Terrorism: A few notes on a word

There really is nothing like a dictionary when it comes to defining and explaining words. Some words are more controversial than others when it comes to definitions, however, and few are more controversial than one in particular. Take a quick look at collinsdictionary.com, and you can see that site’s definition of Terrorism:

1.systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal
2.the act of terrorizing
3.the state of being terrorized

So far, so uncomplicated. ‘The systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal.’ Further down the same entry, the definition continues:

►Translations for ‘terrorism’

Terrorism is the use of violence in order to achieve political aims or to force a government to do something.

‘Force a government to do something’? The bods at Collins appear to mark terrorism out as something that is always directed against governments only. Another online dictionary, merriam-webster.com, offers a choice of definitions:

Simple Definition of TERRORISM: the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal

Full Definition of TERRORISM: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

Comparing the two, Merriam-Webster does not earmark terrorism as a specifically anti-government activity. If its point is to terrorise in order to coerce, than even paid state employees (for example, soldiers) might count as terrorists. In his fascinating book “Unspeak: Words are Weapons”, the writer Steven Poole put to paper some of the controversy behind frequent definitions of terrorism:

[D]o those targeted need to be “civilians”? If they do not, the definition broadens rapidly: then all strikes on military targets could be called terrorism. We should have to call “terrorism”, for example, the attacks on Nazi occupiers by Resistance fighters in France during the Second World War; or the attacks on Soviet occupiers by the Afghan mujahidin during the 1980s.

Certainly, since, at the beginning of this century, the concept of terror was considered so serious by one major world power that it had better launch a war on it (prompting the comedian Andy Hamilton to predict that the Americans would ultimately lose the War on Terror, because an abstract noun cannot surrender), it seems that more and more of us are terrorists than had previously been the case. At the very least, in an age in which a British prime minister can get away with dismissing critics of a policy that involves bombing residential areas of the Middle East as “terrorist sympathisers”, it is worth looking at such an emotive word more closely.

At Westminster in 2000 the Labour government passed the Terrorism Act, and in the final bill’s definition section, terrorism was understood to mean – on top of the usual criteria – ‘serious damage to property‘ (which used to be known as vandalism) and ‘seriously…interfer[ing] with or seriously…disrupt[ing] an electronic system‘ (which is technically computer hacking). And this was before 9/11, so it seems likely that the Blair government had direct-action activists in its sights as well as dissident republicans and loyalists. (Commenting on the controversy surrounding the Act, the comedian Jeremy Hardy sarcastically notedThink of yourselves as freedom fighters, but say you are just mindless vandals if you want to get away with a fine.’)

Terrorism as a word has an interesting etymological back story. The word is French in origin, and first entered the English language in the pamphlet Letters on a Regicide Peace, written by the conservative Irish philosopher Edmund Burke in 1795. Arguing against those who wanted the war against the revolutionary government in France to end, he dismissed the government in Paris and its supporters as ‘Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists‘ who had been ‘let loose on the people.’ Despite the fall of the Jacobins, Burke clearly had them in their sights – though the Jacobins had, to put it glibly, somewhat sabotaged their public image through their activities while in power. Robespierre and his sans-culottes supporters were often termed Terroristes, in reference to the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror of 1793-4, in which thousands of people were put to the guillotine for real and imagined crimes against the state (within the context of a country attacked or besieged by hostile European monarchical powers, of course).

Maximilien Robespierre (1759-94) - the first terrorist?
Maximilien Robespierre (1759-94) – the first terrorist?

To begin with, therefore, the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” referred solely to state terror – to the violent excesses of those already in power. Then, exactly 135 years ago, the words’ etymological journey took a radical turn. On 13 March 1881 in St Petersburg, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a Polish member of the revolutionary organisation Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), threw a bomb at the imperial carriage carrying Tsar Alexander II. It was not the first time that a head of state had been assassinated, but this act of murder was significant for two reasons. First, it was, to quote the writer Matthew Carr, ‘the most significant act of regicide since the execution of Louis XVI during the French Revolution‘, and which ‘heralded the advent of the new kind of violence that the modern world has come to associate with terrorism.‘ Second, Narodnaya Volya themselves freely referred to their activities as terrorism – following, as they saw it, the lessons of the French Revolution: as far as they were concerned, they were following the logic of the Jacobins’ position in pursuing sudden and righteous justice on behalf of their country’s down-trodden underclass against the aristocratic rulers who were exploiting and oppressing them. Thereafter, the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” tended to be associated with non-state actors pursuing their political goals through acts of violence.

Ignacy Hryniewiecki (1856-81)
Ignacy Hryniewiecki (1856-81)

Is this fair, though? It is, of course, a cliché to say that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter’ (indeed, mentioning the fact of this cliché may in itself soon become a cliché), but could there be a clearly delineated distinction between the two, beyond mere point of view? At what stage does freedom fighting end, and terrorism begin, or vice versa? What, for example, are we to make of the actions of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia) in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914? This was the organisation dedicated to freeing Bosnia from Habsburg rule, and to establishing a unified South Slav state (Yugoslavia) under Serbian leadership. After several failed attempts to throw a bomb at the car carrying the Habsburg heir the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one of Mlada Bosna‘s members, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, took advantage of the Archduke’s chauffeur’s struggle to put the gearbox into reverse by stepping forward and shooting Franz Ferdinand and his wife dead. Were he and his co-conspirators terrorists, or freedom fighters?

Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) - terrorist or freedom fighter?
Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) – terrorist or freedom fighter?

Additionally, staying in the Balkans, there is the curious case of the Kosovo Liberation Army, described by the writer Tim Judah as ‘the most successful guerrilla organisation in modern times’, having achieved most of their aims within a nineteen-month period. Taking advantage of a NATO bombing campaign aimed at destabilising Serbia’s president Slobodan Milosevic whose forces had gone on a rampage in Kosovo in 1998-9, the KLA quickly assumed control of law and order in the province, having changed their name to the Kosovo Protection Corps. Just a few months before the conflict in Kosovo, however, America’s then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British foreign secretary Robin Cook had dubbed the KLA as a terrorist organisation.

Whatever view we take of non-state perpetrators of political violence in the past, there is certainly little to be gained in taking at face value many official lines following an act of what may be termed terrorism. The standard response from leading government and opposition spokespeople in the wake of IRA atrocities in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s was to dismiss the perpetrators simply as mindless, evil crooks (even though mindlessness and evil can arguably only be judged by psychiatrists and/or priests, respectively). In her book “What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Terrorist Threat”, the Irish-born Harvard political scientist Louise Richardson describes how, when she was studying for her PhD, she was ‘profoundly struck by how ill understood the subject was‘:

Terrorists were portrayed as psychopaths, terrorist movements as criminal gangs motivated by desires for personal gain, the term “terrorism” itself a loose and pejorative label attributed to one’s enemies. This was not my perspective. It did not describe my fellow students who had joined the IRA, or the parents of my friends, or my teachers in the Gaeltacht who had joined up.

Such knee-jerk governmental name-calling has also gone hand-in-hand with both tangible and intangible censorship, as the powers that be have sought to steer the news agenda in ways that have often hindered efforts to defuse the violence. BBC reporter Phil Rees describes, in his book “Dining With Terrorists”, his experience in Belfast’s Ormeau Avenue studios:

The news reporters whom I worked alongside in Belfast were meticulous and fair but there was a substantial dose of self-censorship. There was an acute awareness of a red line that should not be crossed and if there were any doubts, editorial advice from management was sought. It was a culture that didn’t exist for BBC journalists covering the rest of the world. News reporting in Northern Ireland was formulaic: the narrative concentrated on the human hardship followed by routine condemnation from political leaders who opposed the IRA. The script was one-dimensional, and it was not acceptable to place the violence within a political context. The violence appeared to have no history and no background.

The tendency, then, among politicians to use the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” as headline-grabbing argument-stoppers has done nobody any favours. Acts of counter-terrorism, moreover, have all too often claimed or ruined more lives than the terrorism or political violence that they were meant to combat. Rees describes a chilling encounter that he had with a Sri Lankan policeman during that government’s conflict with the extreme Sinhalese nationalist group the JVP in the late 1980s (many of whose victims had actually been murdered by government agents), in which the policeman unblushingly declared ‘If we kill a hundred young men and six are terrorists, then that’s a successful operation.’ The scandal of the all-too-often disproportionate nature of counter-terrorism is further highlighted by Carr in his brilliant book “The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism”:

The decision to respond to the September 11 attacks through a global “war” was a political and strategic choice. There were, and are, other means through which the world might have responded to the attacks, which did not require torture, clandestine prison camps curtailments on civil liberties, the creation of a permanent state of emergency and an apparently limitless series of fraudulent and dishonest wars.

At least the big screen is gradually getting wise to the fact that, however we wish to define terrorism, there is no hope of bringing it to an end without learning where the relevant bombers and gunmen come from first. In the latest big-budget Hollywood blockbuster about a terrorist attack, “London Has Fallen”, some of the movie’s protagonists acknowledge that the mastermind behind the attacks on the city, a ruthless arms dealer, is motivated at least partly by revenge: a drone strike on his home two years previously killed many members of his family, including his daughter, on her wedding day. Finally, in James McTeigue’s 2006 dystopian thriller “V for Vendetta”, the hero is a terrorist/freedom fighter, named simply V, whose back story is of a man arrested, tortured, and experimented on under the orders of a totalitarian government. The torment and experiments visited on him leave him not only with superhuman strength but also with an inability to remember his real name. After using a bomb to blast his way out of his prison camp (which leaves him with disfiguring burns on his face, which he disguises with a Guy Fawkes mask), V takes revenge on his persecutors by leading a one-man rebellion against the government, going out after curfew and using knives to kill secret policemen. In trying to justify killing a government propagandist, V unhesitatingly declares to his protegee ‘Violence can be used for good.’ Interviewed in a “making of” documentary about the film, the actor portraying V, Hugo Weaving, offered his thoughts about the problem:

We talk about terrorists a lot today, and yet there’s probably very little attempt to understand why people are terrorists.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.

donate to keep slugger lit