Terror Firma: Political Violence, Past and Present

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), February 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

Terror Firma: Political Violence, Past and Present


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present

Max Boot

WW Norton, 576pp, [pounds sterling]25

The Foundations of Modern Terrorism: State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence

Martin A Miller

Cambridge University Press, 30 6pp, [pounds sterling]18.99

Calling up an image of pervasive mistrust and violence reminiscent of the totalitarian states of the last century, a celebrated historian records how many people "became informers even on trivial matters, some openly, many secretly. Friends and relatives were as suspected as strangers, old stories as damaging as new. In the main square or at a dinner party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution. Everyone competed for priority in marking down the victim. Sometimes this was self-defence but mostly it was a sort of contagion."

This sounds like a description of the frenzied denunciations of Mao's Cultural Revolution, an impression reinforced when Martin A Miller, who cites the passage, writes: "Denunciations were frequently followed by suicide, to avoid the public spectacle of a humiliating trial in which one's entire family could be ostracised or exiled." Yet the great historian was not writing about the 20th century. The passage comes from a chapter on the emperor Tiberius in The Annals of Imperial Rome by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (c.56-117 AD), who entitled this chapter "The Reign of Terror".

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For Miller, Tacitus's account illustrates a fundamental truth: political violence is perennial and any regime can become a vehicle for terror. We have come to think of terrorism as a type of insurgency in which disaffected groups operating beyond the control of any government use violence to attain their ends. In reality, it is states that have been the chief agents of terror:

  In any historical statistical investigation, the results clearly show
  exponentially more victims of state political violence than the
  number of those wounded, tortured and killed by insurgent movements
  in all categories. During the 20th century alone, states were
  responsible, directly or indirectly, for over 179 million deaths, and
  this does not include the two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust and the
  atomic bombing casualties in Japan.

Following the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has been seen as an assault on democracy and liberal values. As Miller points out, history tells a different story: "Every kind of government (not every government), whether authoritarian or democratic, has been complicit in terrorising its own citizenry in various ways at some point in its history."

During any discussion on the subject, someone is bound to say that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. With its flip relativism, it is a cliche that does nothing to explain why terrorism remains such a slippery concept. We may agree in thinking of terrorism as a type of political violence but that is where the consensus ends. Tiberius turned the state of Rome into an instrument of terror for a time but he was not a terrorist, if that means someone who practises terror as a method of unconventional warfare.

Yet lumping together every kind of irregular warfare into the category of terrorism, as is often done today, blurs the difference between those who have used terror as a tactic in guerrilla warfare (such as Native American tribes in their resistance to settlers) and networks such as al-Qaeda that have opted for terror as their sole strategy. Then again, there is a difference between states that have practiced terror at some time in their history and states whose very existence is based on terrorising their citizens.

Terror has served many kinds of goals and values, including some that are lauded as thoroughly progressive. As Miller astutely notes, "The watershed moment in which terrorism entered the politics of modern Europe was during the French Revolution when ordinary citizens claimed the right to govern. …

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