normative and legal injunctions against targeting non-combatants,” and that “regime type by itself has little effect on the probability of [intentional] civilian victimization.” The study postulated that democracies are in fact in some circumstances more likely to target non-combatants. Liberal democracies targeted civilians 81 percent of the time during wars of attrition, compared with 54 percent for non-democracies.

Having a democratic regime also makes mass killing (over 50,000 dead) over eight times more likely in the period from 1900 to 2003. Another study found that “when faced with powerful and popular guerrilla insurgencies, even highly democratic states are likely to resort to mass killing” of civilians. Professor Downes writes that “Although democratic states have fought few costly international wars since 1945, democracies not only targeted civilians in most of them – the Dutch in Indonesia (1945-49), France-Madagascar (1947-48), France-Indochina (1945-54), U.S. in Korea (1950-53), France-Algeria (1954-62), U.S. in Vietnam (1965-73), and Israel-Lebanon (1982) – they often committed mass killing (in all but the Dutch and Israeli cases) as well.”

The reason for this is theorized as being due to the fact that the vulnerability of democratic leaders to public opinion “makes them wary of incurring heavy costs on the battlefield for fear of losing support at home.” This fear could compel democratic elites to target non-combatants to avoid costs or to win the war quickly. Furthermore, civilian victimization at the hand of a liberal democracy can also result from “the belief that one is fighting an uncivilized enemy,” or in other words, “the laws of war apply only in wars against ‘civilized’ opponents, not ‘barbarians’ [or ‘insurgents,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘unlawful combatants,’ and ‘militants’].”

Examples from Modern History

There are countless examples in modern history of democracies deliberately attacking civilian non-combatants.

The U.S. conquest of the Philippines from 1899 to 1902 killed 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians.

During World War I (which, in historical terms was not that long ago), the liberal democracy of Great Britain decided to target civilians in the form of a naval blockade which was, in the words of Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defense, designed to “starve Germany out.” The starvation blockade, which both the British and American publics supported, led to about one million excess civilian deaths in Germany and Austria-Hungary. As one scholar notes “there is little evidence that liberal norms acted as a restraint on British blockade policy. On the contrary, the Parliamentary opposition and the press routinely pilloried the Balfour and Lloyd George governments for being too soft on Germany and on the neutral countries supplying the Germans with foodstuffs.” The blockade even continued after the armistice was signed, in order to compel Germany to sign the crippling Versailles Treaty.

Starving Berliners cut up a horse for meat during the Allied-imposed naval blockade

According to internal military documents from 1943 and 1944, the U.S. aim in using incendiary bombs against Japanese civilian population centers during the Second World War was to destroy Japan’s industrial production and to generate a labour shortage by killing civilian workers (though studies have shown that only 25 percent of workers in an industrialized country actually work in war-related industries). A single incendiary bomb attack on Tokyo on March 9 – 10, 1945 destroyed twenty-six square kilometers of the city, rendered one million people homeless, and killed between eighty and one hundred thousand civilians. General Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing campaign against Japan, told an aide, “If the U.S. lost the war, we would be prosecuted as war criminals.”

The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which were conducted despite intelligence intercepts indicating that Japan was already willing to surrender) are perhaps the most egregious single cases of democracies intentionally targeting civilians in modern times. Hiroshima did have one military base, but the bomb was in fact aimed at the very center of the city of 350,000, and the Americans knew very well that the residual effects of the radiation on civilians would be deadly. Only four of the thirty targets within Hiroshima were of a military nature, and the neighbourhoods which bore the brunt of the damage were in fact residential. Nagasaki was a purely civilian target, and only 250 Japanese soldiers died, compared to approximately 85,000 civilians. Of the 370,000 deaths attributed to the two atomic attacks, 85 percent were civilians

Many of America’s top leaders were ardently opposed to the bombings. Admiral William D. Leahy, the President’s Chief of Staff, later wrote in his memoirs, “[T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet said in a public address on October 5, 1945, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war […] The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” President Eisenhower said in an interview with Newsweek that he was against the bombings for two reasons. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”

“The patient’s skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion” [U.S. National Archives]

In World War II, the United States, in collaboration with Great Britain, intentionally slaughtered between 300,000 and 600,000 German civilians in strategic aerial bombardment of civilian population centers. Winston Churchill’s scientific advisor Lord Cherwell drafted the “dehousing” memo, which became the basis for British urban area bombing. In it, he argued that relentless bombing of cities would destroy German morale by rendering the population homeless. For example, in February of 1945, the city of Dresden, Germany was bombed four times over the course of two days by wave after wave of thousands of British and American aircraft. The city’s historic center, rather than any military or even industrial targets, was attacked, which was at the time absolutely filled with refugees – mostly women, children, and the elderly. Forty square kilometers (ninety percent) of the city center were destroyed in the ensuing firestorm, which created hurricane-strength winds, and 35,000 civilians were killed.

Bodies piled up in Dresden await cremation

The deadly strategy of strategic aerial bombardment of cities continued to kill massive amounts of non-combatants during the American wars in Korea and Vietnam (an estimated 182,000 North Vietnamese civilians perished in Operation Rolling Thunder alone, and the North Vietnamese government estimates that two million Vietnamese civilians from both sides died in the conflict, though various estimates hugely vary). The use of Agent Orange by the U.S. military in Vietnam has resulted in one million people suffering serious medical problems.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. air strikes attempted to put pressure on Iraqi civilians by incapacitating Iraq’s electrical power grid, thus eliminating the country’s ability to process sewage and purify water. This resulted in 100,000 civilian deaths. The economic sanctions put on Iraq throughout the 1990s resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. American pilots are also known to have killed hundreds, and perhaps thousands of retreating Iraqi soldiers on the infamous Highway of Death.

The ongoing U.S. targeted killing program in Pakistan using drone strikes results in huge numbers of civilian fatalities. The most in-depth study on this subject concludes that between 385 and 775 civilians have died in 291 attacks since 2004. According to the Brookings Institution, the death toll of civilians to soldiers in this undeclared war could be as high as ten to one.

In fact, polls show that about half of Americans actually support the intentional targeting of civilians. According to a recent opinion poll 61 percent of Americans (including 72 percent of men, 73 percent of seniors, and 74 percent of Republicans) still believe that the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (both civilian targets) were justified. In 1945, 85 percent of Americans supported the bombings.

One commentator points out that “The allied air raids [of Germany and Japan] were widely accepted as just retribution [though the incendiary attacks on Japan and the bombing of civilian population centers in general were planned by the Americans and British before Pearl Harbor] as well as sound strategic policy, and the few critics who raised ethical and humanitarian questions about the heavy bombing of German cities were usually denounced as hopeless idealists, fools, or traitors.”

The Power of Labelling

The danger with labelling one side pejoratively as terrorists is that it automatically assumes that there is a bad side and hence a good side, instead of two sides both implementing violence in pursuit of a political goal, with one side using asymmetric warfare due to conventional inferiority.

This is not to say there is no right and wrong, but it is dangerous to assume any one side in a conflict has a monopoly on either. As Columbia professor and philosopher Virginia Held writes, “terrorism is not uniquely atrocious but is on a continuum with many other forms of political violence,” and “wars, even ‘good wars’ are often morally far worse.” Rather than proclaiming terrorists as always categorically wrong and liberal democratic states as incapable of evil on a level with terrorism, we should compare the goals of each side, the effectiveness in achieving those goals, and how many civilians are killed. Professor Held further points out that “The distinction between deliberately killing civilians and “unintentionally” but entirely predictably doing so is of very limited moral significance.” A drunk driver who kills a pedestrian has very little credibility in claiming that he or she “didn’t mean to do it.” Tell that to the victim’s family. And this example is actually not quite apt, since a drunk driver doesn’t know if they will end up killing an innocent person, while states do know they will kill civilians. Can something really be called an accident if you know that it will happen?

The Orwellian term ‘Collateral damage’ is not so much civilians who have been killed by ‘mistake,’ as it is the result of careful cost benefit analysis by military planners of civilian deaths versus strategic goals and friendly soldier casualties. For example, when U.S. daylight precision bombing of Germany in World War II became unsustainably costly in the fall of 1943, American airmen adopted radar techniques that radically reduced accuracy and increased non-combatant casualties, but drastically lowered U.S. bomber losses. Air strikes are often favoured over ground troops because they result in fewer casualties for the side using them, despite the fact that they also result in more civilian casualties (for example , air strikes have killed four to ten times more Afghan civilians than ground attacks). The more precise smart bombs become, the more overconfidently they are deployed, in civilian-dense target zones, and thus high levels of civilian deaths continue.

States’ (or at least western liberal democracies) military actions , even when they are questioned and criticized, are never put on the same level of uniquely grotesque Pure Evil as those of terrorist organizations, yet democratic states kill just as many, and usually far more innocent civilians than terrorist groups (for example, Israel has killed about 6,500 Palestinian civilians since 1987, whereas the Palestinians have killed only about 1,500 Israeli civilians), and their goals are often just as dubious and unfulfilled.

Is a state’s response to a heinous terrorist attack justified if it results in far more civilian casualties than the terrorist attack itself? The wars and military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan provoked by the 9/11 attacks have reportedly resulted in (at a very bare minimum) 150,000 dead civilians (one million casualties if combining military and civilian dead and injured), which is fifty times more than died on 9/11. If commentators compare (western) state actions to those of a terrorist group, they are immediately relegated to the fringe, and decreed by both the Left and Right of the political and media Establishment as being ‘disrespectful,’ ‘radical,’ and, perhaps most condescending of all, ‘not serious.’

Mainstream society consistently justifies the killing of innocents, so long as it is done by a western liberal democracy in pursuit of a ‘noble’ goal. Wars which result in high (foreign) civilian casualties are regularly supported by the public. But why are the goals of terrorist groups any less legitimate? Part of the definition of a terrorist is that they pursue political goals, and are not guided by profit, such as bank robbers, or compelled by insanity, such as a serial murderer. Wanting political autonomy, to expel a foreign military invader, or to establish a different kind of political regime are all perfectly legitimate, and many would even say ethical goals.

The Hypocrisy of ‘Legitimacy’

One could perhaps argue that state actions are ‘legitimate’ if conducted by a democracy, because huge numbers of people support their actions, but this is irrelevant when it comes to foreign policy, since those affected by the state’s actions abroad are not citizens of their country and therefore cannot vote, or have any say in the matter whatsoever. Terrorist groups are also often supported just as widely as states, and in many cases, more so.

Perhaps we feel that states are more legitimate because they ‘follow the rules’ (which they themselves made). The problem with that assumption is that, as most realist international relations theorists point out, powerful states generally only follow the rules when it’s in their interest to do so, but ignore them when they get in the way, particularly when it comes to security affairs.

The United Nation’s Goldstone Report, which was simply “rejected” by Israel, found that Israel had committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the Gaza War. The Report claimed that Israel’s attack on Gaza was designed to “terrorize a civilian population,” and that they deliberately and repeatedly targeted civilians. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was a violation of international law since it was not mandated by the UN Security Council, and Amnesty International found that NATO committed war crimes during that conflict by intentionally targeting a civilian TV/radio station, killing 16 non-combatants. The U.S. has opposed the International Criminal Court and has refused to sign a treaty to ban landmines and many other human rights treaties. The U.S. also regularly violates international law, such as the illegal invasion of Iraq, illegal military tribunals for ‘unlawful combatants’ captured in the War on Terror, and illegal extraordinary renditions. Even U.S. military participation in Libya can be said to be illegal under the War Powers Act, since it wasn’t approved by Congress. 


Within the context of this argument, the defining characteristic of both states and terrorist groups is the decision to kill in order to achieve political goals. Whether or not this decision is immoral or not is subject to debate, but regardless, it (at least in a moral sense) defines both types of organization, and distinguishes both of them from other types of groups. States tend to target soldiers more than civilians, since they have large armies and can afford to do so, but they also kill far more civilians than terrorist groups, and they do it deliberately, whether by directly targeting civilians, or by proceeding with attacks that they know will result in sizeable civilian ‘losses.’

All political organizations that kill people to achieve their goals should be judged by the same criteria, whether they can afford to use conventional warfare, or are forced to use unconventional asymmetric tactics. The difference between states and terrorist groups is tactical, not moral.

3 thoughts on “The Dubious Moral Differences Between States and Terrorist Groups

  1. terrorism is such a loaded term, and you seem to be concerned primarily with “terrorism” vs. “legitimate war” (as if such a concept itself were a given). you only talked about “terrorism” in a foreign political context. what about domestic terrorism, such as Oklahoma city? should tim mcvay have been treated as a political dissident waging war, or as a terrorist? also, i do not think the definition of terrorism relies on the intentional target of civilians, as you very accurately pointed out why this is not limited to only terrorists. I would focus more on the aims of “terrorism” than the effects. terrorism tries not so much to specifically take over a government, occupy land, or lead a coup, as it does to inflict terror for the sake of itself. of course, this definition is fraught with ambiguity, and there are many cases that fall somewhere in between. but you are very right that those with the power of definition should be very careful as to what, exactly, they are defining.

  2. A very interesting read. There is no doubt that the perception by the population as a whole seems to quickly separate ‘terrorist’ groups from other entities such as governments as you have explained above. Moreover, you are right in pointing out that acts of violence, or otherwise harmful acts, can come from both legitimate and non-legitimate sources of political organizations (elected or non-elected, as I see it).

    Makes me wonder where we ever thought violent acts against citizens ever came from before our common understanding of terrorism (which, in my opinion has changed dramatically in the past 10 years). If anything, I would argue that the view point you explained would have been more mainstream prior to this recent shift (of being transfixed by terrorism) and can seem bold now because states are suppose to protect its citizens from such terrors.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I think the whole concept of legitimacy is very complex when it comes to political violence. An atrocity is an atrocity whether it’s democratically supported or not, and war itself can be better than lack of intervention.

    Terrorism absolutely does not seek to terrorize simply as an ends in of itself. That is literally impossible according to most definitions of terrorism (the key concept that there is a political goal). So why do they do it, because they are “evil” or “crazy?” The terror is the means of achieving a political goal. The 5 primary goals of most terrorist groups are: regime change, territorial change, policy change, social control, and status quo maintenance.

    In terms of definition, I think all of the heavyweight scholars on terrorism such as Martha Crenshaw, Bruce Hoffman and Robert Pape must be furious how their field has been hijacked by pundits and think tank “policy analysts” since 9/11. They had already reached certain conclusions within the field, such as: terrorists are rational actors, and terrorism is inherently political in nature. Study after study shows that terrorism occurs when non-violent political change is simply not an option. Read literally any book by an actual terrorism scholar, and you will see that these opinions are not controversial at all.

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