Rebels with a Cause: The Minds and Morality of Political Offenders.

Author:Forman, James, Jr.

REBELS WITH A CAUSE: THE MINDS AND MORALITY OF POLITICAL OFFENDERS. By Nicholas N. Kittrie. Boulder: Westview Press. 2000. Pp. xxviii, 411. $35.

What do George Washington and Eldridge Cleaver have in common? Or John Brown and Mahatma Gandhi? The Stern Gang and the Palestine Liberation Organization? Jefferson Davis and Eugene Debs? In Rebels with a Cause: The Minds and Morality of Political Offenders, Nicholas Kittrie (1) says they are all political offenders--men and women who, "professing loyalty to a divine or higher law, to the call of individual conscience, or to the imperatives of some perceived public good, have challenged the legitimacy and authority of the institutions of their governments" (p. 6). Kittrie sets out to study the whole lot: "Civil disobedients. Conscientious objectors. Dissidents. Fanatics. Freedom fighters. Fundamentalists. Militants. Political prisoners. Pseudopoliticals. Rebels. Regicides. Resisters. Revolutionaries. Terrorists" (p. xv). In addition to surveying the entire range of political offenders, Kittrie sets out to answer a set of related questions about the appropriate role of dissent, both domestically and internationally. How can one distinguish worthy dissenters from unworthy terrorists and criminals? When is dissent legitimate? How should governments treat their own political dissenters? How should nations respond when other countries abuse political rebels? What principles should guide asylum and extradition decisions? When are host nations liable for having given safe harbor to international political offenders?

If Kittrie's goals sound overly ambitious, they are. As a result, his book ends up giving mostly superficial attention to issues that require sustained analysis. This Review will examine Kittrie's analysis from two perspectives. First, I will discuss what he has to say about rebels in the international arena. Kittrie purports to offer a classification scheme that will allow the international community to objectively and prospectively distinguish political rebels from common criminals, and freedom fighters from terrorists. As we shall see, however, his scheme provides less guidance in making such distinctions than he imagines. Second, I consider Kittrie's more successful discussion of American political rebels. In my discussion of Kittrie's argument concerning America's rebellious roots, government responses to political offenders, and the enduring importance of domestic dissent, I will draw particularly on the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


    Of Kittrie's many goals, one is paramount: to "classify[] and subdivid[e] the wide spectrum of political dissidence--from peaceful dissent to indiscriminate violence ..." (p. 35). It is the absence of such a classification scheme, says Kittrie, that has led so many to accept "the jaded aphorism" that "one person's freedom fighter is another's terrorist" (p. xvii). If only somebody would create a typology of political offenders, says Kittrie, society could readily distinguish the legitimate dissenters from the outcast terrorists. A few pages later Kittrie repeats his goal, writing that "we must urgently proceed with our specified mission--categorizing the illusive political offenders and defining the rules of warfare that should control the conflicts between them and those in possession of power" (p. 44). Despite his promise to proceed "urgently," a few hundred pages later Kittrie has still not revealed his classification scheme. He instead assures the reader that one is possible, writing, "just political offenders can be identified and distinguished from both international outlaws and common criminals ..." (p. 242). Near the end of the book Kittrie informs us that the previous 300 pages were foundational, and that he will soon present the classification scheme: "Upon the foundations laid in the intervening chapters, an ambitious framework can now be advanced to comprehensively classify all those who take part in what is described as political dissent, rebellion, and resistance" (p. 308). Kittrie does not finally divulge the classification scheme until the last page of Rebels--in the appendix, no less (p. 350).

    Stating an aim, however, is not the same as achieving it. Kittrie calls his classification scheme "A Typology of Political Offenses: From Terrorism to Human Rights Struggles" (p. 350). The typology ranges from "International Rights Conflicts (i.e., Human Rights Struggles)" at one end of the spectrum to "International Crimes (i.e. Terrorism)" at the other. "Political Offenses," "Anti-Colonial and Anti-Racist Conflicts (i.e., Freedom Fighting)," "Non-International Armed Conflicts," and "Domestic Crimes" fill in the gaps between. Categories on the terroristic end of the spectrum are printed in dark gray, while those on the human rights end are lighter. A group's cause and the means it uses to achieve that cause are central. Fighting for an internationally approved cause with approved means earns one a place in the "Human Rights Struggle" category. Internationally condemned causes and means put one in the "Terrorist" category. Those in between fall into various middle categories. For example, a group that uses violence (a disfavored means) in pursuit of internationally approved goals would fall into a middle category, such as "freedom fighters." Using violence in pursuit of a goal that is not internationally approved but also not internationally proscribed would earn one a spot in the "non-international armed conflicts" category.

    Where one fits in the typology matters quite a lot--a host of international protections or punishments are implicated. For example, an actor engaged in a human rights struggle is entitled to asylum, not subject to extradition, and, if criminally prosecuted, may use his engagement in a human rights struggle as a defense. A freedom fighter, by contrast, gets less protection under asylum and extradition law, though he would be entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions and could not be prosecuted as a common criminal. At the dark end of the spectrum is the terrorist, who is subject to the universal jurisdiction of all states and can be prosecuted wherever found, with no benefit from the Geneva Conventions.

    The problem with the typology is that it doesn't answer the hard questions and we don't need it for the easy ones. Kittrie believes that his typology outlines principles that "can be concretely and objectively applied to virtually all categories of actors taking part in political conflicts" (p. 340). But there is reason to question his enthusiasm. Since each distinction that Kittrie makes is a matter of deep moral and political controversy, anything resembling a factual and objective test faces enormous difficulties from the outset. Consider, for example, Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress ("ANC"). Even by its own account, the ANC used violence, (2) sometimes against civilians. (3) So, under Kittrie's typology, its members cannot claim the mantle of human rights advocates. But were they freedom fighters or terrorists? The answer turns on the ANC's goals. Were Mandela and his followers fighting for a free and democratic South Africa? Or were they trying to achieve a Communist dictatorship? According to the ANC and its defenders, their goal was the former. But in the 1980s, many congressional Republicans and President Ronald Reagan vehemently disagreed. Both the ANC and its Namibian counterpart, the South West African' People's Organization ("SWAPO"), were "Soviet-sponsored terrorist organizations," said Senator Strom Thurmond, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism. (4) The ANC, said Reagan, consisted of "Soviet-armed guerrillas," and "the South African government is under no obligation to negotiate the future of the country with any organization that proclaims the goal of creating a Communist State and uses terrorist tactics and violence to achieve it." (5) The weakness in Kittrie's typology is that it assumes agreement about such things as the goals of a revolutionary movement, as if they were not subject to competing (and complexly motivated) descriptions.

    In the same vein, Kittrie mistakenly believes that the emergence of universally accepted international norms will solve classification problems. According to Kittrie, "the community of civilized nations is in the process of arriving at a common core of universal principles regarding both proper governance and...

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