The Saint, The Criminal and The Terrorist—S.N.Balagangadhara

Increasingly, the phenomenon of terrorism has begun to occupy the media, politics, and the lives of people in different parts of the world. The more the attention, however, the less the clarity: what kind of a phenomenon is terrorism? What generates it, what sustains it, and what allows it to expand on an ever-increasing scale?

This lack of clarity has to do with the fact that our ideas about terrorism appear as an incoherent set. First, terrorism horrifies most of us; the acts of terrorists are seen as monstrous in scope and size. But the number of deaths or the human suffering, even if we look at an event as momentous as 9/11, is dwarfed by what traffic accidents and smoking do in any given year.

Second, despite its relatively small impact (relative, that is, to the impact of smoking, traffic accidents, etc.) and the lower probability of its occurrence (compared again to such phenomena), terrorism induces massive changes in our societies that are incommensurate with the act itself.

Third, most of us think that terrorists are monsters, lunatics, crazy and evil: they appear as pathological human beings. At the same time, we read in the newspapers that the terrorists not only increasingly draw recruits from the ordinary population, but also that they use ethical considerations like the perceived injustice in the world or attacks on their family, for instance, in their defense. Here, they reason pretty much the same way most of us do.

Fourth, we seem to think that some religion (Islamic fundamentalism) or political doctrine (Marxism) provides the foundation for terrorism. Such political and religious motives are even taken to differentiate it from ordinary crime. Yet, we see terrorism implanting itself in any and every kind of soil: Zionism, deep ecology, Islam, fascism, animal liberation, ethnic self-determination, Christianity, communism, nationalism,… This suggests that no specific religious or political beliefs are required for it to take root and flourish.

Fifth, the only things we see are the acts of crime that terrorists either plan or actually commit. Yet, it is extremely difficult to call them ‘ordinary criminals’, because they seem to do something ‘more’ than just plan or commit criminal acts: they appear more monstrous than thieves or serial killers and the impact of their acts goes far beyond that of other crimes. In short, we entertain what appear as prima facie inconsistent ideas about terrorism.

A hypothesis about terrorism must provide a solution to the above problems without discounting any of them. We propose that terrorism is a unitary phenomenon (despite internal differentiations) and formulate a single hypothesis that illumines these and other known facts about terrorism. Hopefully, the essay thereby functions as an incentive and a heuristic to develop a better hypothesis.

We would like to suggest that terrorism is a particular form taken by crime. In that case, the puzzle is why and how crime takes the form of terrorism. Attempts to characterize terrorism as “(violent) acts that intend to terrorize people for socio-political ends” do not answer this question. They do point out some of its features. However, there are many violent acts that intentionally instill fear in a population and that also have socio-political ends, but which could hardly be terrorism. The difference between murder (even if it is mass murder) and an act of terrorism that also murders (think of 9/11 in this context), we suggest, does not lie in the motives of the actor, the action, the means used, the nature of the victims, the intended goals or its realized effects. Instead, it is located in how the crime is transformed into “something else.” What makes crime into terrorism is this act of transformation.

Actually, the act goes beyond transformation: terrorism is trans-substantiated crime. “Trans-substantiation” refers to the miraculous transformation of some particular substance into another one. (During the Mass, for instance, Roman-Catholics believe that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.) This happens in the case of terrorism as well: crime becomes morally praiseworthy. It does not concern so much a particular crime, but rather the transformation of the entire domain of crime. This trans-substantiation results in the re-presentation of crime as morally praiseworthy. We suggest that what brings about this “miracle” is an ideology, which we would like to call “the ideology of crime.” It is our hypothesis that such an ideology exists today and that acts of crime can become acts of terrorism because of what this ideology does and how it does so.

We propose to expand on this idea in the following way: first, we explicate what the trans-substantiation consists of; second, we show how this “miracle” is possible; third, we analyze the presuppositions and implications of such a process; fourth, we dwell on its relation to the self-description of terrorism; finally, we identify some of the illumined facts and spell out the policy implications of our hypothesis.

The ideology of crime

While terrorism is not itself an ideology, it exists by virtue of an ideology. By presenting criminal actions as morally praiseworthy, this ideology performs the central function of any ideology: it enables one to lend legitimacy to actions that are otherwise considered illegitimate. The ideology itself does not provide the required justification; if it could, it would be an ethical, political, social or economic theory or even a religion. Instead, the ideology of crime merely enables such a justification, where and when necessary.

What does it mean to say that an act of crime is presented as morally praiseworthy? It means that such an act now has the force of a moral exemplar. But some action can have the force of a moral exemplar to an individual, if and only if that person is a member of a moral community and intends to live as a moral subject. Otherwise it cannot. Therefore, a terrorist to whom a crime becomes a moral exemplar must see himself (and must also be seen by others) as an ethical agent, who is a member of a particular moral community sharing its ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, permitted and forbidden and so on.

In so far as an action can have the force of a moral exemplar only to an ethical agent, the ideology of crime makes no further empirical presuppositions about the nature of such an agent. That means to say, the ideology of crime re-describes a criminal act in such a way that such a re-description is indifferent with respect to specific religious and political beliefs that an individual might adhere to. In this sense, it is indifferent to distinctions between cultures, peoples, languages, skin colors, etc. In short, if this ideology of crime has to succeed in presenting some act as a moral exemplar, it has to make the same presuppositions as all our ethical theories. Indeed it does. The ideology of crime is deeply and indissolubly rooted in the ethical domain that all human beings share.

Even though all human beings share the same ethical domain, we are initiated into this domain through the empirical communities we are born into. These empirical communities are many and differentiated: different religions, cultures, languages, philosophies, traditions, etc. mediate us to the ethical domain and mark our distinctions and differences from each other. In this process, each of us acquires notions of crime as well. Mostly, these are associated with moral infringements, even if, depending upon our differential acquaintance with law, further refinement occurs in the course of our lives. For its success, the ideology of crime not only requires that recruits belong to empirical moral communities, but also that they always remain members of some empirical moral community or the other. That means to say, the ideology of crime (a) presupposes of its recruits that they too have notions of crime that their moral communities have and (b) requires that they continue to retain them as well. Why?

The first condition has already been dwelt upon: a morally exemplary action has an ethical force only to a moral subject. As an empirical, moral subject, a person brings with him the notions of right, wrong, good, bad, criminal, legal,… that prevail in his community. The ideology of crime presupposes this fact. It also requires that the recruit continues to be a member of an empirical moral community because this membership enables an access to the reservoir of human actions. Such a reservoir is continuously replenished with new and original actions, undertaken by human beings in their widely differing circumstances. In having access to such a treasure house, the terrorist ideology has access to novelty as well. That is why new terrorist actions are possible.

It is often suggested that terrorists have “other” moral values than those held by the rest of us. Even though we shall suggest later why this appears to be the case, let us state here where we think this view is profoundly wrong: if the terrorist was not a member of the ethical domain we all share, there would be no terrorism to speak of. The very possibility of terrorism depends upon the fact that the terrorists too make distinctions between good, bad, right, wrong, criminal, legal and so on in exactly the same way we do. That is to say, much like most of us in the world, he too would find some actions (like murder, theft, rape, arson, looting, etc) immoral and criminal the way we do.

The evidence is overwhelming that terrorists possess the moral notions we have, and consider the same set of actions which we could call “crimes” also as crimes. When a terrorist confronts the rape of his mother or sister, or the assassination of his beloved leader; or the fact of his pregnant wife blown to pieces and his child maimed for life by a blast; he too reacts with the same moral judgment and moral emotions his victims have. That is to say, he reacts to these immoral acts as a moral subject: with horror and abhorrence.

The terrorist is not a pathological person lacking a moral sense or an alien with utterly strange norms (finding morally good what most of us would find morally abhorrent). He is and has to be similar to us. If he was not, terrorism would not be able to find recruits at all. If there is one thing we have learnt, it is this: the recruiting ground for terrorism is fertile, continually expanding and consists of ordinary people much like us. Unless we assume that the number of pathological people continues to increase because of some evolutionary quirk, which is very improbable, then we have to make sense of how moral subjects very much like us could become terrorists at all. In this sense, and because of this reason, we do not define what ‘crime’ is, in order to speak about the ideology of crime. The terrorists already possess this notion (furthermore, it does not vary all that much with our day-to-day intuitions). They know what crime is, but the ideology of crime metamorphoses the actions that the terrorists consider as crimes into morally exemplary actions. If this is the case, how does he reconcile his actions with his own moral judgment and emotions? And how does the ideology transform crime into a moral exemplar? We will begin with the second question first.

The mechanism of a miracle

To answer this question and understand what terrorism is, we must take the hypothesis of the transformation, metamorphosis and trans-substantiation of crime utterly seriously. Because the terrorist is a moral subject too, the ideology of crime can make a criminal act appear ethical to him only if it re-describes and re-presents that act. What kind of change is involved in this process?

In the first place, this representation cannot transform a criminal act into an ethical one by making it morally obligatory. If it did, then the terrorist would either be inconsistent (because one and the same act would continue to be both forbidden and obligatory, since the act would both be a crime and moral at the same time), or would not have the notion of crime (because no act would be forbidden), or he would have another set of moral values than the rest of us (our “crimes” would appear moral to him). We suggest that none of these is the case.

In the second place, this transformation must somehow succeed in doubling: it must leave the domain of crime of the terrorist intact and yet re-describe these acts in such a way that they do not appear to belong to the criminal domain. That is, it must appear as though two descriptions of an act actually describe two different acts – the criminal and the ethical.

In the third place, such a re-description must place the act beyond both the “obligatory” and the “forbidden,” while retaining the distinction between these two sets of actions at the same time. Such must be the transformation that the act appears almost unique (sui generis, one of a kind). This ideology should make his act so unique that the terrorist can neither see nor comprehend it under any other description than the one provided by that ideology. It must trans-substantiate an act, which is neither unique because it belongs to a category of actions, nor moral because it is criminal too in the eyes of the terrorist, into a unique act. That is, the ideology of crime must transform crime by making each criminal action into a unique act, one of a kind. Thereafter, as far as the terrorist is concerned, this act does not have any other description than the one provided by the ideology and he cannot recognize his act under any other description.

Exactly that happens. The ideology trans-substantiates crime into supererogation and, in doing so, meets all the above conditions. “Supererogation” names the sets of actions that have the force of moral exemplars without being obligatory. Heroism, bravery, kindness, love for one’s neighbor, saintly actions, etc. are all examples of supererogation. They are not obligatory, since a failure to perform these actions does not make someone immoral. They have the force of moral exemplars without being obligatory. These actions are “over and beyond the call of duty” and as such are beyond the realm of moral obligation. That is, they are outside the domain of “moral laws,” but yet within the ethical domain.

The domain of crime and the domain of supererogation share this formal property: they are both “beyond the scope of moral laws.” In doubling the description of crime, this is what the ideology of crime does: while leaving the description of a criminal act intact, it also provides a re-description of the act as supererogation. This is possible because of the formal property that both crime and supererogation possess. Consequently, these actions appear both sui generis and ethical at the same time. However, because such actions belong to the ethical domain, there is a need for moral justification. The ideology of crime, which, as we have said, makes the action neutral (or indifferent) with respect to religious and political beliefs, allows for any kind of defense: one could appeal to injustice in society or to God’s commandments or to oppression and exploitation or to the doctrines of national sovereignty and national interests… The list is both varied and endless. The point to note here is the following: neither religious nor secular doctrines form the intellectual basis of terrorism. They are used in morally justifying an act that has already achieved the status of a supererogatory action. The trans-substantiation of crime into supererogation is not something that these doctrines and beliefs accomplish. The ideology of crime has already done that before either religion or political beliefs are pressed into service. If we fail to see this, we end up conducting sterile and unending debates: such as whether Islam is peace-loving or whether it is antithetical to modern values. These debates are not merely sterile and interminable. They are pernicious as well because, by conducting such debates, we countenance the self-description of terrorism and accept the legitimacy of the transformation of crime into supererogation. To see why this is so, we need to understand the sense in which the ideology of crime is truly subversive.

Presuppositions and implications

Consider what the ideology of crime does. It appeals to a moral community, to its ethical and moral notions, and presupposes its distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, and so on. On the basis of this distinction, it systematically pulls out immoral acts in order to re-present them as supererogatory to the very same community. The community is asked to judge as ‘moral’ precisely that act which is immoral and criminal in its eyes. That is to say, the community should consider one and the same act as both immoral and supererogatory at the same time and on the same intellectual and moral grounds. The ideology of crime trans-substantiates some individual into both a moral criminal and a moral saint (at the same time and on the same grounds) to that very community of which he is a part. This is impossible: on one and the same substantive grounds, an act cannot be both immoral and supererogatory at the same time and for the same person. While one could (conceivably) think of two rival moral theories making different ethical pronouncements about some particular act, that is not the case here: a moral community is continually forced to judge actions as criminal and supererogatory at the same time and on the same grounds. Should a moral community ever allow for this to happen, it would disintegrate as a moral community and cease to exist. In that sense, while the ideology of crime undercuts its own foundation, it is also truly subversive: that which turns against and destroys the very community of which it is a part. It necessarily bites the hand that feeds it.

How does this situation translate itself in the cognitive world of the terrorist? How does he solve this tension between himself and his moral community? Here is where we see the dynamic nature of the ideology of crime. This ideology allows him to identify differing empirical communities at different times as his “relevant” moral community of the moment. Consider the Taliban in Afghanistan. At one time, both the US administration and the Pakistani government supported the Taliban fighters militarily, financially and morally. In doing so, both nations became a part of the relevant moral community of the Taliban. However, in the post 9/11 world, neither Pakistan nor the US belongs to the relevant moral community of the Taliban. Instead, they are now its enemies.

The internal problem of inconsistency between what the ideology of crime does and the moral foundation on which it rests is transformed into an external opposition between the empirical community that the terrorist momentarily attaches himself to (that community then becomes the “relevant” moral community for him) and the “rest” of the world: the opposition between the “moral us” and the “immoral they.” The problem does not lie in the “us” and “they” distinction: all of us make such distinctions, which are based on the real differences that exist between different groups of people. Instead, it has to do with how the distinction is made and what it consists of. The “us” and the “they” are ethically hostile forces, each others’ enemies and two polar opposites locked in struggle, from which only one can emerge as the victor. The internal opposition between a moral community and what the ideology of crime does is expressed as an external battle-to-death between two communities: the “moral” community that the terrorist momentarily attaches himself to and the “others.”

The identity of these communities is of no cognitive or moral significance in this battle: it could be the Americans today, Iraqis tomorrow and the Pakistanis the day after. Each was an ally at some stage or another; each was thus once a part of the moral community of the terrorist. The ideology of crime has to necessarily turn against its own foundation; the terrorist does the same too by splitting the world into “us” and “they” in this particular manner.

The self-description of terrorism

Consequently, to say that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” does not entail subscribing to ethical relativism. It is worse than that: it is to endorse the self-description of the terrorist and to underwrite the ideology of crime. The same consideration applies to discussions about whether or not some religion or political theory is a harbinger of terrorism. This also covers the case of those who look at terrorists as “lunatics,” and as “deranged” and “pathological” persons. In all these cases, we endorse the description that the ideology of crime provides us with. If there is something tragic about the current intellectual and political scene, it is this: both the friends and foes of terrorism have accepted the self-description of terrorism. We treat the terrorists as “exceptional” persons, who cannot be understood as “normal” human beings. We go beyond our ethical and legal limits in our opposition to terrorism and, in doing so, endorse their self-description in that we treat them as more than “mere” criminals by according them a special status.

We allow the subversion of terrorism by subverting our own legal and moral codes, and justify such subversions in the name of national security. We accept the legitimacy of the terrorist argument by endlessly debating the issue of whether or not some religion or political theory encourages terrorism or not. We endorse their self-description by identifying some terrorists as “religious” or “fundamentalists,” which is exactly what they claim they are. We act as though one “ought not to be” a fundamentalist forgetting, in the process, that should we give up the fundamental distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, we would only end up all the worse for it. We give up our notions of human rights by making or reinforcing discriminations against people from “other” religions and regions.

We endorse and reproduce the distinction the terrorist makes between the “moral us” and the “immoral they” by speaking about the terrorist as though he is not a member of the ethical domain that all human beings share, or as though he has an alien set of “moral values” when compared to the rest of the human beings. Finally, we succumb to the illusion of the terrorist: he believes that he performs a set of “special actions”; we agree with him and speak about “terrorist acts” all the time. In all these ways and more, we allow terrorism to feed on the success and legitimacy it enjoys by our acceptance of its self-description.


This, then, is our hypothesis: terrorism is the transformation of crime into supererogation. The ideology of crime enables such a trans-substantiation. Let us see how this accounts for some of the facts we already know about terrorism.

  1. Terrorism spreads, because it appears imitable. We have seen why terrorism can recruit ordinary moral subjects; that is why it is imitable. Anyone can become a terrorist. It can spread because the ideology of crime is neutral or indifferent with respect to religious, political and other beliefs.
  2. Terrorism appears to target its victims both indiscriminately and in a focused manner. As examples of the latter, consider the sustained attempts at assassinating various political dignitaries, heads of states, prominent politicians, UN personnel, etc. during the last decade. It is indifferent as to whom it targets because the “relevant” moral community of the terrorist undergoes changes over time. However, it is also focused because the terrorist is a member of a specific “relevant” moral community confronting a specific ‘other’ at any one time.
  3. Terrorism inevitably bites the hand that feeds it, whether the hand that feeds it is a state (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example) or a movement (the Palestinian Liberation Organization). Terrorism has to turn against its own foundation because of the dictates of the ideology of crime.
  4. Terrorism inevitably disrupts civil society in multiple ways that are incommensurate with the act itself. For instance, 9/11 changed both the US and the world so much that it is difficult to speak of commensurate effects of the act itself. Terrorism disrupts society (and sows fear) in such disproportionate ways, because its ideology and its mechanism threaten the very existence of a moral community.
  5. Terrorism is surrounded by some kind of an ideology, which appears to provide a moral justification for the act. We have seen that the requirement of moral justification arises from the fact that the ideology of crime makes crime supererogatory.
  6. Terrorism generates two diametrically opposed ethical reactions. In some circles, the terrorists of today are the embodiments of the highest virtues and, as such, exemplars to imitate. In other circles, they generate moral horror and ethical abhorrence. That is, both make an appeal to ethical considerations. However, it appears as though these considerations are not merely different, but also opposed to each other. Consequently, terrorism and those others who feel moral aversion to it are mutually recognized as enemies-to-death. Each wants to eliminate the other. We explained why ethical responses are enticed by the ideology of crime and why the “moral us” and the “the immoral they” appear as enemies-to-death.

Does this set of considerations generate policy conclusions? Yes, it does. Let us simply list a few of them.

  1. Crime cannot be abolished in a society by exterminating the criminal population at any given moment. We have to strike at what generates and sustains crime in a society. Overcoming terrorism, besides requiring a whole series of social, political and economic remedies, needs something extra as well: both public intellectuals and academics must begin dismantling the ideology of crime. This is not the same as identifying some “other” political or religious doctrines and discoursing about them.
  2. If we continue to hold “religion,” or even “religious fundamentalism” and “Islamofascism” as the cause of terrorism, not only do we fail in addressing the real issues, but we end up feeding the ideology of crime by accepting the self-description of terrorism. The current craze in the American academy and public debate about Islam reflects how successful the ideology has been here.
  3. We need expert jurists, magistrates, and politicians to work on setting up provisions in criminal law that allow us to tackle the nature of this particular form of crime. However, such statutes, like all other legal statutes, should be tested for their admissibility within the moral and constitutional limits that we work under.
  4. The “war on terrorism” is sensible only to the extent we can speak about “war on crime.” In the same way criminals are a danger to civil society, terrorists are dangerous as well. But, as commentators have noted, the US government has vacillated between approaching terrorism as a violation of criminal law and as an issue of war. The first approach acknowledges that terrorism is but a form of crime and thus negates its ideology, while the second confirms the ideology and views the terrorists as warriors for a cause. This leads to conflicting policies that fail to respect both criminal law and the law of war.
  5. We feed the ideology of crime and terrorism when we treat the terrorists as “exceptional” individuals and, therefore, stray outside the established framework of law to bring them to justice. By setting up special military tribunals, by denying them their status as moral subjects, one concedes to the claims that the ideology of crime makes. One needs the framework of law and justice (why set up courts otherwise?) and, at the same time, denies both the requirements of law and justice (because they appear as “kangaroo courts” to the outside world). This is exactly what the ideology of crime does. In this sense, in bringing both the Guantanamo Bay and subsequent developments into existence, the ideology of crime has already begun to acquire moral legitimacy.
  6. Ethical considerations, which should provide the foundations for any kind of politics, have become subordinated to petty political and party considerations in the US. To stray away from ethical foundations, in pursuit of the requirements of “national interests” or “geo-political situations,” feeds the ideology of crime. Surely, Ronald Reagan’s statement that the Taliban are “freedom fighters” rather than terrorists, has come back to haunt us today. Any institution, community, organization, or movement that feeds or nurtures terrorism (directly or indirectly) will become its victim sooner or later. That is so, because such a bond allows the ideology of crime to become dynamic by transforming many different empirical communities into possible moral communities for the terrorists. If it is to fight terrorism and the ideology of crime, politics cannot afford to lose its moorings from an ethical foundation.

2 thoughts on “The Saint, The Criminal and The Terrorist—S.N.Balagangadhara

  1. Pingback: The Magic of ‘Radicalization’? | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

  2. Arun

    There is substantial work that shows the Pakistani Army’s support of “non-state actors” – a euphemism for violent groups that use an ideology of jihad – to achieve state objectives with respect to India and Afghanistan.

    There is substantial evidence that these groups have “slipped the leash”, and now also target their sponsors.

    How does this fit into the description attempted in this essay?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *