Terrorism and Just War Theory

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About this sample


Words: 2656 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

Words: 2656|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

In the United Kingdom today, no single issue of public concern seems to be as widely and hotly debated as that of terrorism. When people hear of terrorist attacks, they react with horror and disgust (rightfully), however, little discussion ever revolves around whether terrorism can ever be justified. In his book Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer lays the foundation of circumstances where terrorism can be morally justified under what he calls the ‘Supreme Emergency’ situation. This essay aims to critically analyse Walzer’s concept of a ‘supreme emergency’ and his efforts to integrate this into the ordinary restraints of jus in bello in line with the just war tradition. Firstly, this essay will look to define what terrorism actually is before going on to discuss the supreme emergency situation and the arguments for this permissibility to violate jus in bello rules. This essay shall then discuss the inherent limitations of this concept and scholars arguments against Walzer. Finally this essay will question whether the supreme emergency concept can only apply to state actors and not to non-state actors before concluding that unless one adheres to moral absolutism, then under a supreme emergency situation, terrorism can be justified. One problem faced when confronting terrorism is that there is no one universally agreed upon definition. Valls notes how there is a division amongst political actors and scholars when defining terrorism. This is because the word terrorism is used by politicians as a political weapon with the purpose of painting their opponents as monsters, whereas scholars seek to define what captures the essence of terrorism. Valls further states how he agrees with Teichman’s view on terrorism, who writes that, “We ought not to begin by defining terrorism as a bad thing”. By characterising terrorism as intrinsically wrong and unjustifiable, then you are prejudging the substantive moral issue by definitional consideration according to Valls (2000). This may seem paradoxical, however, we will discuss how this is relevant to justifying the supreme emergency concept later in this essay.

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Another problem with defining terrorism is due to the lack of agreement over who can commit terrorism. In their famous song about IRA hunger striker Joe McDonnell, the Wolfe Tones famously wrote, “And you care to call me a terrorist, while you looked down your gun” in reference to the British military, who, as well as the IRA, committed acts many would condemn as terrorism. There is no clear consensus on who the perpetrators of terrorism can be. For example, the definition of terrorism endorsed by the United States government excludes state-based actors, and has been criticised for doing so. Igor Primoratz, in contrast, argues that “terrorism cannot be based on the identity of those resorting to it and must therefore be extended to include ‘state terrorism’” (Primotatz, 2007, p.33). This is because, as he argues, states have been amongst the biggest actors of terrorism. For the purpose of this essay, we will use Rodin’s definition of terrorism as “the deliberate, negligent, or reckless use of force against noncombatants, by state or non state actors for ideological ends and in the absence of a substantively just legal process” (Rodin, 2004, p.754). This enables us to critique both state and non state concepts of terrorism.

The just war theory is a highly articulated and widely used paradigm for analysing the morality of of international relations, especially war. Stevens argues that the just war theory can be applied to other forms of violence, including terrorism. Like warfare, he believes that, “terrorism can be a strategic decision, following a deliberate cost-benefit analysis, to engage in a violent struggle in order to redress past grievances or improve current conditions”. Whilst the killing of non-combatants has long been regarded as a basic principle of war conduct that should not be infringed upon, it has been argued that in extreme conditions, non-combatant, innocent civilians may be targeted. Michael Walzer, otherwise a strict adherent to the jus in bello conditions in war, argues that in supreme emergency conditions, a state can justifiably ignore moral principles and the rules of the just war tradition and deliberately target enemy civilians, if certain circumstances are met. In line with Rodin’s (2004) definition of terrorism, a supreme emergency is therefore an act of state terrorism as it targets non-combatants during times of war. A supreme emergency, according to Walzer, constitutes “…an ultimate threat to everything decent in our lives, an ideology and a practice of domination so murderous, so degrading even those who might survive, that the consequences of its final victory were literally beyond calculation, immeasurably awful” (Walzer, 2015, p.253). For a supreme emergency situation to arise, two conditions must be met. First, a state must be in and imminent threat of danger with no means to defend itself and all other options exhausted, and secondly, the nature of the threat must be so severe, such as the threat of total destruction of the state’s way of life and human values in both the present and the future. Both these conditions must be met in order for a state to be morally permissible to target the enemy’s civilian population if this is the only military option left available. A supreme emergency constitutes a dilemma according to Walzer: it is one in which you must choose between two evils, and should opt for the lesser one. Therefore, a political leader facing a supreme emergency should choose the ‘better’ alternative, even though that act itself is morally condemnable.

Supreme emergency circumstances are few and far between due to the stringent conditions that need to be met in order for one to override the rules of war. However, one example that highlights the case of a genuine supreme emergency according to Walzer was the British bombings of German cities such as Dresden during World War Two. Walzer cites this as a genuine supreme emergency as the decision by Britain to drop bombs on German civilians was made at a time when victory for the allies was not in sight and the specter of defeat to Nazi Germany, which would have had unimaginable, disastrous consequences to Britain’s values, way of life, and future, was ever present. With all other military option exhausted or deemed ineffective, targeted strikes on the German civilian population was Britain’s last resort to turn the tide of the war. Although tragic, Walzer defends Britain’s decision to commit an act of terrorism in this instance with the following argument “… a world where entire peoples are enslaved or massacred is literally unbearable. For the survival and freedom of political communities are the highest values of international society” (Walzer, 2015, p.254). Walzer further emphasises that the supreme emergency argument should reinforce professional ethics and to provide an account of when it is permissible, or even necessary, to get our ‘hands dirty’. For Walzer, the possibility of the Nazi’s invading Britain would be insufferable to the political community, and therefore it would be a complete irresponsibility to adhere to a moral rule if the only way to prevent this disaster was the break such rules. He argues moral absolutism “represents… a refusal to think about what it means for the heavens to fall. And the history of the twentieth century makes this refusal very hard to justify” (Walzer, 2005, p. 37). Walzer therefore takes a consequentialist approach of the morality of terrorism which holds that terrorism, like everything else, should be judged solely by the consequences. And when it's rationally expected consequences are good on balance, it will be morally justified. Walzer is right in his assertion that terrorism can be justified in tragic condition of a supreme emergency. In the case of Britain bombing German cities during WWII, this constituted a genuine supreme emergency and was morally justified on the ground that the alternative (Nazi’s occupying Great Britain) would've been a far more disastrous for many more people. Therefore, terrorism deriving from a supreme emergency situation such as Britain’s during WWII can be justified.

Walzer’s argument for the justification of state terrorism under a supreme emergency has raised much attention and criticism. Many, such as Giroux (2015) believe that terrorism of any kind should be denounced unreservedly with no allowance for exceptions, whether that be for states, revolutionists or religious and ideological militants. Whereas/whilst others, such as Cook and Coady do not believe that Walzer’s supreme emergency should form any art of a moral theory of war or political violence by calming that such permission to kill innocent civilians in extreme situations runs the risk of being applied to indulgently. However, Walzer states clearly throughout that the principles of just war must not be broken until all other options have been exhausted, and with that, the threat of imminence and danger must still be present which would make it difficult to apply this concept indulgently. Furthermore, Cook amongst others criticises Walzer for giving too strong a preference to the ‘political community’ (Cook, 2007, p.141). Igor Primoratz agrees with Cook’s assertion stating that “…whereas genocide, explosion, or enslavement of an entire people might be though moral disaster that may be fended off by any means, its loss of political independence for a political community is, at most, a political disaster” (Primoratz, 2007, p.19). For Primoratz, the decisive aspect for considering a situation a supreme emergency is whether there is a threat of genocide, enslavement or ethnic cleansing, however, the threat to the ‘ongoingness’ of a political community is not severe enough to constitute a supreme emergency where terrorism can be a justified resort. However, regardless of the conditions Walzer and Primoratz disagree with in relation to a supreme emergency situation, they both agree upon the fact that terrorism, in some cases, can be justified.

Both Walzer and Primoratz agree that in a supreme emergency, whilst the act is tragic and wrong to a certain extent, a political leader is justified in attacking innocent civilians. Orend on the other hand, believes that in a supreme emergency, one is “forced to do terrible things to survive” and can therefore be ‘excused’, but never justified. One may insist that the immunity of innocent civilians from attack as being an absolute moral principle which can never be justifiably infringed due to the victims’ human rights such as the rift to life and integrity, however, Schwenkenbecher (2009) demonstrates that actors are not just excused for killing innocents in a supreme emergency situation, but are morally required to do so. According to Schwenkenbecher, if a political actor has a moral obligation to act in a certain way (e.g Churchill being required to protect British citizens during WWII), then one is morally justified in so acting. To take a moral absolutist position in a supreme emergency would be entirely irresponsible, and if the case that targeting innocents prevented a moral disaster, then it would be morally wrong to not take these appropriate steps (Schewnkenbecher, 2009). As Walzer (2015) affirms, “Utilitarian calculation can force us to violate the rules of war”; to take an absolutist position by obeying the moral law in a supreme emergency would be more unjustified than committing an act of terrorism in a supreme emergency itself as the former would have far worse consequences.

A final point for us to consider is the perpetrators of terrorism and who can be justified in committing such acts. On the subject of terrorism, Walzer appears to hold double standard when it comes to state vs non state actors. For non state actors, terrorism is a strategy employed that characterises the deliberate violation of ethical and political norms, and is therefore indefensible and unjust. However, as mentioned previously, he also views (and justifies) the bombing of German cities such as Dresden by the British during WWII as an act of ‘terrorism’. Walzer is therefore inconsistent in his approach to terrorism and Valls (2000) complains he codifies a “pro-state bias” as his supreme emergency argument is only available to states and their representatives. Furthermore, Coady (1985) asserts that from a philosophical point of view this double standard cannot be sustained and argues that consistency requires that we apply the same standards to both kinds of political violence, state and non state. So can non state acts of terrorism be justified in the same way state acts are? Valls claims they can, and argues that on the most plausible account of just war theory, taking into account the ultimate basis of its criteria, political violence undertaken by non state actors can, in principle, satisfy the requirements of a just war. According to Walzer, for a supreme emergency to be justified, you can disregard jus in bello if all other options are exhausted and a disaster for the ‘political community’ is imminent and severe (Walzer, 2015). Political communities, however, are not limited to just nation states. Political communities can be a wide range of groups, including racial, ethnic and religious groups. For example then, under Walzer’s definition of a supreme emergency, during WWII the European Jewish community faced a supreme emergency due to the holocaust. Although the European Jews were not a state, surely a group of Jewish militants would be justified in attacking German civilians if it gave any hope of stopping or minimising the genocide of their people? Even though this involves a horrible wrongdoing, you have a duty to protect yourself and your community, whether you are a state actor or not (Valls, 2000). In the case of the holocaust, therefore, it would be justified under a supreme emergency situation for a non state actor to target non-combatants.

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In conclusion, this essay has assessed whether terrorism can ever be justified. Firstly, this essay sought to define terrorism and argues that terrorism is not exclusive to non state actors as state actors, in many cases, have been the biggest proponents of terrorism. The bulk of this essay then analysed Michael Walzer’s ‘supreme emergency’ concept in regard to whether terrorism can ever be justified. This essay concludes that in a genuine supreme emergency situation, where all other military and diplomatic options have been exhausted and the threat to your political community is imminent and severe, then using terrorist means can be justified. When facing a total destruction to ones values and way of life, it would be irresponsible to adhere to moral absolutism on the principles of just war. If by killing innocents is the lesser of two evils in the long run, then you are morally justified in committing terrorism. Furthermore, a supreme emergency situation should not be privileged to just state actors. The concept should be applied to both state and non state actors, providing their political community is at risk.


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  2. Cook. Martin L. (2007) Michael Walzer's Concept of 'Supreme Emergency', Journal of Military Ethics, 6:2, 138-151, DOI: 10.1080/15027570701381948
  3. Giroux, Henry A. (2015), “Domestic Terrorism, Youth, and the Politics of Disposability,” Knowledge Cultures 3(5): 116–131.
  4. Higgins, R. (1997). The general international law of terrorism. In R. Higgins & M. Flory (Eds.), Terrorism and international law (pp. 13-42). New York: Routledge.
  5. Orend, Brian (2005) ‘Is There a Supreme Emergency Exemption?’, in M. Evans (ed) Just War Theory. A Reappraisal, pp. 134–153. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  6. Primoratz, Igor (2007a) ‘Terrorism’, in E. N. Zalta (ed) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2007 Edition). Online:
  7. Primoratz, Igor (2007b) ‘A Philosopher Looks at Contemporary Terrorism’, Cardozo Law Review 29 (1): 33–51.
  8. Rodin, David (2004) ‘Terrorism without Intention’, Ethics 114 (4): 752–771.
  9. Stevens, Michael. J, (2004) Dore Morânadău, Mihai TURCU, . 'Can Terrorism Be Defined and Justified?'. Revista de Sociologie 2:7-16.
  10. Schwenkenbecher, Anne (2009). 'Terrorism, Supreme Emergency and Killing the Innocent'. Perspectives : review of Central European affairs 1:105-125.
  11. Teichman, Jenny (1989) ‘How to Define Terrorism’, Philosophy 64 (250): 505–517.
  12. Valls, Andrew (2000) ‘Can Terrorism Be Justified?’, in A. Valls (ed) Ethics in International Affairs: Theories and Cases, pp. 65–79. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield
  13. Walzer, Michael (2015) Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books.
  14. Walzer, Michael (2005) Arguing about War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  15. Walzer, Michael (2006) ‘Terrorism and Just War’, Philosophia Vol. 34: 3–12.
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Terrorism And Just War Theory. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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