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Is Terrorism OK If Israel Does It?

Ever since it was reported that Israel was sponsoring terrorist attacks against Iranians, we've seen a rather curious turn of affairs: supporters of Israel have come to the defense of terrorism.

Daniel Larison picks up the thread, arguing that the moral approbrium due terrorism should hold no matter what:

Tobin makes the charge that the other critics and I are indulging in such moral relativism for the purpose of â??delegitimizingâ? Israel, but it is Tobin who wants one standard for judging Israeli behavior and a very different one for judging Iranian behavior. What all of us are saying is that there is a moral and legal equivalence between different acts of terrorism, and that the victims of terrorist attacks are equally human. The lives of Iranian civilians have just as much value as the lives of Israeli civilians. The former donâ??t become more expendable because their government is authoritarian, abusive, and supports Hamas. If it is wrong and illegal for one group or state to commit acts of terrorism, it must be wrong and illegal in all cases. The reasons for the acts shouldnâ??t matter, and neither should the justifications. Either we reject the amoral logic that the ends justify the means, or we endorse it.

Jonathin Tobin followed up saying:

Above all, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison have a problem with is the entire idea of drawing a moral distinction between Iran and Israel. That is why their entire approach to the question of the legality of Israelâ??s attacks is morally bankrupt. Underneath their preening about the use of terrorists, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison are aiming at is the delegitimization of the right of Israel â?? or any democratic state threatened by Islamist terrorists and their state sponsors â?? to defend itself.

Michael Rubin also weighed in:

Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dismiss those who argue that Israel forfeited its moral standing by allegedly assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Rather, the fact that some argue Israel â??started itâ? shows moral blindness and ignorance of context.

The "context" in question appears to be the fact of who is committing the terrorism. When Iran does it, according to Rubin, it's bad. When Israel does it, it's necessary.

Ultimately, the question seems to boil down to whether a state is justified in committing terrorism if it believes the stakes are high enough. By sanctioning Israel's use of terrorism, Israel's supporters are decrying a "moral equivalency" between Israel and her enemies while simultaneously endorsing moral relativism: they imply that any moral judgments about terrorism must begin with an assessment of the state or group employing it.

Personally, I tend to agree with Larison that this is indeed "amoral logic" but I don't necessarily think that Tobin and Rubin are wrong, at least as far as the general principle goes. I don't agree with the Tobin/Rubin argument that the stakes in this specific case are "existential," but I do believe that if the stakes were existential then it's difficult to rule out any tactic, however awful. Indeed, the very bedrock of a "realist" foreign policy seems to hinge on the notion that states must prioritize the lives of their own citizens above the lives of others. That's ugly, no doubt, and I think there's an argument to be made that the U.S. should often behave as if this were not the case (and build a normative atmosphere that rejects, when possible, amoralism). But at the end of the day, there's a limit to how far that project can go.

Update: Rubin takes issue with my characterization of his post:

But that was not the point of the post Sclobete [sic] selectively cites, nor is it even a fair reading of it. Rather, I list a litany of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish terrorism sponsored by Iran during the past two decades and exclaim that pundits who are jumping on the terrorism bandwagon now show their selectivity by having ignored for so long Iranian sponsorship of terrorism against Israel, Israelis, and Jews.

As for assassination, a tactic used to prevent a wider conflict or an existential challenge, I see nothing wrong with it nor, for that matter, does the Obama administration. Assassination does not violate international law; it is not terrorism.

The broader problem, however, is that there is simply no universally accepted definition of terrorism. As I noted in this paper on asymmetric threat concept, as of 1988 there were more than 100 definitions of terrorism in use in Western countries, and that number has only proliferated in the past quarter century.

I can state unequivocally that Rubin is wrong about one thing: the spelling of my last name. Beyond that, I don't know if this is as exculpatory as Rubin thinks - saying another side "started it" or that it's all too rhetorically vague to pass judgment on doesn't suddenly absolve the behavior in question.

I'm not a legal expert on these matters, but I believe the position of the U.S. government since President Ford is that assassination is illegal. When then-U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was asked his position on Israel's policy of assassinations, he said:

â??The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.â?

Times change and obviously the U.S. government's attitude toward assassinating people has undergone considerable liberalization following 9/11. As I said, I think Rubin and I are actually in agreement that, if push comes to shove, a state must do what it must to defend itself. I do not believe that Iran is building a nuclear weapon to use against anyone, therefore I'm all that receptive to claims that Iranian scientists are willfully crafting a weapon of genocide to use against Israel (or the U.S.) . However, if you earnestly believe that they are, then such tactics have a stronger justification.