Honor and Terrorists

Scott Farrell Comments:

In conclusion, Professor French explores the most difficult and frustrating part of her thesis: How (and why) do you maintain honor against an opponent who has none? No matter what sort of “battle” you find yourself in — military, professional, political, academic, athletic or social — her answers are a wonderful reaffirmation of the principles of chivalry and honor.


These imperatives I have put forward apply to relations among warriors and nations defended by warriors. The moral requirements become much murkier when warriors must battle murderers.

The warriors of today will increasingly find themselves pitted against adversaries who fight without any rules or restraints. Because they see no other way to advance their objectives, these desperate men and women are likely to employ methods that are rightfully viewed as horrific and appalling by the rest of the civilized world, such as terror attacks on civilian populations. They will take “fighting dirty” to unimaginable depths, and since they are already willing to die, they will not be deterred by any threat of punishment for continuing to disregard the laws of war.

As Ariel Merari, director of the Project on Terrorism at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University points out in his essay, “The Readiness To Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East,” old ideas about tit-for-tat and the applications of rational decision theory are worthless when dealing with those who are ready – if not anxious – to sacrifice their lives for The Cause. Merari quotes Lord Chalfont, an authority on counter-terrorism:

“The whole time that I have been involved in terrorist operations, which now goes back to 30 years, my enemy has always been a man who is very worried about his own skin. You can no longer count on that, because the terrorist [today] is not just prepared to get killed, he wants to get killed. Therefore, the whole planning, tactical doctrine, [and] thinking [behind antiterrorism measures] is fundamentally undermined 1.

How should stronger sides in asymmetric conflicts respond when their weaker opponents resort to terrorist tactics? One perfectly understandable reaction would be for the stronger sides to want to “take off the gloves,” too, especially when the terrorists seem to be banking on the fact that they will not. It seems natural to say, “If they will not respect the rules of war and use some restraint, then neither will we.”

Of course, one of the most serious “cons” that the West must consider before “taking the gloves off” is that it would be a violation of our own values to engage in a war with no rules. It is beyond infuriating that some of the people who claim to hate who we are and what we represent are yet able to benefit from our commitment to restraint.

The more they push us and the more suffering we endure, the harder it is for us to fight with one hand tied behind our back rather than unleashing the full extent of our power to wipe them from the earth. But if we give up who we are in order to destroy our enemies, what sort of victory will we have secured for ourselves? Even the noblest of ends can be tarnished if base means are used to achieve them.

It is truly disturbing to consider how easy it may be for a person to rationalize the terrible transition from warrior to murderer. An individual may be persuaded to become a murderer by a single charismatic personality, by a group or movement that answers some psychological need, or by the effects of a traumatic event (such as witnessing the death of a close friend or family member). I must stress that the line between a warrior and a murderer is profoundly important, but very thin. Once it has been crossed, the harm to the individual may be irrevocable.

It is easier to remain a warrior when fighting other warriors. When warriors fight murderers, they may be tempted to become the mirror image of the evil they hoped to destroy. Their only protection is their code of honor. The professional military ethics that restrain warriors – that keep them from targeting those who cannot fight back, from taking pleasure in killing, from striking harder than is necessary and that encourage them to offer mercy to their defeated enemies and even to help rebuild their countries and communities – are also their own protection against becoming what they abhor.

Home-From-WarEveryone who cares about the welfare of warriors wants them not only to live through whatever fighting they must face, but also to have lives worth living after the fighting is done. The warriors’ code is the shield that guards our warriors’ humanity. Without it, they are no good to themselves or to those with whom and for whom they fight. Without it, they will find no way back from war.

© 2004 Shannon French, Ph.D.

About the author: Dr. Shannon E. French teaches in the Ethics Section at the U.S. Naval Academy. Her book, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values, Past and Present (2003, Rowman and Littlefield) features a foreword by Senator John McCain. In 2000 she was awarded USNA’s campus-wide Apgar Award for Excellence in Teaching. This essay is reprinted by permission of the author.


  1. Ariel Merari, “the readiness to kill and die: Suidical terrorism in the Middle East”, in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, edited by Walter Reich, Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998, p. 193. 

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