Terrorism: some historical context

There are of course historical precedents for the terrorism of today, but none I think that quite measures up to the modern Islamicist variety. But before we get on to this, let’s define the term. It’s often used incorrectly. It was initially coined to describe the use of fear by governments in order to elicit compliance by their subjects, as exemplified by the notorious French Revolutionary ‘Reign of Terror’ of 1793-94. It was only in later years that ‘terrorisme’ came to be applied more to anti-authority groups and movements. Today the word is often used for any radical group that espouses violence; but strictly speaking it should cover only those that want to achieve change by literally terrifying people indiscriminately. So, assassinating a political, military or religious leader should not be classed as terrorism, nor the blowing up of (say) a government building; although any of these acts might give rise to a more general fear incidentally. On the other hand the World War II carpet-bombings of London and Dresden, followed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can be called terrorist acts, as their whole aim was to cow general populations into pressing for surrender. The whole point of ‘terrorism’ is the one that is usually held against it: that it targets ‘innocents’. I hope that’s clear.

The terrorists I am most familiar with historically – mainly through my studies of the police and espionage agencies ranged against them – are the Continental anarchists and Irish Fenians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The anarchists were the truest ‘terrorists’. They threw bombs into cafés and theatres, at religious processions, and at underground trains. Charged with murdering innocent people, they replied that no-one was truly ‘innocent’ if he or she supported the political and economic system of the time, even passively – for example by buying a cup of coffee at a capitalist cafe. Occasionally they were marginally more discriminating, for example targeting their theatre bombs at the front rows of the stalls, where the rich were sitting; or only at ‘fashionable’ restaurants. The Irish mainly – but not always: vide Omagh – targeted people and buildings that could be legitimately associated with British colonial power, like prisons (in order to release captive Fenians), barracks, the Tower of London, The Times offices, and Westminster Abbey. The same is true of Indian nationalists in the 1910s. All these groups were enormously aided by the invention of dynamite in the 1870s, which could wreak more damage than gunpowder, and was far more stable. Occasionally the bombers blew themselves up nonetheless, but never deliberately.

These acts certainly drew public attention to the anarchist, Irish and Indian causes. But it is arguable that none of them materially furthered the aims of their perpetrators, whatever those may have been in the case of the anarchists. (They were very vague.) In particular, they didn’t ‘terrify’ people greatly. The British, especially, were quite proud of this. These ‘outrages’ of course provoked counter-measures by British governments, but often behind the backs of the public, who didn’t think the situation merited them, and were more jealous than they seem to be today of their ‘civil liberties’ (see below, March 1); and the measures – increased surveillance, and the like – could rarely be described as draconian. Terrorism was never considered an existential threat. That must be accounted its greatest failure. Terrorism has to inspire terror. Otherwise it hasn’t worked.

So far, so familiar. What you didn’t get in this period, however – so far as I am aware – was terrorism fuelled by religious fanaticism, and exported abroad. You did get religious fanaticism, certainly, some of it murderous, and much of it at the hands of self-described Muslims, right back to the foundation of the religion: see Ephraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: a History (2006). (Yes, Islam has been one of the main practitioners of ‘imperialism’, as well as a victim.) But in olden times its massacres of non-believers usually came about in ‘conventional’ ways, that is, at the hands of armies and rulers; as was also the case with Christian fanatics early on. It is the combination of religious fanaticism with enhanced terrorist methods – especially suicide bombing – that distinguishes the present day. That is irrespective of whether Islam or a form of it can be said to be at the root of today’s political violence – which ‘moderate’ Muslims of course deny – or merely a convenient cloak.

It is difficult to detect this particular combination of factors in previous terrorist episodes. At least Irish and Indian nationalisms, and even anarchism, had a modicum of rationality behind them. Religious ‘faith’ is intrinsically irrational, yet seductive all the same, especially to tortured youngsters; which is where its danger, and the novelty of the present situation, reside.

Yet again, history doesn’t really help.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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