Terror and Natural Law 6 December 2016

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Northern lights above fjords in IcelandIn my prayers on Yom Kippur a few weeks ago, I included a plea for no more terror attacks around the world. Unlike other prayers that are motivated by concern or empathy for others, something else motivated this prayer, one that explains our feeling of revulsion towards terror: natural law.

This idea, which is at least two thousand years old, although it has gone through many developments as any idea does over that amount of time, is best formulated in the work of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century scholastic figure and later in the Jewish tradition in the work of Rabbi Joseph Albo. Aquinas describes natural law as participation through reason in eternal law. That is taken by scholars to mean one of two things: Either, that human beings have an innate sense of what is good and evil, and they have the ability to determine which of their actions fit into which category. Alternatively, human beings are inclines towards basic, fundamental goods.

In an earlier source, namely, the 6th/7th century figure Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, examples of these goods include “the union of man and women, the children’s inheritance and education, the common possession of everything,” as well as “a single freedom for all” (as translated by Stephen Barney et al). By the same definition, natural law would include the ability to sustain oneself, to move freely, and to enjoy life as everyone else.

Most of the time in a terror attack, there is no specific target. Thus, everyone is a target. And it isn’t even life that is threatened, as death isn’t always the result. The attack more directly targets the ability of citizens to engage in any of the activities towards which they are directed. It means people cannot travel on a plane, attend a soccer game, eat at a cafe, celebrate a national holiday, or attend a musical performance.   The reason we relate to this so deeply is because terror disrupts the very way we understand, and relate to, life.

Further, although any loss of life is tragic, there is something far more visceral about terror that distinguishes it from a natural disaster. That difference goes beyond intentionality, or the simple fact that those who engage in terrorist acts do so purposely. It is that in exercising our natural inclinations, there is a give-and-take of sorts. Nature can offer sustenance and nice climates, but it can also bring drought and violent storms. There is almost an implicit pact, in other words, that one can benefit from nature but be harmed by it as well.

Terror violates that principle and is by definition external to any agreement. By that, I do not mean that a tacit agreement with perpetrators of terror would justify it. Rather, I am saying that what makes this form of terror so unnatural and inhuman, and the reason why it shakes us to the core, is that it strikes at human beings because they have exercised their natural rights and freedoms in spite of the fact that they have not taken their relationships with others or with nature for granted. They have only underestimated the brutality of their attackers. Please join me in praying for an end to terror.

This article is from Issue 14 of On Religion. Intelligent thinking about religion and society is needed now more than ever, help us and subscribe for £19 a year. Subscribe Button

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About Jonathan Milevsky

Jonathan Milevsky is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario where he is working on the natural law theory of David Novak. Jonathan has an M.A. in Humanities and a Jewish Studies Diploma from York University in Toronto Canada, where he researched Maimonides' and Nietzsche's views on character development. Jonathan lives in Toronto with his spouse and three children.