Americans love a good conspiracy theory. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” was nominated for eight Academy Awards. “Truther” 9/11 documentaries have millions of hits on YouTube. Presidential candidate Donald Trump was a famous proponent of the view that Barack Obama is not an American citizen.
Now, with the latest in the “Star Wars” franchise, “The Force Awakens,” about to be released, conspiracy theories about a galaxy far, far away are flying around like a swarm of buzz droids.
The last month has seen articles arguing that the Jedi are actually bad guys, that the genocidal destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Empire was “completely justified” and that Luke Skywalker turned to the dark side in his final fight with Darth Vader. (Why Luke urged his father to “let go of his hate” and embrace the good within him, the author did not say.)
Such notions are nothing new. In Kevin Smith’s 1994 classic movie “Clerks,” the character Randal is bothered by the destruction of Death Star II in “Return of the Jedi.” Weren’t there thousands of “ independent contractors” working on the unfinished battle station, he asks. Wouldn't they have been “innocent victims” of “left-wing militants”?
What Randal was suggesting was that the Rebel Alliance is a terrorist organization. After all, the rebels were willing to kill innocent people to advance a political agenda.
As an academic ethicist who demands precision in moral judgments, I find this conspiracy theory one of the few worth taking seriously — not least because it helps sharpen our moral reasoning about terrorism in general.
Let’s examine what is meant by saying something is an act of terrorism. All terrorists kill innocent people, but not all who kill innocent people are terrorists. The difference lies in the intention of the person doing the killing. If the death of an innocent person was either your goal or the means by which you accomplished your goal, then you’re a terrorist. If the death of innocent people was not intended, then you’re not (though your action may be morally wrong).
Real-life examples illustrate the difference. In 2004, an Al Qaeda-inspired group detonated 10 bombs on four commuter trains during Madrid’s rush hour, killing almost 200 innocent people. Compare this with Israel’s initial response to Hamas rocket attacks in 2014, a response that killed innocent Palestinians.
Though the Israeli response may have been disproportionate, it’s a mistake to think of it as terrorism. Israel used TV and radio broadcasts, phone calls, text messages and even leaflets to warn innocent civilians to leave the areas that would be attacked. Israel’s goal was to destroy Hamas’ offensive capability. Far from targeting civilians, its military tried to warn those who were in the area that attacks were coming.
On the other hand, the Madrid bombers wanted to kill innocents as the means of achieving their objective: pushing Spain's national elections toward candidates who were against the Iraq war. In intentionally targeting innocent people for death, they committed a clearly terrorist act.
Now back to “Star Wars”: What kind of act was the rebels' attack on Death Star II? Did they intentionally target the innocent contractors on board? Not at all.
Indeed, suppose the rebels found out that during the battle the workers were actually on the nearby forest moon during a scheduled day off. Nothing about the rebel mission would have been thwarted. Like the Israelis in their attack on Hamas, the rebels surely foresaw that their assault would probably kill innocent people, but these deaths were not the means by which they accomplished their end goal: eliminating the Empire’s weapon of mass destruction. It wasn’t terrorism.
But just because an act is not terrorism does not mean is it morally good. Lots of people, including me, believe that the Israeli response to Hamas, especially as it accelerated in the summer of 2014, was disproportionate to the evil Hamas had caused. Furthermore, the deaths of Palestinian innocents over the decades, even when unintended, make up a primary reason for the seemingly intractable and globally toxic Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What about the rebel attack on Death Star II? It wasn’t terrorism, but was it proportionate? If the history of the first battle station is anything to go by, the rebels could be confident that an unmolested Death Star II would have gone on a genocidal killing spree by destroying dozens of planets. The rebel attack, therefore, saved billions of lives, and was therefore a proportionate response.
“Star Wars” traditionalists can breathe easy. With due respect to the conspiracy theorists, the rebels are the good guys.
Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. A more detailed version of this essay appears in the just-released book, "The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned." Twitter: @nohiddenmagenta