A historian can find precedents galore, of course, for the current mini-wave of terrorist atrocities in the UK. Whether any of these precedents is of any practical use to us today is another matter. The ones I’m most familiar with are the Irish bombing campaign of the 1880s, and the Anarchist wave of the 1890s and 1900s: the ‘Sydney Street Siege’ and all that.
From my point of view – I was researching the government’s responses to them (see my Plots and Paranoia) – the most notable feature of these events was the resistance of Britons at the time to any suggestion that they should modify their liberal laws – for example of political asylum – in order to counter terrorism more effectively. That happened on the Continent, but counter-productively, felt British liberals. In other words, repressive regimes were supposed to provoke terrorism rather than prevent it; and indeed, the scale of Anarchist terrorism was far greater in, say, relatively repressive France and Spain than it was in Britain. Hence at an ‘anti-anarchist’ conference held in Rome 1911 Britain was the only participant refusing to go along with the stiffer measures and restrictions favoured by her European neighbours, on the grounds that her citizens wouldn’t swallow them. Her only ‘repressive’ responses to terrorism were the setting up of the ‘Special’ (Political) Branch of the London Metropolitan Police in the 1880s; and an Aliens (immigration) Act passed in 1906. They were considered to be bad enough by liberal Britons, and were very mildly administered. The Aliens Act, for example, expressly exempted political refugees. Happy days! But that’s not to say that we can or should seek to resurrect them.
It may be that something could be learned from the examples of these old terrorists themselves. One thing that strikes me about our modern kind is how many of them were ‘ordinary’ criminals before they became jihadis; with one obvious implication being that they adopted Islamicism, no doubt genuinely, but also in order to justify themselves and give some point and even dignity to their otherwise useless lives. We see the same with late 19th century anarchists. The most bloodthirsty of them, called ‘Ravachol’ (real name François Koeningstein), pursued a life of crime, including thieving, murder and even grave robbery, before deciding that all his woes were the fault of capitalism, and so pursuing his career now for ideological reasons, and targeting anyone whom he considered complicit in the capitalist system, even passively: which was almost everyone. He also believed that ‘terror’ on this scale would eventually weaken the resistance of the capitalist establishment, and allow Anarchy to thrive. He was caught and guillotined in 1892, becoming regarded thereafter as a kind of martyr by his fellow ‘Anarchists of the Deed’.
The parallels here with present-day criminals-turned-jihadis are obvious. I’m sure there’s something to be learned here. I may return to it, and to other aspects of the current crisis, and its effect on the British General Election, when I’m more fully recovered and out of bed.
The Bonnot gang comes to mind, too. Closer to the present day, in Italy in the 70s there was a small but interesting group called the Comontisti (the name was a coinage meaning ‘existence in common’) who dedicated themselves to living outside and against the capitalist system. It didn’t really go anywhere, although AFAIK the main participants did at least get out of it alive.
It’s also possible to make the journey the other way, from political commitment to common criminality; another Italian ‘armed struggle’ group, when the armed struggle died down at the end of the 70s, kept its own little operation going for a while under the name of Rapinatori Comunisti – ‘Communist Robbers’.
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