Thomas Aquinas writes that the end of law is the common good. This covers both positive laws guaranteeing rights, and negative laws prohibiting harmful actions. These laws can be decided and promulgated rather straightforwardly in a homogenous society, but in many parts of the world- like France, Nigeria, and the United States- various groups of people dissent.
Dissent in itself is not problematic. In fact, the basis of a health democracy is the ability to dialogue, listen to alternate points of view, and integrate or reject other opinions into one’s own. Debate, dialogue, activism, even peaceful protest and conscientious objection have the potential to strengthen politics and policies. They are so important that the rights to these forms of expression are protected, in many places, by law. However, the law does not protect violent protest, taking the law into one’s own hands, or unilateral assassinations of citizens. Yet violent responses to pluralistic democracy have dominated recent headlines.
To recap briefly the well-worn, known facts, on Wednesday, January 7, twelve people were killed in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. Investigators still do not know the exact motivations of the perpetrators, but most people have speculated some combination of extreme Islamist views, and personal or political motivations. On Thursday, January 8, a police officer was shot. It is unclear if the Charlie Hebdo shooting suspects were responsible. Then on Friday, January 9 four more people were killed at a Kosher grocery store, also in France, and two of the shooting suspects died.
While people were flooding Parisian streets supporting- again the motivation is unclear- patriotism? free speech? the right to peacefully print a magazine?- and holding signs that read “Je suis Charlie” [“I am Charlie”], counter reactions from other countries categorically proved that many people were not Charlie.
In Nigeria and elsewhere, these counter-protests were religious and violent. On Friday, January 16 five people were killed in Zinder, Nigeria and on Saturday, January 17 five more people died as churches were burned and violence reigned. Parts of Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Jordan and Sudan have also seen protests, marches, demonstrations, and large crowds shouting. Many have been in opposition to what is seen as a blasphemous presentation of the Prophet Muhammad, the trampling of religious sensitivities, and secular governments that support the ridicule of anyone who has faith.
Analysts have been quick to tie the events in Paris to terrorism, hence making the suspects of the shooting “terrorists”. At the same time, the people responsible for burning churches in Nigeria are not linked with the demonizing label. (Although the slaughter of civilians in the town of Baga by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria have been compared to the Paris attacks.) Terror and terrorism are nothing new. But the contours of its political meaning are shifting.
United States law defines terrorism as a dangerous and illegal activity that is meant to intimidate or coerce. This definition is amorphous because it is based not only on objective laws, but also on the highly subjective motivation of the actors. Furthermore, intention and motivation can be imputed to an individual or group, though they may not accept the verdict. It can likewise be covered up, denied, or obfuscated.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks- if they fit into these categories- are “terrorism” from a U.S. interpretation. But there is a large space between simply proving an action was dangerous and illegal- such as open fire on a place of business- to establishing the motivation of the perpetrator. To add further confusion, a “terrorist” can look an awful lot like what Bruce Hoffman calls the lunatic assassin who is motivated by psychotic idiosyncrasies rather than a political agenda. These are not clearly identifiable categories, but rather like a Venn Diagram with two overlapping circles.
In examining the so-called “new terrorism,” Thomas Copeland highlights certain characteristics of terrorism that fill out legal definitions and help distinguish it from non-terrorist acts. Terrorists might commit violent actions from within a clear chain of command; identify with a larger group or entity; and kill a large number of people. By contrast, a non-terrorist might work alone and be inefficient in carrying out violent acts. Both of these might share the employment of violence; a desire to psychologically affect more people than just the targets; and the seeking of media attention and recognition. Copeland concludes that it is unlikely that we are in an age of new terrorism. I agree.
A few weeks ago marked the 20th anniversary of the death of two Planned Parenthood workers in my town of Brookline, Massachusetts. Planned Parenthood is not “an abortion clinic.” Planned Parenthood is a national health care organization that specializes in services for low-income men and women. Under U.S. law, Title X allows Planned Parenthood “to supplement birth control, gynecological care, and other reproductive health services for women who cannot pay full price for health care services. This program does not pay for abortions.” Some clinics do offer abortion services, but these are not subsidized by the government, and they are one among many services including pre-natal care, mammograms, diabetes and breast cancer screening, pap smears and flu vaccines.
Unfortunately violence, verbal harassment, and even death against Planned Parenthood employees and clients are common. I didn’t live in Brookline twenty years ago when a gunman open fired on the clinic in this well-educated suburb of Boston. But those reporting on it linked it to two other shootings at clinics that perform abortions- among other medical procedures- in the prior two years. The governor of Massachusetts at the time decried the man responsible for the violence as “nothing other than a terrorist.”
At the heart of terrorism are violent actions that oppose already legally established political freedoms in a pluralistic society. The first goal is fear, but the second is more lasting- it seeks to curtail liberty.
In the case of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, actions were taken against a form of printed media that was legally operating within the bounds of French law. The shootings were illegal. In the case of the Brookline Planned Parenthood shootings, the clinic was offering medical services, all of which are legal under United States law. The shootings were illegal. In both cases the gunman felt that targeted, illegal assassinations were in order. In both cases a legal but controversial establishment was operating under governmental protection in a country where many different political and religious viewpoints co-exist.
Political theologian John Courtney Murray worked extensively on pluralism in an American context. He held that we should not legislate morality by making private sins into public crimes. On both side of the Charlie Hebdo violence in Paris and Nigeria are private sins- jingoism; intolerance; insensitivity; imprudence; anger. On both sides of health care clinic shootings are private sins- contempt; defiance; irreverence. But private sins alone do not usually prompt deadly violence. Questionable cartoons and certain medical procedures elicit such a strong response because some people take them to be personal choices (not even sins), and others take them to be public crimes. The issue, as Murray would say, is that there is not a public philosophy that all people agree to, although enough people agree on free press and available abortion to have it protected by law.
For Murray, consensus was an ongoing dialogue that worked out ideas about morality. Consensus is never a finished project, and input must be elicited from all sides on the debate, including dissenters. Consensus is not mere opinion, but the basic theme of public argument. Consensus also maintains civility while political philosophies are being hashed out. This means staying within the bounds of current law if- and until- disputed rights are modified.
While we may not agree with the law of the land, it must be upheld even as we democratically participate in civil dialogue. Individuals with religious faith are encouraged to participate; we are a part of the pluralism in great democracies. But even within a pluralistic society, laws are set up for the good of the community, as diverse as it is. Freedom and respect are the bedrock of a pluralistic society. These values should be exercised within the bounds of the law.
Terrorists, by definition, act outside of just laws that are set up for the common good. Heartfelt, passionate dissent within the law is welcome, but extra-legal, violent action is unwarranted. Terrorists by-pass the process of consensus by shutting down dialogue and being a law unto themselves. They cannot participate in the consensus-creation process, nor do they allow other to exercise their legally-given rights. The goal of pluralism is not uniformity, but it is peace and the common good. Whether objecting to a magazine or a women’s clinic, terrorism prematurely closes the matter of dialogue with violence and is a threat to democracy. “We hold these truths because they are right, not because they are popular,” writes Murray. But we also hold them in within the bounds of the law. That is the only way consensus can move forward.
Cristina Richie is an adjunct professor of Health Care Ethics at MCPHS University [Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences] in Boston, MA. and adjunct faculty of Christian Ethics and Social Issues at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary-Boston, Roxbury, MA. She is writing her dissertation as a Flatley Fellow in theological ethics at Boston College.