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December 8, 2021

What would Locke do? Why his take on terror matters

By JACOB GRUNBERGER | February 21, 2013

It nearly goes without saying that the Enlightenment fundamentally changed the popular conception of government in society. For the United States, which adopted a constitution out of the ideals of this period of thought, perhaps no thinker was as influential as John Locke, whose writings on the composition and limitations of political institutions sit at the heart of the document that guides our state.

The reason that I bring this up is because if Americans are to be citizens keen on maintaining a union that strives to abide by the Constitution, then I think it is sometimes interesting to consult its underlying philosophies to examine whether current policies adhere to the spirit of the nation’s legal tradition.

Ultimately, ideas do not obfuscate policy, but rather guide them so that decisions that may affect the state’s future are not narrow-minded or ad hoc. The rise of terrorism and non-state actors within the global polity has proved to be one of the greatest moral challenges that has faced the US in its brief history. The concern that these individuals target civilians and may reside in any state has led to the degradation of many of the civil liberties that have traditionally been held in the highest esteem, all as a measure to prevent the destruction of the aspects of modern civilization that John Locke sought most to protect: life, liberty and property.

That said, many of the theorist’s views may be seen as contradictory and can cause uncertainty as to whether he would have supported such measures as domestic spying, indefinite detention or torture in order to protect the property, both defined as one’s person and possessions, of a free people.

Locke argues that rights, especially private property rights, are to be protected and defended by the state without any encroachment. This is true for two main reasons. The first reason is that in the absence of an impartial government, there is no hope for unbiased arbitration of rights infringements, which run the risk of sparking violence. The second reason is that since everyone is to be considered equal — to Locke because we are all God’s possessions, and to us because we have confirmed physiological equality through science — a government that violates the rights of any group would have precedent to seize the property of another.

But the issue to consider is whether suspected terrorists have rights. After all, it can be argued that their very purpose is to destroy private property, whether that be through attacks on infrastructure, businesses or daily life. Interestingly enough, Locke was not sympathetic to violent ideologues and called on government to suppress them, stating in his A Letter Concerning Toleration, “The like ... who upon pretense of religion do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion, I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion.” Locke reasons that they ought not to be tolerated because “they may and are ready upon any occasion to seize the Government and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects.” This idea would make it seem clear that the government would be justified in abridging the rights of extremists to protect the greater society. Locke, in short, considers it acceptable to be intolerant of the intolerant.

But should we accept this argument? Despite Locke’s evidence, I would suggest that he would be opposed to stripping terrorists of their rights. Before providing my opinions, it is necessary to recognize the historical context in which Locke was writing. The society in which he lived was wrought with torture, executed both by the state and its inhabitants and was one of the primary impetuses for his writing on toleration. The idea was that torture was unpleasant, unsuccessful and antithetical to Christianity or a free regime in that it harkened to the “state of war” in which human whims invite militarism. This already begins to nullify the argument that torture ought to be classified as simple intolerance toward the intolerant. It is a deeper examination of A Letter Concerning Toleration, though, that truly proves the point. Locke argued that the righteous individual ought to love his enemy and teach him the ways of his church as opposed to converting him through violence. It should be noted that to Locke, Christianity was the basis of societal morality. In the US, that may only be partially true, since we also adhere to a specific form of rule-based utilitarianism with judicial checks against a tyranny of the majority.

With this, one must understand that terrorists aren’t stupid or necessarily evil, but rather operate within the confines of a fabricated reality. This is why most terrorists are intelligent engineers: it is not the product of a violent religion but rather of systemic poverty, exclusion from society and religious animosity. Taken into context, the following quote becomes incredibly powerful:

“But it is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties. This civil power alone has a right to do; to the other, goodwill is authority enough. Every man has commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of error, and, by reasoning, to draw him into truth; but to give laws, receive obedience and compel with the sword, belongs to none but the magistrate. And, upon this ground, I affirm that the magistrate’s power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws. For laws are of no force at all without penalties, and penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent, because they are not proper to convince the mind.”

What does this all demonstrate? Locke believed that being intolerant to the intolerant did not consist of inflicting grievous bodily harm upon those individuals, but rather of disengaging with their teachings. Such action would allow us to win the war of reason by teaching the liberal way of life and by ultimately standing behind the principles that make liberal societies great.

In the context of the United States, this is clearly an argument that the imposition of extrajudicial action to combat the threat of extremists is incorrect and that we ought to uphold the foundational rights upon which the state was established: the freedom of expression, the protection from illegal searches and seizures and the right to a fair and speedy trial.

It is crucial to remember that when the theorist wrote, “No peace and security . . . can ever be established or preserved amongst men so long as this opinion prevails, that dominion is founded in grace and that religion is to be propagated by force of arms,” he was rallying his readers to stand as a bulwark against an ominous threat: the imposition of a security state which destroys the natural rights bestowed upon man by his creator.

Jacob Grunberger is a senior Political Science major from Cresskill, N.J. He is the foreign affairs columnist for The News-Letter. 

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