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A Counterterrorist Role for National Armed Forces? Current Conflicts and Their Ethical Consequences

The 2016 “White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr” emphasizes the narrow constitutional boundaries within which Bundeswehr deployment is permitted inside Germany.1 Articles 35 and 87a of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) are key. The Bundeswehr can be deployed inside the country either as administrative assistance in the event of “a grave accident or a natural disaster”, or “to protect civilian property and to perform traffic control functions [...] during a state of defence or a state of tension” as well as “[i]n order to avert an imminent danger to the existence or free democratic basic order of the Federation or of a Land.” In the latter case, the White Paper talks about an “internal state of emergency.” 

The reality of terrorist attacks has again raised the question, in the ongoing policy debates, of whether the powers of national armies should be increased inside their own countries. Can ethics help to answer a question like this? It can, if it clearly sets out the concepts – taken from political philosophy and theory of war – that inform the various sides of the political argument. In this way, it can bring the discussion to a more objective level.2

The modern era gave rise to a sharply contoured – theoretical – model of the stato (to use Machiavelli’s term): in the state, individuals join together mutually to protect themselves from violence. They do this by agreeing to recognize general laws that impose burdens on them (particularly the burden of responsibility for defending one’s fellow citizens in the event that they are unjustly attacked), but also promise mutual benefits (particularly the principle of collective protection against unjust attacks). But to ensure that not everybody needs always to be ready to defend their fellow citizens, this task itself is assigned, again in a kind of collective contract, to particular citizens in a special institutional way, namely to the internal security forces, the police. Only where no member of the police is present may citizens – acting as their deputy – use force themselves to independently repel unjust violence in cases of self-defence or emergency assistance. The police, as upholders of the law and guarantors of internal security, still treat anyone who breaks the law as a citizen – but as a law-breaking citizen, i.e. as a criminal. As such, criminals do not lose their rights as a citizen entirely, but only to the extent necessary for defence against their breaches of the law.

It is different when it comes to defending against dangers that threaten the state as a whole, which come from people and institutions outside of the state. The modern model of the state – here used only as a stereotype, of course – encompasses acts of violence which do not occur within the state between citizens, affecting the lives, property and security of individual citizens, but which instead come from outside the state and are directed against the state itself. Violence of this kind is not criminal. It is, in the literal sense of the word, enemy. Criminals break laws that apply to them as citizens. Enemies do not violate laws to which they are subject, for they attack the community bound by law as outsiders. This is one reason why conventional international humanitarian law generally lets enemy combatants go unpunished when a war is over: as enemy actors, they did not break the law of the attacked state, even if they killed and injured citizens of this state during the conflicts. But to ensure that not everybody needs to be constantly ready to assume responsibility for the state’s external security, this task for its part is assigned, again in a kind of collective contract, to particular citizens in a special institutional way, namely to the state’s armed forces. Thus, the separation of the state’s internal and external security is due to the difference in the quality of this security: one is in order to preserve the law, the second is a means of existential protection against external attack.

So much for the theoretical stereotype.3 We should have a conceptual understanding of it, even as we know that it should always be taken only as an approximation of a reality that is never so clear-cut. For example, there have always been spies and collaborators in wars, who acted from within to support the enemy without. And furthermore, there is a particular group of law-breakers who actually attack their fellow citizens, not with the intention simply of gaining advantage by harming them, but in the expectation that news of the attack will spread in such a way as to undermine other citizens’ sense of security to the greatest extent possible. This general sense of insecurity, they hope, will bring about social and political change. The strategy of scaring people by triggering frightening communication is called terrorism. For a long time, this strategy was confined to the interiors of states – such as in the case of the Rote Armee Fraktion, the IRA, and ETA. In so far as they break the state’s laws, these terrorists are simply criminals – extremely dangerous criminals in many cases. At least since the end of the 20th century, however, and particularly through the actions of Islamic terror groups, we have faced a phenomenon that utilizes global communication networks, and regards the world community as the target it wants to scare.

That the lines between a state’s internal and external affairs have become blurred could be explained, in the first instance, by the fact that the communicative interior space has become larger – especially as a result of the Internet and globally available social media. 9/11, for example, is not simply an American event, it is global. But it is also true that some of these terrorists live in states which they fight against and whose internal normative order they wish to destroy or at least place under pressure via their attacks. Thus, although they appear on the one hand to be citizens, in terms of the target and intention of their actions, they are “enemies.” Particularly after 9/11, it was this fact which prompted many politicians to talk of a “global war on terrorism” as a way of appealing to a well-known veneer of legitimization for violent acts by states. But at least two aspects were overlooked: first, that in this way the war is brought into one’s own state, i.e. among the citizenry, and second, that this paves the way for an outward totalization of war, i.e. a dissolution of boundaries in terms of geography, time, and personnel. Indeed, the omnipresent drone war is no longer a mere chimera. In certain parts of the world, it appears as if it has already begun. War in the traditional sense cannot be the answer to the phenomenon of global terrorism, if we do not wish to undermine, from within, the core task of the state, which is to protect its citizens. In the “global war on terror,” the state’s interior ultimately becomes a war zone just like all the surrounding external areas.

But, then again, transnational terrorism is a fact, and to treat it simply as a problem of large-scale organized crime seems empirically impossible. National security organizations are reliant on information-sharing with other states, which means that security policy in country A cannot consider only its own vulnerability, but should also regard the prevention of an attack in country B as a task that it can help fulfill. Often the physical capabilities of an attacked state prove insufficient to defend against global terror groups, and other countries have to step in to protect it. Since the sphere of communication is now global, and as a result terrorism has become global, too, there is no alternative except global responses to terrorism, even if this still frequently seems hard to imagine, given the current diversity of the global community. Divides in values seem to run too deep – between west and east, north and south, rich and poor, and other contrasting pairs.

If we see counterterrorism as being a task for the civilized world community as a whole, then we can at least hint at answers to the questions mentioned earlier. Shouldn’t it be possible for national armed forces – such as the Bundes­wehr in Germany – to be given greater competences in the state’s internal security? The answer can be provided based largely on pragmatic considerations. Since national armed forces have extreme means of violence at their disposal, there has always been a particular risk that they – who are supposed to provide external security – will take over power within the state, especially when the distinction between external and internal security is already blurred. That military coups are not entirely a thing of the past can be seen from events in Turkey on July 15 and 16, 2016, or developments in Egypt in 2013. Even if there is no immediate danger of a coup, it may be highly advisable not to allow any uncertainty to arise with regard to responsibilities for internal and external security. Instead, it would appear necessary to enable the police to deal appropriately with newly emerged internal threats by providing them with equipment and expertise.4 At the same time, the institutional and personal actions of police forces should always be measured against the standard of upholding the law, so that police work does not slip into warlike patterns of legitimization on the quiet. That, then, means upholding the basic and human rights of terrorist attackers – although of course, conversely, these basic and human rights should be applied to these attackers according to the threat that they pose. If multiple institutions or persons could potentially take on a defense role, ethics demands that that role should be assigned to whomever can best perform it. Therefore, we also need to gain a clear understanding about what we consider good defense to be. Ultimately, however, this process of self-conception is not limited only to the inte­rior of states, as the phenomenon of the drone war again shows. Just as the appropriateness of such defense measures outside one’s own borders is discussed internationally, so there is also a need to transform this global communication process into global institutions.

Our safety can no longer be considered merely with regard to the state’s interior. Instead we need to think in terms of a cosmopolitan space. In this respect, then, i.e. in this cosmopolitan interior, national armed forces would be deployed “internally,” too. The Bundeswehr will actually be deployed internally in the future, not in the interior of state X or Y, but in what is in a certain sense a world interior, safeguarded by cooperation between all world citizens. Given the reality we live in, this self-conception seems to remain the only pragmatically consistent stance. And an important point in our context is that this self-conception should lead to changes in our understanding of who is an “adversary,” and to a realization that this adversary is no longer an “enemy” in the traditional sense.5 International humanitarian law will then tend to become more akin to the standards applicable to the police, as has already been pointed out in many debates in law.6

But the global public media and the politics of protecting people in their individuality (keyword “human security”) need to be accompanied by a global political process, otherwise conflicts of values will constantly spiral into acts of violence. After all, there will still be conflicts of values and different ideas about how the global political community should be shaped. Differences between the secular-liberal attitudes of people in the so-called “West” and religious ways of life are still too great, differences in mentality are still too great, and differences in the global distribution of wealth are also too great, promoting different attitudes to property and economic systems. If someone explicitly opposes the formal concept of a “cosmopolitan interior” (e.g. Kant’s “unjust enemy”7) or materially aspires to a completely different system of values, we will never fully do that person justice if we treat them merely on the basis of our values, even if this is in accordance with our extremely high standards of human rights. We will only do the radical adversary justice if we acknowledge him as such, but firstly such radical adversaries are rare, and secondly it is particularly important in their case that we do not betray our own values.

It remains to be hoped – despite the current depressing experiences of renationalization and disintegration – that in the long term, institutions will actually be created that make it possible for every person to regard themselves as a world citizen, and that as such they will be able to participate in a more just, cosmopolitan, integrated community – incidentally without simply levelling either individual identities or the ensuing differences. Even if the White Paper does not dare go that far, nevertheless those thinkers in the various administrative organizations whose minds are open to optimistic speculation could at least give some thought as to what suitable kind of role the armed forces could play in such a world.

1 Bundesministerium der Verteidigung (2016): Weißbuch 2016 – Zur Sicherheitspolitik und zur Zukunft der Bundeswehr (2016 White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr). Berlin, p. 110. 
2 For example, the debate is hampered by a confusion between acts by individuals and institutional action. The imperative of the Fifth Commandment – “thou shalt not kill” – applies to every individual human. One’s own acts should not involve killing. But there is no logical bridge leading from this imperative to the imperative “thou shalt not let be killed”, which invokes the creating of institutions – and especially of the law (e.g. third-party-defence) – which are intended to prevent or at least reduce the number of killings. Both imperatives may be right, both may be wrong. Or only one may be right and the other wrong. Just because one is right, it does not follow that the other is too.
3 Cf. also by this author (2014): “Zum Verhältnis von Freund und Feind im bewaffneten Konflikt.” In: Informationes Theologiae Europae. Internationales ökumenisches Jahrbuch für Theologie 18, pp. 223–229.
4 Questions like these need to be answered with careful attention to real circumstances. Thus, as Aristotle would say, what is right for a large state like Germany may be different for a small state such as Luxembourg. Sometimes, at any rate, when there are calls for the German armed forces to be deployed “internally,” it is hard to escape the impression that the aim is simply to avoid the costs of adequately staffing and equipping the federal and regional police forces.
5 It has been discussed occasionally, but repeatedly, whether terrorists are not something like “hostes humani generis” (Karl Jaspers to Hannah Arendt) – a term that was applied to pirates in ancient Rome. In the case of some globally operating terror groups, the question does indeed arise. But, of course, using this term does not answer the question of how to deal with them.
6 Cf. Habermas, Jürgen (2004): Der gespaltene Westen. Frankfurt, pp. 172–174.
7 Cf. Kant, Immanuel: Metaphysics of Morals. Doctrine of Right, section 60. 



Bernhard Koch is deputy director of the Institute for Theology and Peace (ithf) in Hamburg. He teaches practical philosophy in Frankfurt and studied philosophy, logic and philosophy of science in Munich and Vienna.