Legitimacy and Political Violence: A Habermasian Perspective

By Cook, Deborah | Social Justice, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Legitimacy and Political Violence: A Habermasian Perspective


Cook, Deborah, Social Justice


HIGHLY CONTENTIOUS ISSUES EMERGE IN CONNECTION WITH POLITICAL VIOLENCE; among these are the innocence of victims, political obligation, as well as rights and rights violations. This article attempts to deal with the issue of legitimacy as that issue has taken shape in the violent conflicts between terrorist organizations and states. Beginning with a review of the social scientific literature, and proceeding to address Max Weber's ideas about the social and psychological bases for legitimacy, I end with an appraisal of Jurgen Habermas' views. Along the way, a variety of questions is raised: In what ways has legitimacy been contested? How is legitimacy defined? Under what conditions may legitimacy be ascribed to states or terrorist organizations? In what does their legitimacy consist? It should be stated from the outset that these questions are posed on a more general, philosophical level; no judgments about the legitimacy of particular states or organizations are made. However, it is hoped that this examination of legitimacy will make a modest contribution to contemporary debates. Since political violence today often revolves around the issue of legitimacy, this issue requires much closer scrutiny than it has received in the existing social scientific and philosophical literature. For that reason, this article seeks to broach a more critical examination of the notion of legitimacy.

The Social Scientific Argument

A number of social scientists have identified legitimacy as one of the more important issues confronting the study of terrorism. For example, Martha Crenshaw has argued that legitimacy is "a critical problem in the analysis of terrorism, and indeed any form of political violence." For her, legitimacy is a critical problem for analysts because it often plays a central role in conflicts between states and terrorist organizations; in these conflicts, each side contests the other's legitimacy. Although she does not offer examples to illustrate these distinctions, Crenshaw observes that left-wing terrorists generally "deny the legitimacy of the state and claim that the use of violence against it is morally justified." Right-wing terrorists often "deny the legitimacy of opposition and hold that violence in the service of order is sanctioned by the value of the status quo." Finally, embattled states make their own claims to legitimacy: a state confronting terrorist violence will usually find itself obliged to "maintain and defend its legitimacy while delegitimizing the terrorist challenge" (Crenshaw, 1983a: 2).

Other writers make claims similar to those of Crenshaw. In various ways, terrorist organizations call into question the worthiness to be recognized of states they attack. For example, a terrorist organization may attempt to goad a state into enacting repressive laws and intrusive security measures that effectively curtail democratic rights and freedoms, thereby indirectly undermining the legitimacy of the state in question. This view of terrorist strategy is widely shared in the social scientific literature. One instance cited in which this goal is paramount is the republican struggle in Northern Ireland. However, other social scientists are persuaded that the primary goal of terrorist organizations is to acquire legitimacy for themselves. Irving Horowitz (1983: 46) states categorically: "Terrorist groups ultimately are engaged in a search for legitimation." Unfortunately, Horowitz does not elaborate on this search for legitimacy.

Attempts by terrorist organizations to establish their own legitimacy do not necessarily conflict with their efforts to undermine the legitimacy of states. The two goals are not mutually exclusive. The state's loss may be the terrorists' gain: if a state can be shown to lack legitimacy (owing to systemic discrimination against a significant segment of its population, for example), the cause of a terrorist organization stands to benefit, nationally and internationally, even when its violent methods are denounced.

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