TED HONDERICH INTERVIEWED for the book Weapons of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism, edited by Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes, Pluto Press 2012. 

The book also contains interviews of Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Marjorie Cohn, Edward Herman, Judith Butler, Richard Jackson, Patrick Bond, Isael Hossein-zadeh, Gilbert Achcar, Norman Finkelstein, Greg Grandin and Daniele Ganser. Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes are the founding editors of the online political journal State of Nature (www.stateofnature.org)

Q: You make a clear distinction between legality and what is right, and also insist that terrorism is violence that is ‘not according to international law.’[i]  Could you clarify why it is necessary for you to define terrorism in part by its illegality if that does not have direct bearing on its morality?

A: Terrorism has been defined by me as (1) destructive violence or force usually including killing, (2) smaller in scale than war, (3) with a political and social aim such as the aim of an indigenous people with respect to a homeland, (4) not according to national or international law, and (5) prima facie wrong because it is destructive violence, but not necessarily wrong all things considered. The definition certainly includes state-terrorism, considerable amounts of it by the United States in Latin America over decades, and arguably the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Are you implying in your question that it is odd or maybe mistaken and in any case not necessary to include in my definition of terrorism its not being according to law -- because I take the illegality not to entail that terrorism is wrong? Well, there are lots of questions about definitions and their kinds -- those aiming to capture primary ordinary usage, and those that are adequate initial clarifications or preoccupied or prescriptive or persuasive or loaded or lying definitions.

But I hadn't thought until now that anybody's definition of anything about which a moral question arises should have in it only what they or anybody else takes to have a direct bearing on its morality. Maybe that is arguable, but I don't quickly see how. Still, I do see that all the elements in my definition of terrorism can be thought to have such a bearing.

I defined terrorism as its being against national or international law in order to distinguish it from other uses of violence -- somehow official ones by somehow authorized armies or security forces or police. I defined it that way partly in to be in decent accord with one primary ordinary usage, part of one such usage. Also, of course, I didn't want to beg the question at issue by defining terrorism as wrong or implying that, but I did want to register something of the fact that terrorism is ordinarily thought of not as action carried out by a somehow accepted government or regime -- a regime, by the way, being an imposed form of governing in the concealed interest of a minority, smaller or larger, maybe as large as an economic and social class.

You say I don't take the absence of legality to have a direct bearing on terrorism's morality -- I take it you mean on the question of right or wrong. Well, I do indeed think and declare that the illegality of terrorism cannot in and by itself make it wrong. That seems to me obvious. There is terrorism now revered in many national histories, maybe as glorious revolutions. There was terrorism in the understandable and defensible founding of the state of Israel within its original borders in 1948, Zionism as I understand that term that is in several other ways used or abused or left vague.

There has also been terrorist war, the latter being the same as terrorism in my definition except larger in scale. Its illegality doesn't make it wrong either. But of course it can be wrong. The American and British invasion and occupation of Iraq is of course a recent case of terrorist war, grisly in its hypocrisy and in the effects of its hypocrisy.

The subject of definitions in serious discussion and to a lesser extent in ordinary propaganda is itself a problem, and you make me want to think more about my definition of terrorism. But let me end here by a bit of self-defence with respect to my definition. It is, I submit, superior to much else.

In distinguishing terrorism from somehow standard war and the like, it is better than the definition in The New Oxford Dictionary of English, which says terrorism is just the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. In effect, given the definition of violence as physical force, that makes any effective nation state terrorist. Denmark is made terrorist, not to mention Somerset. I have lately been informed that Oxford has caught up with reality in this regard if not in all others -- Oxford Dictionaries online defines terrorism as 'the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims'. Glad to see it.

Also, my definition and the new Oxford one stand above the stupidity and the moral stupidity that terrorism and presumably state-terrorism is or includes the intentional killing of the innocent. The principal aim of that definition of terrorism is to distinguish it from somehow official war and the like by a government, by implication to distinguish terrorism from respectable war. But of course by any defensible idea of what it is to act intentionally, necessarily an idea of acting with foreseeable consequences, in fact the idea of any decent legal system, almost all war includes the intentional killing of innocents, more than terrorism, usually overwhelmingly more.

Q: Does the way international law is set up by you not cause problems?  For example, you describe what you call Israel’s ‘Neo-Zionism’ as ‘terrorism by a national state’ [ii] but many UN resolutions brought against Israel have not been passed, despite overwhelming international support, due to the US veto (fourteen-to-one votes in the Security Council).  The point is therefore, whatever people may think of it, this Israeli violence against Palestinians is not technically illegal.  Does your definition of ‘not according to international law’ account for this?

A: This good question again takes me aback. How much should it do that? Maybe not much. One thing it makes clearer is that what is against international law is unclear and up for dispute -- but we knew that. The murderous war criminals Bush and Blair, as they are in my view, invented international law with respect to the aggression against Iraq. They got corrupt and toadying lawyers, notably one Goldsmith, Attorney General of England, to declare what they wanted. But surely the one and only test of international law cannot be Security Council decisions?

I take it that there are other grounds, precedents and sources of judgement. There is the UN Declaration of Human Rights. There are many resolutions of the UN General Assembly. There are the inclusions of the defensive principle of the just war in agreements of law. 

I take it those grounds must include something that amounts to a people's right of self-defence -- say the self-defence of the Palestinians against neo-Zionist rapine, the taking from the indigenous people of Palestine at least their autonomy in the last one fifth of their homeland.

But might it be the case that I have to retreat in a new definition to an admittedly vaguer idea? That terrorism is violence that is against a certain international consensus of judgement, against an international fact of accreditation, beyond official tolerance? That, of course, could not and would not be an idea to the effect that states in their activities cannot engage in terrorism.

Such a new definition, of course, would face the problem of further specification. But, to come back to my main point, certainly there is sense and a need to distinguish terrorism from the actions of somehow established governments or regimes.

Q: Can it ever be right, given the existence of international law, for a nation such as the US to unilaterally use military intervention? What about covert support for terrorism abroad, whether state or non-state? Or aggression that is, violence against a state other than in direct self-defence? Are such actions wrong because they are unilateral, covert or aggressive?

A: My way of thinking about terrorism, war and so on is by way of the principle of right and wrong that I call the Principle of Humanity and of course also by way of what has to be added in any use of it, difficult or nearly impossibly difficult premises of fact, most saliently premises to the effect that particular action is a rational means to the end of the principle. This way of proceeding must leave open the possibility or at least the conceivability of rightful unilateral military intervention by a nation -- or of course any other entity or organization, say a resistance or liberation movement. The same way of thinking applies to support for terrorism abroad, aggression, and violence against a state other than in direct self-defence.

Q: I am interested in your idea that, in regards to, say, military intervention, that ‘the right thing can be done with vicious intentions’[iii], and also that ‘the ends and the means justify the means.’ [iv] Using such ideas, one can perhaps morally justify a regime-change being forced on a country from outside, even if the motives behind that are not altruistic, that is, the aggressor has something to gain itself (the installation of a government more favourable to its political or economic aims).  But what counts as the ‘ends’ in such a situation?  Arguments attempting to justify interventions tend to accept the regime-change as the end, but should it not be considered as means?  Does this affect the possible justification?

A: It seems obvious to me that the right thing can be done out of bad motives. It seems obvious because what philosophers call consequentialism is true -- actions, policies, institutions, societies, are made right or wrong by their probable consequences, nothing else. The alternative to consequentialism, that intentions make actions right, or that some things are right on account of the agent's integrity, or on account of personal relations, or or virtues detached from consequences, or Kant's pure good will, or whatever -- those suspect ideas are rightly in decline. Can you really dispute consequentialism? Even if you think, rightly, that intentions are among the guides to who needs punishment or the like, and of course guides to probable consequences?

Surely, to take even an extreme case, a child might rightly be saved from slavery and torture by someone moved only by sexual desires and intentions -- rightly saved as a result of being far less badly off, in a life far less bad? As I say, that is not to say that the agent's desires etc are irrelevant to one's judgement of him, maybe action against him, and relevant to comparing the possible alternative consequences. I happen to think myself that all our justifications of action are consequentialist, some of them pretending to be otherwise. It is absurd to say, as non-consequentialists do, that a mother cares for a child only or even essentially because it is her child, because of that relationship that is not a consequence of her action, meaning thereby that her care is not motivated and defended by its consequences.

I note in passing that much  regime-change is importantly change in the direction of what is too mildy called our hierarchic democracy -- including its monstrous denials of equality and hence including for a start, far more importantly, violations of various kinds of freedom. A question has to arise, whatever its answer may be, of whether a regime-change to hierarchic democracy may in fact serve the end of the Principle of Humanity less than certain alternatives to it. There are more freedoms than political ones. I make bold to say that it is not yet settled that the overthrow and murder of Colonel Gaddafi by means of our air war will turn out best for Libyans.

This isn't idle wondering about hierarchic democracy and alternatives. For a start, the Cuban regime has done better for Cubans than the American regime has done for Americans.

Q: When a country such as the US has a history of (directly or indirectly) enforcing regime-changes, or propping up dictatorships, does it make sense to try and justify each case in isolation, that is, whether Bosnia, or Iraq, or Libya were ‘right’?  Is it not more important to examine the continuity of motivating interests – the ideology – behind such acts, and their aggregate results?  So if US interests coincide with humanitarian goals or the opinion of the international community and save lives in one case, that is not to their credit if the policy destroys more lives overall.

A: You may anticipate that I certainly agree with the tendency of this question. Anybody must agree who has actually read the books of Noam Chomsky, the greatest judge in history not only of the nature of human language but also of the American regime's relations to the rest of the world. But I hope we agree that the matter is not about motivation, intention or the concealment of it or self-deception in and so on. Of course there must be more than suspicion of every single American so-called humanitarian intervention, and now every British one -- certainly every British one since the period of Blair and the New Labour Party, whatever is said of our earlier engagements in imperialism etc.

Q: You explore the possibility that terrorism can be justified, using such criteria as the impossibility of negotiation, realistic chance of success, and killing civilians only because no other means are available. And you say that, ‘Some [...] terrorism, if very likely none of it by national states, can be regarded as directed to the end of getting people out of wretchedness and other distress’. [v] Are such justifications the preserve of the weak against the strong? Could the US not also apply these criteria to justify its War on Terror – claims that negotiation appeared pointless, killing civilians was unavoidable, the intended ends were to stop suffering, and it was reasonable to anticipate success?

A: I can give a decent answer to the question about the preserve of the weak only by saying something of that principle of right and wrong according to me, the Principle of Humanity. In my opinion it's the principle of the Left in politics when the Left is true to itself. In brief it is that we must get and keep people out of lives of deprivation and suffering -- out of what you can call bad lives.

Those are lives denied or deprived of the great human goods, frustrated in the fundamental desires of our human nature. These six great goods or desires, in my judgement, are for a decent length of conscious life, bodily well-being, specified kinds of freedom and power, respect and self-respect, the goods of relationship, and such goods of culture as literacy and religion.

The Principle of Humanity, fully stated, is as follows. The right thing -- action, practice, institution, government, society, possible world -- is the one that according to the best judgement and information at the time is the rational one in the sense of being effective and not self-defeating with respect to one end -- the end of getting and  keeping people out of bad lives. Certainly a consequentialism.

No metaphor there, no ambiguity, no oratory, no help with evasion, no cant about the American Way of Life, no tripe of the low English prime minister Cameron about The Big Society, nothing about undefined 'freedom', no inane pretences of economic necessity and impossibility, no ignorant and dim piety about desert, no stuff from a wretched political party's advertising agency. Nothing vacuous or absurd about socialism or capitalism. No pretence of avoiding the question of right and wrong, say by talking of the acceptable and the unacceptable. No leading of the innocent into thinking they know the answer to the question of right and wrong without thinking about it. No avoidance of the true proposition that the aim of selling is never truth. Maybe as important as anything else, no invitation to the self-deception in which conservative governments live and breathe.

As I say there is nothing in the principle about desert, that falsehood of such use or rather misuse by the money-grubbers. It is not a principle of equality either. Its end, whatever side effects there would be of achieving its end, is not the end of making people equal, getting them into a relationship, making them the same. Its end is getting people out of misery, whatever role can be played in that by practices and institutions of equality, and, as I say, whatever side-effects of equality go with achieving its end. It is, I suppose, a necessary articulation of the Golden Rule, and of the best of private religion, and of other great instructions in the highest human culture, those declarations of sympathy, empathy and generosity. 

You do indeed know more of a thing, know more of a principle of right and wrong, by knowing what it is not. What is the tradition of conservatism, originally the tradition of a political party in England, now of both the Republican and the Democratic Party in the United States?

Both American and British conservatives used to say they were against change but for reform, which they never distinguished. Even their main and almost only thinker Edmund Burke didn't do it. Anyway they're patently not against change when it suits them, as Reaganism and Thatcherism and Britain's New Labour Party demonstrated. Or against revolution, obviously. The very short story of conservatism is not that it is selfish but that it has no principle of right and wrong at all to defend the self-interest it shares with the rest of us. Who can see this and feel able to learn from what conservatism says of terrorism or state-terrorism?

And what is liberalism in both England and America? What is this politics that is making possible the conservative and liberal coalition government in Britain as we speak? What is this politics that may actually be allowing the party of conservatism to be more vicious than it would be without the fig leaf provided by their coalition partner?

Liberalism is good intentions without resolution, maybe not so much intentions as just an uneasy conscience. It lacks the resolution of a determinate principle. It is true to its principal founder, John Stuart Mill. His politics are summed up by the fact that he most famously declared in On Liberty that there is to be no state-intervention in the life of an individual against his will unless he harms another individual not an agreeing partner -- and then failed to say what harm is, even to try. A thing I seem to have learned lately from the coalition government and its further violation of the poor and the weak is that liberalism has had too much respect from the likes of me in having been given very little of it.

Partly because the coalition government in question, like conservatism in America and elsewhere, is relevant to matters of terrorism and state-terrorism, let me say a word more of comparison. The Principle of Humanity has in it none of the lying by culpable self-deception on particular issues that is part of the tradition of liberalism. I have in mind in particular a muddied lie (The Guardian, 17 March, 2012) by the Baroness Shirley Williams, one of the gang of four who tragically weakened the Left in Britain by leaving the Labour Party. The lie, in discussion with the exemplary perceiver of reality Polly Toynbee, was that the greatest achievement of civilization in British history, the National Health Service, is well enough preserved by opening up to 49% of it to profitization.

But to come round at last to your question, that was whether the Principle of Humanity is the preserve of the weak against the strong, and whether this makes it useable against me and others like me on the Left. In effect, since bad lives are in general those of the weak as against the strong, the principle will indeed make its justifications the preserve of the weak against the strong. So, you ask, can American imperialism make use of the principle?

It is unlikely, to say the very least, that the principle could justify US actions as we know them -- the actions of what is dignified by being called hierarchic democracy in and outside of the United States. That democracy is in fact not only a regime but also truly described as the organization of the strong in America against the weak. There seems to me no chance that the Principle of Humanity and well-argued minor premises, factual premises, could give a general justification of, say, America's War on Terror. It is all-important to me that the principle is not plastic rhetoric, not plastic in the contemporary sense of the word and also the original one -- easily shaped to whatever end.

But I admit that your question is one that brings into focus the difficulty of arguing not for for the the rightness of the Principle of Humanity itself, but for the necessary further factual premises in any case. Most relevant in the present discussion, there is the factual question of whether terrorism or terrorist war or other action is in fact rational with respect to the end of the principle. The factual questions are much harder than the principal moral question, the general question of right and wrong.

There is another hard question, smaller, which this discussion between us brings to mind. It is the question which someone will have called a choice of rhetoric, a choice of a mode of address. The Principle of Humanity calls for a rational decision in this matter as well. How in these darkening days should we supporters of the principle talk, talk in different places? Parliamentary language? Academic restraint? Tolerance in speech of all opinions? Mutual respect? According anonymity to the adversaries of the principle, adversaries by commission or omission? Or the expression not only of condescension but also contempt?

I find the answer difficult, even for this very interview. Certainly our conventions of speech and discussion are of wonderfully more use to some of us than others. They keep truth and moral truth quiet if heard at all. One quick thought in this neighbourhood is that there must be contexts in which propositions about what is in fact stupidity and moral stupidity are to be preferred to quiet allusions to class-government, self-deception, and hierarchic democracy.

Q: In trying to justify any terrorism – state-terrorism, non-state-terrorism, or what you call ‘terrorist war’ – it has to be taken into account that the death of ‘innocents’ will be a consequence, whether directly targeted or not. The question is how to judge (and who has the right to judge) at what point such deaths, as part of the means, become too great for the desired end. However, does it not simply become relative according to one’s perception of the end, which, as Igor Primoratz argues, being ‘the ultimate goal’ for the potential terrorist, by definition ‘overrides all other values that might conflict with it, all considerations that might stand in the way of its realisation’? [vi]

A: Maybe there is something about the question that I don't get. Maybe I misunderstand it. I take it that the question presupposes that a moral position, mine in particular, may involve a single principle of right and wrong that overrides all other considerations. Indeed a moral position, certainly mine, may do that. So does such a principle of anyone else. Moreover, it is my confident conviction that it is exactly such a principle, an overriding principle of the kind attempted by Plato, mediaeval Christians, Kant, Mill and so on, indeed attempted by all reflective moralists, that is an absolute requirement both of morality and of rational reflection. There is no decision procedure worth the name without such a principle.

It is exactly the absence of a principle, and of course also a principle of such literalness and determinateness as to prevent or at any rate resist self-deception and worse, that is the failure of most thinking about right and wrong. It is the absence of such a principle, most importantly in conservatism and liberalism, that has contributed so plainly to the viciousness of American foreign policy -- and, to take another salient example, the barbarism of neo-Zionism in its ongoing rape of the Palestinians. It is the absence of a principle that has contributed so much to failing to see that the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism against neo-Zionism within all of historic Palestine. It is the absence of such a principle that helps so much to make for an absence of discrimination with respect to terrorism and in particular state-terrorism.

Nothing in all that excludes secndary considerations that turn up elsewhere in good thinking, including that of Igor Primoratz. You will remember that I do not take such a principle to make things easy. It doesn't. Above all the facts are harder to judge.

Q: But, to return to the US, even if some utilise wars and terror for pure cynical economic expansion, for others is there not genuine belief in the righteousness of what they are doing – a sense, no matter how delusional, that they are bringing the world freedom and opportunity, based on a moral principle?

A: Again I agree. So what? There is no doubt that our wretched coalition government here in Britain, in which I cannot resist saying again that the main sham of the tradition of liberalism is exposed -- our coalition government is persuaded of its own rectitude, rationality, etc. Even of its humanity. Even its humanity in terms of the clear-headed Principle of Humanity. I remember being on television once with a dim minister-to-be who pretended he would embrace it when put in charge of the universities -- David Willetts. When such things are said, they are half listened to. This is a further proof of the lowering of the level of intelligence in public debate first achieved by Thatcher.

It seems to me possible that if you take into account relative good and bad, which is certainly yet more important than absolute good and bad -- remember freedoms for a start -- there is about as much argument now, in so far as the existing state of a society is concerned and nothing else, for violent revolution against hierarchic democracy -- as much argument in this respect as there was for revolution in the circumstances of, say, the English Revolution of the 17th Century such as it was, and the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution. That is, there is as much argument in terms of inhumanity in the existing state of a society -- the denial of the great goods and great human desires, the making of misery.

Of course, as you have heard,  that cannot be the end of the story. There can be no justified violent action that is not rational -- not rational in terms of means and ends, certainly the costs of means in terms of humanity. To a judgement of the state of a society you must add what is harder, a judgement of whether an attempt at revolution will work. It does not matter that governmental and class resistance will of course be what will make the revolution wrong, that this resistance will be more responsible for the wrong than the revolutionary action of the revolutionaries. What matters is that the governmental and class defence with its great costs is likely to be successful.

Q: In the Arab Spring, it seems that the demand for democracy encapsulated all needs, including basics such as food and jobs, which initially triggered the strikes and protests. Effectively then, democracy anticipates the opportunity to determine society as a whole. Your Principle of Humanity is about taking decisions to help realise the goods of life as widely as possible. Do you think democracy has the power of a single good that contains within it the possibility of realising all other goods, and is therefore a worthy overriding cause in itself?

A: I don't know the ideologies, loyalties, ambitions and self-interests of the protestors and fighters of the Arab Spring. I don't think you do either. We are not told by even the decent part of our press. And frankly, I am tired of thinking of adding excuses of any hierarchic democracy, American and British and any other, to the condemnation of it that is a consequence of the Principle of Humanity. I am more than tired of contemplating the value of what is simply called 'democracy' without consideration of what thing is being contemplated, let alone the trivial and dismal incantation of 'freedom'.

Hierarchic democracy in America, Britain and elsewhere, as I should have said before, and am free and obliged to judge in the absence of work by those economists and others who should have carried it out, is such that the top economic decile as against the bottom has such wealth and income as to issue in its having more than a thousand times the political influence and power of the bottom decile. With this inequality, of course, goes exactly such a disparity in all freedoms and the other great goods.

It is ludicrous to suppose that the American and English regimes of hierarchic democracy, given their history, and especially the present response in England to the global economic situation and the national economic situation, will serve the end you mention of the Principle of Humanity. Even only a cursory reading of the decent English newspapers, say The Guardian and The Independent, makes the supposition ludicrous.

Those newspapers by their omissions make something else clear. It is that it can be guessed, despite our ignorance, that it is probable that the aims of  the Arab revolutions must be judged to have been, in sum or in the main, hierarchic democracy. That reduces my enthusiasm for the Arab Spring. I admit, however, although without benefit of knowing anything of Marx, that what I think he properly called bourgeois revolutions may have in them a little more hope with respect to humanity than most of the regimes they are replacing.

The general question you raise is maybe the largest and most terrible question about governments and kinds of democracy. I don't know a general answer.

Q: You mention the concept of ‘cowardly war’, where soldiers are distanced as much as possible from danger with the result that greater civilian casualties are inevitable. Is it reasonable to expect the leaders, especially of a democracy, in which they represent only their own people by mandate, to not put the lives of their own people first in war?

A: I remember the philosopher Richard Wollheim, no revolutionary he, saying to me in the early 1960's that he was surprised that patriotism was still considered a virtue -- or anyway so considered among the members of enlightened people. The philosopher and still Marxist Jerry Cohen said the same. No doubt there is some reflection about division of labour in life -- parents having a special obligation with respect to their child and so on, leaders of a nation having a paternal obligation. But it really cannot be the case that leaders in a hierarchic democracy, on the premise or rather the dream that they represent all the people, should put some of humanity first in the way they do.

There are secondary questions about killing from a great height, by drone, frying to death the intended victims and the rest We shouldn't forget, though, that it turns stomachs in a particular way. That it does so is not irrelevant to further reflection. Horror counts. If the Principle of Humanity necessarily is general, it is unique in being in direct touch with such realities.

Q: Regarding the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, one point you make is that ‘Human nature exists’ and ‘it puts limits on our reactions to such horrors as 9/11. What we have little choice but to do, having been attacked, is not all that would be right if we were not so human.’[vii]  However, while of course mass public anger is expected, is it not reasonable to expect at least our leaders to not stoke the fires, to avoid a cycle of vengeance? And, in the case of Afghanistan, given the rational negotiation (which arguably could have succeeded [viii] and planning of the invasion that preceded it, is the idea of instinctive reaction even appropriate?

A: I say thanks for the question. I hereby change my mind about that excusing of the United States in its war against Afghanistan, and so I accept your objection. It must remain true that 'ought' implies 'can', that no person or nation can be blamed for doing what is the only possibility open -- where that is partly a matter of the limits of human nature. I now take it, in brief, that two facts about the United States, facts that do not distinguish it from other hierarchic democracies, are better put in place of my excuse.

One is of course the mass-produced stupidity and the moral stupidity of the United States, the first of those being supportive and creative of the second, a stupidity and moral stupidity owed fundamentally to the inequalities and therefore denials of freedom touched on earlier. The second is the culpability with respect to those stupidities of deciles towards the top of the American population.

Q: Although we can question the quality of US democracy (unequal social and political influence, narrow political spectrum, imbalanced voting system, lack of engagement), it is still a fact that, simply because it is democracy, people collectively select their political representatives. Nobody, for example, has to endorse major, corporate funded parties that are likely to support military interventions. Given that, to what extent are people, in even what you call a ‘hierarchic democracy’, responsible for their government’s state-terrorism, or even terrorist attacks against themselves?

A: To be relevant, there is room for reflection on the proposition that 'nobody...has to endorse major, corporate funded parties that are likely to support military interventions'. If there is no party of intelligence and moral intelligence with the slightest chance of winning the election, I take it there is some argument for the conclusion that people have to endorse another party. The least bad. That may be better than not voting, I take it.

Q: What is now to be done by those who are of the Left, are of the Principle of Humanity?

A: The answer is civil disobedience, any civil disobedience in accord with the Principle of Humanity, any such civil disobedience in the hope of being followed by mass civil disobedience. In particular any such civil disobedience with respect to American and now British state-terrorism.

It is inhumanity that the Occupation movement, most notably in Wall Street and outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London, has had the great honour to resist. Do you wonder if the present governments of the United States and Britain, as against the Occupiers, will maintain a respectability in future, have a decent place in history, even in the minds of ordinary readers of history? They will not. The Occupiers will have such a place, as certainly as one is had now by those who have resisted inhumanity thoughout history. The Occupiers are not kiddies. They have a rank above money-grubbers, the political class, right-wing historians, the lesser press, all those kiddies in thinking and feeling about what is right.

Such civil disobedience is morally necessary. So are further gestures of it. Speaking of England, maybe one by another English army colonel today, true to Colonel Rainborough of Civil War in the 17th Century? Rainborough said, you may remember, the greatest thing in the political history of England,  "For really I think the poorest he hath a life to live, as the greatest he...." Maybe a tank now in Parliament Square to support the big strike or the march? No shells in the colonel's tank. After the television cameras arrive, back to barracks in Pimlico to accept the penalty for his civil and military disobedience. 

Q: You say that omissions, such as not sufficiently protesting, are to be considered in a judgement of responsibility, even that ‘in connection with the wrongs of September 11, our omissions were a necessary context for the particular intentions on the part of the killers’ [ix]. Of course, our intention is key here, and knowledge is related to intention.  Is a lack of knowledge and accessibility of knowledge in, say, the US an excuse for omission?  What about feelings of the disempowered, the inability to affect anything? Where do our obligations to protesting perceived wrongs, and then responsibilities for violence perpetrated by our states, begin and end in a hierarchic democracy?

A: Yes, it must be that the omissions in question are on the part of those who have some level of knowledge and judgement. To take one easy example, the omissions are paradigmatically culpable on the part of those in the top economic deciles in our societies. Their responsibility for the ignorance of a large part of the population, by way of the media, is out of all proportion to that of those on the bottom. We are not all wretched Murdochs and New Labour spin-doctors.

At the moment we are having this conversation it is hard to see that President Obama, that once great hope, so welcomed by the likes of me, is not among the culpable. It depends on some of those hard premises, one about getting a second term of office.


Ted Honderich's relevant books: After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2003); On Political Means & Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press, 2003); Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political PhilosophyConservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? (Pluto Press, 2005); Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Revisited (Pluto Press, 2006); Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Continuum, 2006), in America titled Right and Wrong, and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Seven Stories Press). Papers, interviews etc at http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/ (Pluto Press, 2003);

[i] Honderich, Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (London: Pluto Press, 2003), p. 155.

 [ii] Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 102.

[iii] Jon Bailes and Cihan Aksan, ‘Humanity and Terror: An Interview with Ted Honderich’, State of Nature, Autumn, 2007.

[iv] Honderich, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 80.

[v] Honderich, Terrorism for Humanity, p. 172.

[vi] Igor Primoratz, ‘The Morality of Terrorism’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1997, p. 223.

[vii] Honderich, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War, p. 141.

[viii] ‘U.S. rejects Taliban offer to try bin Laden’, CNN.com, Oct 7, 2001.


[ix] Honderich, After the Terror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p. 125.