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  • Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation by Igor Primoratz
  • Ian M. Sullivan
Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation. By Igor Primoratz. Malden, MA: Polity, 2013. Pp. 195. isbn 978-0-745-65144-6.

Igor Primoratz’ Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation fills a gap in the literature on terrorism and as such will be beneficial to anyone hoping to address this phenomenon on political, ethical, or theoretical grounds. He notes at the outset that while the topic of terrorism has been a defining force in many global conversations since September 11, 2001, there has been little consensus as to who qualifies as a terrorist and what constitutes terrorism. With such foundational issues left unaddressed or at best opaque, there has been a great restriction on the ability of communities from the local to the global levels to address the problem of terrorism.

Primoratz sets out to accomplish two tasks in this investigation. The first is to define “terrorism.” In chapter 1 he analyzes common and academic definitions of the term and argues for four defining traits of terrorism: “(i) violence, (ii) innocence of its direct victims, (iii) intimidation, and (iv) coercion” (p. 4). He argues that this definition both reflects the use of the term in historical, social scientific, and everyday discourses and avoids an over-extension of the term that would deprive it of normative force. Drawing on this analysis in chapter 2, Primoratz elaborates on the issue of state terrorism so as to mitigate against the common misconception that terrorism is something possible only for non-state agents.

His second task is to assess the moral status of terrorism according to this definition. He takes this up in chapters 3 through 7. Chapter 3 examines arguments for the justification of terrorism that challenge the innocence of the direct victims. These arguments claim that common citizens, as participants in the political process or at least as responsible bystanders, are as guilty as the state for the crimes or injustices against which the terrorist is fighting. Chapter 4 engages consequentialist arguments in support of terrorism, those arguments claiming that the outcome of a terrorist act or campaign against innocents may indeed outweigh the costs to civilians. Chapter 5 takes on the deontological position that considerations of rights and justice can sometimes override the intrinsic wrongfulness of terrorism. Upon concluding that all three of these general justifications fail, Primoratz in chapter 6 addresses the claim that terrorism is absolutely wrong. In the course of this chapter, he argues that the only permissible use of terrorism is the highly restrictive case of moral disaster, where there exists the threat of “the extermination or ethnic cleansing of an entire people” (p. 108). Primoratz concludes his theoretical work in chapter 7, arguing that terrorism is a distinctive moral wrong in that “it is [End Page 369] deliberate violence against innocent people … perpetrated for the sake of intimidation and coercion” (p. 125).

Chapters 8 and 9 are case studies that use historical events to test the theoretical work of chapters 1 through 7. Chapter 8 examines Allied bombing raids of German cities during World War II, and chapter 9 examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Primoratz’ work addresses a glaring omission in moral and political philosophy and provides the theoretical tools with which we can address the pressing issue of terrorism, both state and non-state, in our world today. [End Page 370]

Ian M. Sullivan
University of Hawai’i