is unusual to find philosophers getting into the debate
on current events; most of them are safely ensconced
in their ivory towers pondering questions of higher
importance. It is therefore gratifying to find some
philosophers in the trenches tackling questions pertinent
to all of us -- trying to understand current events
and to untangle the meaning of propaganda-frayed language.
Paul de Rooij recently had the opportunity to ask
Prof. Ted Honderich some questions pertaining his
latest book and the furor surrounding it.
Ted Honderich: he is a distinguished British philosopher,
has been Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind
and Logic at University College London, and also taught
at Yale and CUNY. He is the author of the most-translated
living philosopher's book on determinism and freedom,
"How Free Are You?" He is the proponent
of an alternative view of the nature of perceptual
consciousness, and the editor of the most-used one-volume
reference work of its kind, "The Oxford Companion
to Philosophy". His new book "After the
Terror" addresses questions raised by September
11. The British branch of Oxfam International recently
declined to accept a donation of £5,000 in royalties
from the book after a Canadian newspaper raised the
issue of a statement made in the book as to the rights
of the Palestinians.
Paul de Rooij-(1): Isn't the issue of the justification
of political violence old hat? The UN recognizes the
right for an oppressed people to resist. There is
an enormous body of work in this area. So, why was
it necessary to traverse this ground again? Why did
you write "After the Terror"?
Honderich: I know the UN has recognized the right
of peoples to self-determination and to freedom from
foreign occupation, and indeed recognized the legitimacy
of struggles by national liberation movements. But
I have been under the impression that the UN also
condemns terrorism. Certainly, its Secretary-General
has done so, no doubt on the basis of UN resolutions
or the like. So surely the fact of the matter is that
the UN doesn't recognize the right of a people to
engage in what is now the most common form of resistance
that the Palestinians have a moral right to their
terrorism, which I do, can hardly be old hat given
the reaction to the claim. If some people readily
accept it, some of them out of anti-Semitism, many
are shocked or disturbed by it. The moral feelings
of people at Oxfam GB were shocked by it, as their
public statements clearly show.
for my reason for writing "After the Terror",
I was like so many of us in being overwhelmed and
then thrown into reflection by September 11. In my
own case, September 11 also came as a kind of charge
against or question about things written by me in
the past, notably the book "Violence for Equality:
Inquiries in Political Philosophy".
new book is an account of what you can call the moral
state of the world. It is only about Palestine in
passing. Only a few pages are on Palestine. The most
important thing you come on, in thinking about us
and our world, is our omissions rather than our commissions.
One large thing we omit to do, most notably in connection
with Africa, is to help people with short and even
brief lives -- half-lives and quarter-lives. In one
sample there is a loss of 20 million years of living
is yet more terrible than what we positively do --
say aid the Zionists, by whom I mean overt and covert
supporters of and participants in Israel's ongoing
aggression against the Palestinians, the violation
and occupation of their homeland.
So what is your definition of terrorism? Isn't terrorism
generally understood to be illegitimate violence?
Resistance on the other hand is legitimate, and may
employ terrorism as a tactic. So how do you define
Terrorism has a number of features, but fundamentally
it is a kind of violence, which is to say physical
force that injures, damages, violates or destroys
people or things. It is this: violence with a political
and social end, whether or not intended to put people
in general in fear, and necessarily raising a question
of its moral justification because it is violence
-- either such violence as is against the law within
a society or else violence between states or societies,
against what there is of international law and smaller-scale
than war. It is illegitimate in terms of law, but
not necessarily in terms of morality.
understood in this uncontentious way evidently includes
suicide bombings. As evidently, it also includes state-terrorism
and cat's paw terrorism.
say resistance as ordinarily understood is "legitimate".
Do you mean it's ordinarily taken to be lawful? Then
it itself can't include terrorism, and I guess it
can't employ terrorism. If saying resistance is legitimate
means it is morally defensible, which is certainly
different, then it can't employ any old terrorism
whatever, because not all terrorism is morally defensible.
But it is obviously possible that some morally justified
resistance can employ some morally justified terrorism.
What terrorism do you justify, and how do you arrive
at those conclusions?
In the book what I say is morally permissible is the
terrorism of the Palestinians in the present situation.
It seems to me very similar to the terrorism of the
African National Congress against the South Africa
also say that the only general kind of terrorism that
is likely to be justified, in the world as it is,
is what you can call liberation-terrorism: the violent
struggle of a people to come to freedom and power
in their own homeland. The likely justification depends
importantly on the fact that the suffering that is
caused does have a probability of success. What is
wrong with other terrorism is that it is the causing
of suffering for no probable gain, with no reasonable
will notice that what I have said does not amount
to a complete answer to the question of what violence
is justified. I don't have one worked-out. What does
seem to me clear is that the Palestinians have a moral
right to their struggle. It seems to be a fact about
morality that one can be sure of a particular moral
proposition, a particular case, without having a complete
answer to the large and general question in the neighborhood.
do I arrive at the conclusion about the Palestinians?
Well, I have a lot of reasons. The book gives various
premises for the conclusion. One is my fundamental
moral principle, which is the Principle of Humanity,
about taking rational steps to getting people out
of bad lives. Another is that the Israelis certainly
claim a moral right to their state-terrorism and perhaps
war. In consistency, which is necessary to actually
saying anything, the Palestinians can claim the same,
and they can do it truthfully.
reason for their moral right is that 50 years of history
have proved that the Palestinians have no alternative
whatever to terrorism in trying to secure freedom
and power in their homeland. What they were offered
in the Clinton negotiations at Camp David was not
a state, but, if anything, a dog's breakfast of a
state. That is proved, incidentally, by the fact that
everybody now speaks of their need for a viable state.
still more has to be said in support of the moral
right, and can be. There is no simple proof of the
claim about their moral right. That is because there
are no simple proofs in morality.
What do you think elicited the criticism of your book?
How has your book been received in academic circles?
The book has been seriously and respectfully received
in meetings in nine universities here and in America,
including Oxford and Columbia. There has been a little
Zionist fuss, but not much. That has to be kept in
mind when thinking about the Oxfam business. As for
newspaper reviews, for starters, The Guardian lauded
it, The Times said it was the best reflective book
on 9/11, and The Sunday Telegraph, owned by the man
who also owns The Jerusalem Post, said it was the
worst book ever written. All of those three reviews,
to my mind, given the newspapers in question, proved
I must have written something decent.
Your arguments are ahistorical. Isn't the historical
context crucial to understanding violence?
I don't quite understand what you mean by saying that
my arguments are ahistorical. The way the argument
goes forward is pretty typical for a moral philosopher.
It is a kind of logical sequence, but most certainly
it does not ignore history. Another principal premise
for my conclusion about the moral right of the Palestinians
is that they have indeed been treated horrifically
in their homeland for 50 years. Population figures
I give in the book for Arabs and Jews at various stages
overwhelm the familiar stuff about who did what in
what year in terms of massacres, negotiations and
the like. The Palestinians are right to say they are
the Jews of the Jews.
reflections are an attempt to try to give a good argument
for a moral conclusion about what is right and what
we ought to be doing. To do so is not just to engage
in historical explanation, of course, but historical
explanation must enter into the thing.
In the context of the Middle East violence is usually
referred to as "terrorism". This word has
become very politically charged, and its meaning has
changed from its dictionary definition. Has terrorism
become the violence of the "other", actions
that don't require explanation? How do philosophers
cope with words whose meaning keeps changing
aren't you dealing with a moving target?
Of course the word has been kidnapped by the Israelis
above all, and used just for the violence of the Palestinians.
"Democracy" is used as mindlessly -- you
might add as viciously. "Terrorism" is also
used in such a way as to suggest wholly irrational
evil and whatever else. That is pretty obvious. It
is also one of the facts that affected me in the writing
of my book. I was outraged by the endless parade of
Israeli government spokesmen on television going on
about the unspeakable terrorism of the Palestinians
and the murdered children of the Israeli democrats.
It turned my stomach, as it did many other stomachs.
that is not to say that changes in uses of a word,
and a word's being kidnapped, stand in the way of
using it correctly. To my mind, I do that. This is
more or less necessary to actual thinking. It is also
necessary to strong argument. You just weaken your
argument, on whatever side you are, by self-serving
definitions. It is plain that pretending that terrorism
can exist only on the other side is usually lying
in the aid of killing, maybe killing in the aid of
taking more of another people's land.
You mean that Israel is not a democracy?
I don't mean that. It is a hierarchic democracy, like
the hierarchic democracies of the United States and
Britain. But that you are a democracy, even a better
one, most certainly doesn't legitimate you in anything
like the sense of making all your actions and policies
right, or even your main actions and policies. No
chance whatever of that. Did anybody even say it who
was actually thinking about the matter rather than
engaged in doing something else?
After the recent Palestinian attack in Hebron, the
Israelis engaged in a wave of "retaliation",
and people living in Gaza, totally unrelated to the
original attack, were targeted. One Israeli soldier
was quoted as saying that "none of them are innocent."
On the other hand, when a terrorist attack occurs
in the West the condemnations always refer to "innocent"
civilians. What do you make of this, and are there
any innocent civilians? Does the civilian's responsibility
for actions of their state diminish their innocence?
I think that lying is a part of such conflicts as
the Palestinian one. It enables people to do unspeakable
things. They should say and let themselves know what
they are doing. This comment applies to both Israelis
and Palestinians. The Israelis and the Palestinians
should not engage in awful stuff about young children
not being "innocent". Of course and unquestionably,
these children and some other people who have been
killed are innocent in an ordinary sense.
truths cannot possibly be overlooked, and nor can
they be taken by themselves to decide the main questions.
To take but one example, we British did not take it
that our terror-bombing of Germany in World War 2,
which in fact was called just that, was wrong because
it killed innocents and civilians and children. Remember
Israelis often justify their violent actions as a
deterrent. Pulling out of Lebanon without gaining
anything was seen as weakness, thus encouraging the
Lebanese resistance. The other side of this story
is that any Palestinian action must be met 100X as
a deterrent. So, is there any merit to the deterrence
I don't quite see what this comes to. You can engage
in deterrence, so-called, in a good cause, and you
can engage in it in a bad cause. To the extent that
the Israelis are engaging in deterrence, they are
engaged in wholly wrongful deterrence. What they are
trying to do is to destroy the desire and will of
a people to be free in the place to which they have
a moral right.
In the media, the Israelis are always portrayed as
"responding" or "retaliating,"
thus justified in their actions. Palestinian actions
are never described this way. Can there be a "cycle
of violence" with only one party "responding"?
Furthermore, Israeli violence is usually unrelated
to original Palestinian action, and it is usually
called "collective punishment." So, do the
Israelis have any justification for their violence
in this case?
There is all this use of language to a particular
purpose, a wrongful purpose. The main one, of course,
as already mentioned, is the use of the term "democracy"
in such way as to suggest that what a democracy does
must be right, and the use of the word "terrorism"
in such a way as to suggest or declare that this terrorism
is always wrong or barbarous. It is just self-serving
commandeering of language.
is most important about it is that it does not amount
to serious moral argument. Nor will it in the end
be decisive. It seems to me that just about everybody
in the world, including all supporters of Israel,
do in fact see through this vile stuff. Vile stuff
with a vicious purpose.
for whether Israel does in fact have an argument for
its own existence, it seems to me very clear that
it does. It also has an argument for defending itself,
where that actually means what the word "defending"
does mean. It does not mean attacking somebody else
in order to seize more land. What Israel does not
have an argument for, whatever wretched terminology
and talk it goes in for, is the taking of more and
more land beyond its justified borders, these to my
mind being its borders before 1967.
Amnesty International in their latest report  recently
stated: "Israel has the right and responsibility
to take measures to prevent unlawful violence [referring
to Palestinian violence]. The Israeli government equally
has an obligation to ensure that the measures it takes
to protect Israelis are carried out in accordance
with international human rights and humanitarian law."
What do you think of the first sentence, and isn't
it in contradiction with the second sentence?
I think this stuff from Amnesty as it stands is typical
unreflective moralizing, avoiding the issue. What
Israel ought to do is give up, withdraw from the homeland
of another people. That is the main thing.
they do this, how they go about protecting Israeli
lives and what they do to Palestinians in the process,
is a secondary matter. It is a large matter, but a
secondary matter. Needless to say, they should cause
the least possible suffering and death, to the Palestinians
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have proscribed any
violence against civilians, settlers, and even off
duty soldiers. Violence in Israel is proscribed completely.
It seems that Palestinians are only allowed to fight
one of the most powerful armies in the world within
the occupied territories. What do you make of this?
Probably I disagree with it. I guess I disagree with
it. My view of the Palestinians' moral right to their
terrorism is most confident with respect to the occupied
territories, but I also extend it to Israel itself.
Amnesty equates the nature of the violence perpetrated
against Israelis and Palestinians. That is, it will
condemn to the same degree when an Israeli is killed,
and when a Palestinian is killed. It also calls on
"both parties to respect human rights, and to
make human rights central to their agenda." Is
AI's stance valid?
Everyone should object to the terrible "even-handedness"
of such statements as the Amnesty one. Everyone should
choke on such attempts at "balance". In
an ordinary sense of the words, there is no place
at all for even-handedness and balance in actually
dealing with the rapist engaged in the rape of the
woman with a knife at her throat. The rapist has no
rights that bear significantly on the question of
whether he should stop or be stopped. The analogy
with Israel is not a wild one, but exact.
Amnesty were taking the view that any killing is as
bad as any other killing, it would be taking a view
that is denied by all of history. If it is saying
that you can settle any question of killing by making
a declaration of a right to life, that is nonsense.
It has the upshot, to mention but one, that it would
have been wrong to kill a single German guard in order
to save a thousand Jews from death in gas chambers
in a concentration camp.
A few months ago Cherie Blair, the wife of the current
British Prime Minister, stated: "As long as young
people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves
up, you are never going to make progress." This
seemingly bland statement elicited a barrage of criticism,
and a statement from the Prime minister's office announced
that she retracted the statement, and apologized for
it. So, why do you think her bland statement elicited
It elicited this response as a result of Israeli and
Zionist activity. There is no puzzle about that. Cherie
Blair's statement did not elicit the response because
people in general thought the comment was terrible.
In fact, probably, most people thought the opposite.
I understand that you recently arranged to donate
£5,000 ($8,000) to Oxfam GB, and that this was
then rejected on account of the statement in your
book about the moral right of the Palestinians. Why
did Oxfam refuse your donation?
Well, there was a Zionist threat. But I think Oxfam
could pretty easily have accepted the £5,000
without thereby losing a larger amount of money as
a result of Zionists or others not making donations.
Oxfam could have done this by declaring that it would
not dream of endorsing or agreeing with my view, which
it hated, but that regretfully Oxfam was obliged legally
and morally to save 2,000 lives, the lives of 2,000
dying children, by taking the money. This is just
obvious. Those who suggest otherwise are trying to
avoid a clear truth, for whatever reason.
what happened has some other explanation in place
of or in addition to the Zionist threat. You get to
it by reading Oxfam's own statements. What it comes
to is that some people -- certainly not all -- in
the Oxfam GB office in Oxford were disturbed or outraged
by my view. They were upset, as I said in answer to
an earlier question.
is all right by me. Philosophers are used to disagreement.
What isn't all right is allowing more people to die
for certain of your conventional moral feelings. That
is neither a legal nor a moral possibility for Oxfam.
Its objects, which are defined in the foundation document
lodged with the Charity Commission, do not include
refuting moral philosophers it thinks are mistaken.
In particular it can't do this if it reduces their
income to serve their real objects of saving lives
and preventing suffering.
John Whitaker, the Deputy Director of Oxfam GB, who
has taken responsibility for the decision to turn
away the £5,000, should resign. If he does not,
he should be relieved of his duties by the Trustees
of Oxfam, who have authority over the charity.
is also the fact that Oxfam's acting on the moral
feelings of some of its officers raises a bigger question
not about their raising of money but their use of
it. In particular, it raises a question about their
policy with respect to Palestine. For a start, this
is a matter of their political activity, which is
one of their stated policies, and their literature.
Why aren't they putting out a lot of forceful and
effective literature against the violation of Palestine?
Why is this missing from the stuff we all get in our
de Rooij is an economist living in London and can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He will forward legitimate emails to Prof. Honderich.
1 Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin
and Nablus, Nov. 4, 02
2 There is an extensive account of the Oxfam dispute
by Ted Honderich at www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/ATTOxfam1.html
article first appeared in Counter
Punch and has been reproduced with the permission
of Paul de Rooij.
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