The PKK: war, peace, and supreme emergency – part 1

By Meer Ako Ali*:

The Republic of Turkey’s motto is “Peace at Home, Peace in the World” and accordingly the world has seen no peace for nearly three decades. Since it was founded in November, 1978, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (commonly known as the PKK which are the Kurdish initials that stand for Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan) has defied the Turkish government’s hegemony demanding human rights for the Kurds of Turkey.

On August 15, 1984, under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan the party started an armed campaign against the Turkish government as means to achieve their end. The Republic of Turkey has not replied in a diplomatic manner but has rather attempted to justify its own crackdowns and attacks against the PKK and the Kurdish people as a whole. Turkey’s geopolitical influence has led to the PKK’s recognition as a terrorist organization by most of the international community. The purpose of this paper is to disprove that classification. Classifying the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as an organization with entirely terroristic aims and methods is not accurate because the PKK’s armed struggle has been carried out not to terrorize but to demand rights denied to the Kurdish population of Turkey.

“War is an extension of politics through other means,” wrote Carl von Clausewitz in On War, his major, three-volume work; by “other means” he was referring to organized violence. This statement has been deemed valuable by most scholars and has gained much popularity since it was first composed in the early 19th century because it places the phenomenon of war in a clear and valid context. These days we are accustomed to hearing about the “War on Terrorism.” This term for most people entices an image of distinction between “war” and “terrorism” as if they are conspicuously different phenomena; but on closer inspection, we find that the division is much vaguer. Is terrorism a subcategory of the broader spectacle of war? If yes, when does the use of “other means” to pursue political ends become terrorism? If no, what characteristics distinguish terrorism from war?

It is expedient to ask how von Clausewitz would have defined terrorism today. For the purpose of my thesis I will look at the works of popular scholars of “terrorism” to see if it is possible to confine terrorism to a similar, well-defined, Clausewitzian framework. It is necessary to reach a valid and effective conclusion concerning the definition of terrorism in my paper in order to properly classify the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

There has been much contention and debate on this subject of defining terrorism in the academic realm, but there are three popular approaches to the definition: target-focused definitions, violence threshold definitions, and motivation definitions. The target-focused definition states that all acts of violence against “noncombatants” are acts of terrorism. Eric Reitan, a professor of Philosophy in Oklahoma State University who researches ethical theories and moral philosophy, and David Rodin, a leading authority in the ethics of war and conflict from the University of Oxford, push forth the target-focused definition. Reitan argues that “legitimate targets [of terrorists] are distinguished, not by virtue of whether they occupy a combatant role, but by virtue of their membership in an enemy group that admits of a diversity of roles, including noncombatant roles” (Reitan 263); he calls this approach “the ‘group-target’ definition of terrorism” (Reitan 265). Similarly, Rodin believes that “the key to a moral understanding of terrorism is that it consists in the use of force against those who should not have force used against them” (Rodin 755), namely those who do not participate in direct combat.

The violence threshold definition focuses on the amount of aggressiveness used and the damages inflicted by terrorists; when a quantifiable “threshold” is passed, terrorism exists. Murat Günbeyi and Tarkan Gündoğdu, two prominent Turkish researchers in the fields of security and terrorism in Turkey, argue for the violence-threshold definition. “It is apparent that where there is terror,” they write, “there is also intimidation, constraint, fear, anxiety, chaos, instability and a great deal of financial and moral damages” (Günbeyi and Gündoğdu 50).

The third popular definition of terrorism focuses on the motivations that lead to acts of terror and whether they are justifiable or not. Virginia Held, a distinguished professor in Columbia University who researches ethics and terrorism, is an eager supporter of this approach. Held argues that “the violence used by [a] dissatisfied group is the price paid to pursue its goal. […] Whether the goals of a dissatisfied group are morally defensible or not needs to be examined” (Held 68).

A topic of much heated debate in defining terrorism is whether the targeting of noncombatants should be included in the definition. Since Reitan and Rodin take the target-focused approach, they agree that targeting noncombatants is a defining characteristic of terrorism. Reitan believes that terrorism differs “crucially in that it includes civilians within the class of legitimate targets” (Reitan 262). Rodin argues that the “moral repugnance we justifiably feel” toward terrorism comes from “the basic moral judgment that ordinary people who are not engaged in any threatening combat should not be subject to attack” (Rodin 758). Günbeyi and Gündoğdu agree with Reitan and Rodin: “Terrorism is application of violence and threat to civilians or to civil targets” (Günbeyi and Gündoğdu 50). Held, on the other hand, strongly contests this stance. She argues that defining terrorism as the intentional killing of noncombatants is problematic because “a great many actions that are standardly not called terrorism would have to be considered to be” (Held 65) because “persuasive judgments should, for instance, consider how the actions of states opposing terrorist groups have frequently killed far more civilians than have terrorists” (Held 61). The targeting of civilians and noncombatants could be included in the definition of terrorism; however, the emphasis should not be placed on that element. Held points out that “terrorism’s political objectives distinguish it from ordinary crime” (Held 68). Therefore, it is important to consider the individual political goals and motives of individual groups that utilize violence in order to define their actions as terrorism or “justified” war. This view is contrasted by Reitan who writes, “Terrorism needs to be defined without reference to specific motives of terrorists” (Reitan 262). His target-focused definition of terrorism does not judge based on motives.

While I realize that these scholars have legitimate cases against terrorism, there is at least one point that can be raised against each of their definitions. The violence threshold definition is too vague and inconclusive. How much is “a great deal”? Who determines when the “threshold” is passed? Are the “intimidation, constraint, fear, anxiety, chaos, instability and [the] great deal of financial and moral damages” caused in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 by the US acts of terrorism as well? The international consensus which the authors Günbeyi and Gündoğdu tend to share is that the US wars of 2001 and 2003 were not acts of terrorism but were counterterrorist responses. Furthermore, the target-focused definitions of Reitan and Rodin are obsolete because they do not conform to the norms of modern warfare. By their definition, all modern warfare is an act of terrorism because of the conscious use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) by states and non-state groups, including (but not limited to) the use of depleted and enriched uranium by the US and the NATO (RT 1:40). Although Virginia Held’s approach of defining terrorism is the least subjective among the three, it is still susceptible to limitations. There can always be points raised against the morality of the political goals behind a certain act of violence which therefore endangers the legitimacy of the political goals making them not “morally defensible” but morally attackable.

Even though Reitan and Rodin, Günbeyi and Gündoğdu, and Held aim at defining terrorism for different reasons and in different ways, they all acknowledge that their own stances could be criticized because of the nature of terrorism that makes it difficult to define. Reitan addresses two issues in defining terrorism: “the diversity of phenomena falling within the scope of ordinary use” makes terrorism a very vague and clichéd term with no well-defined borders of meaning and that “terrorism serves as a label of condemnation” used by opposing sides against each other (Reitan 254). Rodin argues that “it is not the case that establishing a moral definition trivializes the task of morally assessing terrorism by turning it into a matter of simple definition” because “it is part of the function of a moral definition to explain why the class of actions is wrong” and that “there exist cases in which the act so defined may be justified or excused” (Rodin 753). Günbeyi and Gündoğdu believe that “the experts and the researchers cannot make a mutual description of terrorism. Because of their policies, many state security units and relevant research centres describe terror differently” (Günbeyi and Gündoğdu 50). For Held, the problem lies in that all nations and sub-national groups try “to come up with a definition such that what they [others] do is terrorism and unjustified, whereas what we and our friends do is not terrorism but a justified response to it, or is justified self-defense” (Held 65). While it is certainly nice to see a point in which the contested triad agrees on, this particularly is not a good sign as it supposes all attempts toward defining terrorism are biased and inadequate.

Having now looked at and compared the works of popular scholars on terrorism and found them very contentious, I suggest that the word terrorism no longer be used to label political warfare. The reason for this conclusion is that, as the scholars cited above agree, there will always be disagreements regarding the definition of terrorism. It has become impossible to define terrorism in clear and blatant Clausewitzian terms. Terrorism has transformed into a word which has adopted a connotation without having a clear definition; it has turned into what the famed English author and journalist George Orwell calls a “meaningless word.” In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes of words that are “strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader” (Orwell 711). Orwell then explains what meaningless words are by looking at the word democracy:

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. (Orwell 711)

In Orwell’s sense, the word “terrorism” has reached the status of words like “democracy.” In other words (not “meaningless” ones, I hope), the word terrorism is used as a label by all states and non-state actors involved in combat with individuals, groups, or countries to condemn their enemies for unjust use of violence and to excuse their use of violence as just responses to what they claim to be “terrorism.” This, however, is an unfair use of language aimed at deceiving people and has to be dealt with because, as Orwell argues, corrupted language can corrupt thought (Orwell 715). If we continue the habit of employing the word terrorism to point fingers at our political enemies, it will not only lead to the corruption of language but also to the corruption of politics. One important step toward the “political regeneration” (Orwell 707) Orwell talks about would be to completely eliminate the use of the word terrorism to refer to political warfare. Instead, warfare should be judged to be either “justified” or “unjustified.” I propose that the word terrorism should be reserved for only the very random cases of violence in which no organization and/or political goals can be perceived, but rather they are carried out for the sheer purpose of enticing terror in a group of combatants or civilians.

A complete study of the incentives used to determine which wars are “just” and which ones are “unjust” goes beyond the scope of this paper. However, it can be proved here that in some cases where the survival of a group of people is at stake and no other retreat beside the use of arms is available to them, then their use of violence to end the risk posed to their collective survival can be justified. Virginia Held and Michael Walzer who is a prominent American political philosopher and public intellectual push forward this standpoint. Walzer is famous for his statements about the “supreme emergency” doctrine which offers limited justification for very certain acts of violence. The phrase “supreme emergency” was coined by Winston Churchill in justification of Britain’s attacks on the whole of Germany to overthrow and avoid the looming Nazi threat. Walzer writes, “A supreme emergency exists when our deepest values and our collective survival are in imminent danger […]. Can moral constraints have any hold upon us at such a time? What can and what should political leaders do when confronting danger on that scale?” (Walzer 33). To Walzer, “‘supreme emergency’ describes those rare moments when the negative value that we assign— that we can’t help assigning— to the disaster that looms before us devalues morality itself and leaves us free to do whatever is militarily necessary to avoid the disaster, so long as what we do doesn’t produce an even worse disaster” (Walzer 40). Held argues that “no form of violence can be justified unless other means of achieving a legitimate political objective have failed” (Held 71). She believes that acts of violence that “create acceptable political outcomes” are more justifiable than others that would “bring the end of democratic discourse and [violate] its subjects’ human rights” (Held 70). Michael Walzer’s doctrine of “supreme emergency” and Virginia Held’s distinction “justifiable” violence boil down to a consideration of why a group or a state has adopted violence and what would happen to that group or state if they lay down arms. Have they taken up violence as a response to threats of annihilation when all other methods of self-protection have been exhausted? Are they fighting because their “deepest values and [their] collective survival are in imminent danger”? Whenever “yes” is the answer to these two questions, then the use of violence by the persecuted group or state can be justified and it can rightly be said that they are in a situation of “supreme emergency.” An instance of just war therefore exists when a group or state is responding in violence against the dictates or structures that pose threats to its existence.

Following this establishment of terminology, the rest of this paper will refocus on the case of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to explain that the PKK has adopted violence because the Kurdish population of Turkey has found itself in a case of supreme emergency with no retreat other than an armed conflict. I will look at the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, historical accounts of the situation of the Kurds in Turkey, the works of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the works of peacekeeping NGOs, as well as relative figures and statistics.

* The author would like to thank Nate George, Instructor at the American University of Beirut, for his helpful suggestions and insights on this paper.

2 Responses to The PKK: war, peace, and supreme emergency – part 1
  1. Goran A. Kurda
    January 29, 2012 | 23:00

    Great read Kaka Meer. Keep up the good work. We are proud to have you.

  2. Kuvan Bamarny
    January 30, 2012 | 00:32

    Armed struggle is a valid option to take but only to achieve a legitemate, lawful goal.I believe the goal of PKK is legitimate because they fight for thier legitimate democratic rights.

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