War, Terrorism and Torture: Provoking a Debate

War, Terrorism and Torture: Provoking a Debate

Dr Uwe Steinhoff

To ask whether war, terrorism and torture are ever justified would seem to be a pointless exercise. After all, modern political rhetoric tilts firmly towards "just" wars, against terrorism and against torture. But Dr Uwe Steinhoff, Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, argues there are double standards, hypocrisy and propaganda underpinning these views.

Dr Steinhoff has been promoting deeper and more nuanced debate about these acts through appearances on radio and television programmes in Europe and Asia, articles in newspapers and journals, and public lectures.

He has also authored various scholarly articles on war and violence and two books, On the Ethics of War and Terrorism and On the Ethics of Torture, which have been added to the syllabuses of several military academies.

"One of the most important things a philosopher can do is to reveal and challenge double standards," he said.

"I am not particularly a supporter of the war on terror and I think there is a lot of hypocrisy of the sort that says, when we are doing it, it's justified violence, it's a justified war; but when they are doing it, it's terrorism."

He argues that innocent people on both sides can be killed or harmed and that an important point to consider is proportionality.

"In wars, far more innocent people are being killed collaterally than by terrorists directly. To take the position that yes, we killed one million people collaterally and therefore we are much better people than others who killed 3,000 people directly [in a terrorist act], is not a convincing argument to me."

Yet he also argues that terrorism and torture may, in rare cases, be justified by self-defence and necessity, for instance, to prevent even more people from being harmed or having their rights violated. The key term is "rare cases" - he does not think situations such as the abuse of inmates at Guantanamo Bay should be seen in this light, given the double standards on the war on terror and the lack of debate. "The justifications there are far too sweeping," he said.

Dr Steinhoff's views have been carried in outlets such as the BBC, Radio Free Asia, the Austrian newspaper Der Standard and Swiss television. He has received mostly positive reactions, even from those who do not agree with him. "It is useful to disseminate these ideas to a wider audience and instigate a debate," he added.

Dr Uwe Steinhoff received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2013 of the Faculty of Social Sciences for the project: 'On the Ethics of Violence: War, Terrorism, and Torture'.