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A brief archeology of the use of terror*

World Guide
The expanded reach both of weapons and media coverage has maximized the psychological effects -terror- of terrorism. If nuclear terrorism was for decades a dystopia (negative utopia) technological advances have made it a real possibility

Following the horror of the
September 11 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington, the world was shocked and began to speak of a new global crusade. In the words of US President George W Bush it became 'the war on terrorism', which has since become 'the war on terror'. Although the champions of this new war announced that it would be a wide-ranging exercise, perhaps the most significant problem -and one that widens its scope- is its lack of proper definition. Terror and terrorism are different things: the latter is the practice, the former the effect.

The practice has been utilized since time immemorial, and the effect is also as old as time itself.
In the post-September 11 world, an effort was made initially to distinguish between 'terrorist groups with a global reach' and 'freedom fighters' with territorial claims, such as the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. But this distinction is confusing. The Arab countries for example have been quick to point out that Hamas, a group fighting for the creation of a
Palestinian state, are 'freedom fighters', but have nonetheless been dubbed 'terrorists'. By contrast, the Al-Qaeda organization that is blamed for the attacks in New York and Washington, does not have national demands, but Islamic ones, and its reach is broad, global even.

A generic notion of terrorism is increasingly being applied, which is to equate terrorists with 'enemies of civilization'. By definition, this makes terrorism the enemy of a status quo, defined vaguely by Washington as 'civilization'. In doing so this repeats a commonplace, since terrorism has been identified with individuals or groups seeking to destabilize or overthrow the existing political institutions. However, terrorism has been used both by the colonial powers (such as France in Algeria or Indo-China, or the US in Vietnam) and by anti-colonialists
(such as the Irish, the Algerians, Palestinians and Vietnamese). What is certain is that the systematic use of terror tactics, or of an unanticipated violence - whether against the government, the public or individuals - in order to achieve a political objective, is not only the conventional definition of 'terrorism', but also a practice as old as time. It has been used by political organizations of the right and left alike, by revolutionaries, by nationalist groups, by armies, by secret police and by governments.

Terrorists of the past

In ancient Greece, Xenophon (431-350 BC) wrote of the psychological effectiveness of using terror in the war against enemy populations. The Roman emperors Tiberius and Caligula used expropriation of property and executions as methods to protect their regimes. Precedents for political crimes can be found in the Old Testament, in the stories of Judith and Holofernes, of Jahel and Sisara, and in the reflections of classical theologians and philosophers, such as Seneca, who established that 'no sacrifice pleases the gods so much as the blood of a tyrant'. In Rome, and later also in Byzantium, the assassination of individuals in power became almost a tradition, seemingly endorsed by Cicero's idea that 'tyrants always bring a violent end upon themselves'. However, the assassination of individuals -even if it has existed throughout human history- differs from modern terrorism.

There are early examples of groups engaged in systematic terrorism, such as the Sicarians. They were one of the Jewish groups that fought the Roman occupation of Palestine and demanded an independent Jewish state. Historian Flavius Josephus considers the Sicarians
(known as such for the daggers or siccas they carried) responsible for the catastrophe of the year 70AD, when the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish state came to an end in Jerusalem.

Another example is that of the Order of the
Assassins (hachichin), an offshoot of the Muslim sect of the Ismailis, which terrorized the Middle East in the 11th century. Its founder, Hassan I Sabah, ordered the capture of several forts in the mountains, though the Assassins soon moved their activities to the cities, killing enemies in Baghdad, Persia, Syria and Palestine. There were also secret societies in India and China, motivated more by religious creed than by politics, that made use of systematic violence.

Terror and the state

In Spain, the Inquisition used arbitrary arrests, torture and execution against what it perceived to be heresy, but the use of terror - along with the arrival of the word 'terrorism' - was the standard carried by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. In the period known as the Reign of Terror (1793-94) the revolutionary Robespierre advocated the practice and made use of it to encourage 'revolutionary virtue'. By 1798, the term was applied generally to any entity that sought to achieve political goals through violence and intimidation. The Jacobins were the only ones to use the term in a self-referential way, and with them was born what is currently known as 'modern terrorism'. From that time forward, the word 'terrorism' -initially linked to the concept of 'virtue'- took on negative connotations.

After the American Civil War
(1861-65), some of the defeated but defiant southerners formed a terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, to intimidate those who supported the Reconstruction. By the end of that century, terrorist tactics had been adopted by anarchists in Western Europe, Russia and the US. They believed that the most effective means for social and political change was to assassinate the individuals in power: in the period 1865-1905, anarchist bombs and bullets killed several kings, presidents and government officials.

In the 20th century, the practice of terrorism, by both the right and the left, came to be understood as the attempt by groups or individuals to use the power of terror to destabilize or overthrow the existing order. It was adopted as state policy by
Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and by Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. Without legal grounds or restrictions, they systematically used arrest, imprisonment, torture, executions and forced labor to fuel fear and encourage adherence to the national ideology and the state. This practice, whose origins lie with Robespierre, became known as state terrorism.

Following World War II, terrorism practiced by individuals or groups continued in Ireland and Spain, but largely disappeared from its modern home in Europe, shifting to Asia and the Middle East, where it was taken up by the Jews who demanded their own state in Palestine. It could be said that, in the 20th century, terrorism underwent a drastic change, as the main victims became random civilians rather than representatives of the state.

The Cold War and beyond

Some believe that what had been considered 'ideological' terrorism (such as that practised in the late 1960s by the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades of Italy or the Japanese Red Army) was more or less extinct by the end of the Cold War. They thought this mainly because the Soviet Union's role as an incubator for anti-capitalist or anti-democratic movements was not taken on by any other state. But supplanting the old ideological conflict are the ethno-religious conflicts. The increased US presence in the Middle East and the Pacific, as well as the fragile stability of Central Asia, leads some observers to believe that ethno-religious terrorism will continue to rise in those regions. Others believe that terrorism related to specific issues will undergo an inordinate expansion, utilized by groups such as the neo-Luddites that reject technology, or those opposed to abortion and taxes, like certain groups in the US.

Terror and media culture

The expanded reach both of weapons and media coverage has maximized the psychological effects -terror- of terrorism. If nuclear terrorism was for decades a dystopia (negative utopia) technological advances have made it a real possibility. Nowadays nuclear terrorism would entail the use of nuclear weapons by individuals or groups, not by states. The impact of terrorism has also been greatly magnified by the mass media: any act of violence attracts TV coverage and is beamed to millions of viewers. This extensive reach has led to the use of terror as a way of publicizing the demands, complaints or political objectives of a particular organization (see 'The changing face of war').

Although to date only one country, the US, has used nuclear weapons in war - against the civilians of two Japanese cities at the end of World War II - chemical weapons attacks have flourished during the last decades. They were not only used in international warfare
(during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s) but also by a terrorist group. In March 1995 the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out a nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring 5,000. Until then, an assault of that sort had been considered highly unlikely. An estimated 30 to 40 countries have the capability to produce chemical weapons. Germ warfare is another possibility. In the wake of the September 11 outrage, mail containing Anthrax spores brought more terror to US citizens.

Terrorism and globalization

It is commonly said that terrorism is 'the weapon of the weak'. Those who are overpowered by armies or economic means often resort to this practice. Powerful states nowadays fear that the new communication technologies, which encourage communication between groups and individuals worldwide, could foment global terrorism - aiming it beyond the realm of governments. Targets could include multinational corporations, international institutions and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Cyber-terrorism - attacks against computer networks - is a threat that is currently manifest in the 'almost benign' actions of hackers and deliberately-spread computer viruses. In the midst of the globalization process, which erases borders, it seems that the current manifestations of terrorism whether political, religious or moral, have also become supranational. Occasionally, the terrorism may be apolitical, as in the case of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber in the US, whose manifesto (made notorious through his bomb attacks) proclaimed a revolution, not against institutions, but against the 'economic and technological basis of present society'.

As some critics say, among them French philosopher
Jean Baudrillard, present-day terrorism can be understood as resistance to a 'definitive order'. In that sense, the World Trade Center symbolized the world order that was imposed after the Cold War; the globalized and technocratic world sought to reflect its own image in the Twin Towers. This world is an interconnected system that evolves into a single unit that carries within it its own terror - insecurity. In that economic, political and technological web nobody is independent and no one can stand by her/himself. From this line of reasoning it follows that the formula can be reversed this time and that current global terrorism is just the effect, for terror is already embedded in the system.

*Published in The World Guide





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