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The legal structure of warfare is a dramatic example of a changing regime, even while its fundamental principles remain constant. Conflict management asks that international actors devise and follow rules to prevent the reckless escalation and widening of conflicts—often requiring deterrence as well as defense—and to promote the termination of violence and the rebuilding of post-war confidence. Principles of humanity ask that conflicts be conducted in a way that minimizes the needless suffering of soldiers and protects noncombatant civilians. The application of these principles may not look the same in each era, with changes in technology, the character of conflicts, and the personality of the actors.

Modern terrorism has salient differences from traditional warfare. The actors are often not states, but rather ideological, political, or ethnic factions. States have a host of international commitments and aspirations that create an incentive to avoid all-out warfare and to avoid undermining the rules of war, while a single-purpose terrorist organization may operate without mitigation. A terrorist group often calculates that it will win attention for its cause and undermine a target government by the very atrocity of its tactics. A terrorist group is less vulnerable to international sanctions, as it does not possess a visible economy, land area, or identified population. With an uncertain membership and inchoate form, terrorist networks lie outside the web of civil responsibility that constrains private and public actors in international society.

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