The Principle of Universality in the Use of Violence

Terrorism Essay: Undoubtedly Useful Writing Guide

The anti-terrorism line the dominant capitalist states push has the same purpose as the anti-communist line pushed by previous bourgeois governments, namely, ideological cover under which imperialism and the police state are expanded and entrenched. The US government has no real commitment to fighting terrorism. If they did, things would look a lot differently than they do today.  The current policy is either designed or at least functions to increase terrorism—as defined by this government.

Indeed, a threat of terrorism is desirable, as more terrorism perpetuates the useful state of fear and the oppression fear justifies. Exposing the lies imperialists use to construct anti-terrorism today serves the same purpose that exposing the lies of anti-communism served. 

However, such practices are not central to the struggle against imperialism and war. What is central to anti-imperialism/anti-war struggles is the moral argument—specifically, the principle of universality. This holds that, if it is not okay when the official enemy of the state does it, then it is not okay when the state does it.  One of the most useful empirical pieces in pushing the universality principle in the present time are making people aware of the illegality of US foreign policy. 

There’s a danger in taking up a line that makes deconstructing anti-terror ideology central to the anti-imperialist/anti-war movement. This is the error of questioning the official story in such a way as to deny the immoral actions of the official enemy or portraying the official enemy as nothing more than the government’s conspiratorial construction. If this line becomes pronounced then the anti-imperialism/anti-war struggle loses credibility.

Solidarity with oppressed peoples is always contingent upon qualified observation of the principle of universality. Violence practiced by oppressed peoples should be criticized in terms of how these populations have been forced into responding to oppression by their oppressors.  

It is recognized that violence is sometimes necessary to repel invaders and drive occupiers off one’s land. For example, the Lebanese people have the right to organize into armed groups to force Israel off their land and to remain prepared to prevent Israeli invasion. Moreover, defensive strikes against the instruments of aggressive war may be necessary in order to prevent further invasions and to weaken occupations. However, the harming of civilians should be avoided, and violence must be rooted in defense, resistance, and independence, not motivated by conquest. 

It is recognized that violence is sometimes necessary to throw off the yolk of an oppressive system. A people should of course exhaust the means of peaceful change, but resort to violence should nevertheless remain the basic collective human right of all oppressed people. In situations of caste and class struggle, violence is sometimes the only means of achieving the ends of social justice. As with national and territorial struggle, the harming of civilians should be avoided, and violence must be rooted in liberation, not motivated by domination.  

In both cases, movements that seek to extend political and economic systems must be judged on the basis of their emancipatory character. Any movement that seeks to impose an ethnic and religious ideology and practice is inherently suspect, but ultimately only always wrong in the religious case.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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