My question is essentially, what are the philosophical reasons behind the way in which societies as a whole react to terrorism. Taking the recent Manchester attacks as an example, 22 people were killed in a bomb explosion. On average about 1400 people die a day in the UK. Now what is it about terrorism that attracts the outcry/policy changes and general disproportionate impact upon society relative to the absolute damage caused?

  • What does this have to do with your study of philosophy?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 21:00
  • @JosephWeissman Well I was wondering what the philosophical reasons might be, for people having a stronger reaction to terrorism, than to other things which cause a much larger loss of life.
    – mrnovice
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 21:03
  • 1
    I think this may be more of a cognaitve science question, or psychology. Myself, I perceive the answer to be a consequence of our division of things into conscious and unconscious. If something is unconscious, like heart disease or even a DUI driver who we feel is unaware of their actions, we put them in a bin of things that are predictable. We can do statistics on them. If we feel like something conscious is attacking us, we put it in a different bin because we're terrified of the idea of an attack that has some intelligence behind it. We don't know what comes next.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:37
  • We feel that we can control the unconscious things if we want, but we know we cannot control another conscious entity.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 16:38
  • @CorrAmmon you have some interesting thoughts on the matter, I would love to read more about what you think the cause is.
    – mrnovice
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 17:35

3 Answers 3


Terrorism is classified as war and thus understood in the context of war ethics. Traditionally, the ethics is divided into two considerations: when to go to war or who has the moral right to start a war (called jus ad bellum), and what should be morally permissible ways of acting during the war (called jus in bello).

Under jus in bello, citizens are viewed as non-combatants, and thus as being innocent. Thus argued is that terrorism whose nature is the attack of citizens is morally impermissible. Viewed in this light, terror acts attract public outcry for the acts' moral impressibility.

Now the story does not end here. Many terrorists regard themselves as freedom-fighters, and regard their cause as being just. This means that they can appeal to jus ad bellum. That is, in a way they believe that they have the right to start a war. They then argue that in a democracy, all the citizens are morally, collectively culpable when their leaders engage in unjust wars. After all, it is the citizens who chose their leaders.

There are articles that concede this point, yet try to show why attacking democratic citizens is nonetheless morally impermissible (.e.g, terrorism makes people live in constant fear, which is despotic. Meeting injustice with another injustice thus cannot be justified.)

  • An interesting counterargument - Rousseau would argue that "Terrorism" cannot be classified as "war". In "On The Social Contract" he defines war as "a relationship between one state and another", and explicitly excludes other aggressions. The term "war" has taken on other contexts - e.g. "the war on drugs" - but this seems more a literary use, and therefore I am not sure if military doctrine applies to it. Perhaps it's a historical distinction without a difference in terms of terrorism, but I'm not sure. Commented May 26, 2017 at 18:58
  • But surely American civil war is defined as 'war', despite the fact that it occurred within one nation. An organized entity that asserts the right to self-determination can be loosely viewed as a sovereign. Commented May 26, 2017 at 19:13
  • But in the American civil war there was a clear state and Confederate government. This was also demonstrated by the distinction between the IRA and Sinn Féin. Without a true Caliphate with a distinct government, ISIS and other terrorist organizations are not organized in the traditional sense. Instead the "war" is against radicalism (an ideology) and not a sovereign nation. *I am just exploring the concept, I found your original answer interesting and reasonable. Commented May 27, 2017 at 19:14

First and foremost, this is a tragedy for all those directly affected as well as so many people in the wider society. I hope that the focus in the response is not offensive or callous towards this or any other event like this.

I would argue that the OP reference to a "disproportionate impact" is not appropriately contextualizing the event. The "absolute damage" the OP describes is quantified by the human casualties of the attack. However, the purpose and damage of a terrorist attack is wider than the tangible impact. The damage extends to the creation of fear and disruption. Demonstrated when attacks do not include any military or political target, the intent is to strip any sense of security which is foundational to society and to chip away on the morale of a population. This demoralization is a historically significant mechanism of attacking an enemy in many forms of competition; psychological warfare, ideological conflicts, politics, etc.

It is important to counteract these effects and reinforce the collective unity. To do this, we share in the pain and loss. We demonstrate strength through support. If we are undeterred to live our lives together and not dissolve into hate, it is a triumph over terror.


I assume that is because, in our view, the victims' deaths were unfair and unjustifiable while we do not care about the thousands deaths that occur naturally a day because it's the natural course of events. Then again, media make money out of news like these. News spread and we start thinking "what if we were in that situation?". The fear of death/the sorrow for our relatives' death makes us feel horrified about what happened.


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