The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Essays

Terrorism and the Consolation of History

Richard Drake

Aftermath of the Wall Street explosion (1920). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire once said, “if you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” Let us begin with a definition of terrorism, which is not an easy assignment. According to the Country Reports on Terrorism 2005 by the U.S. Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, “the term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”11xOffice of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, United States Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2005, April 2006, 9. In 2004, Country Reports on Terrorism became the successor publication to the Department of State’s Patterns of Global Terrorism. All of those incinerated civilians in the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, as well as those in the nuclear vaporization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, apparently were the victims of violence more high-minded than terrorism. This most official of documents, codifying the country’s anti-terrorism policies, does allow that there are definitions “different from those used in this report.”22xCountry Reports on Terrorism 2005, 9. Indeed, the term does pose serious semantic difficulties, but to round out a working definition a place must be set at the terrorists’ table for state governments that do the same things attributed to subnational groups and clandestine agents, usually in greater volume.

Even with our addendum, yet another ambiguity about the term requires some prelimi­nary comment. Terrorism is generally held to be illegitimate violence with a political aim or inspiration, but what confers legitimacy on some acts of violence and illegiti­macy on others? Political point of view obviously has a great deal to do with the way this term is used. In 1775, for example, Lord North’s government in Britain would have used it or its equivalents at the time in one way and American patriots in quite another. Crane Brinton observed in his classic study, The Anatomy of Revolution, that our popular historians had done a thorough job of transforming the “many terroristic aspects” of the American Revolution into a patriotic fable.33xCrane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York: Random House, 1965) 24. The suspicion arises that the term “terrorism” can be corrupted to signify simply the political violence we do not like or support, as we find euphemisms, such as “counter-terrorism,” for our own violence or that of our allies.

Determining the differences between good and bad acts of politicized violence is noto­riously difficult in many cases, but not in all. When Americans hear this term today, they think first and foremost of 9/11. About that spectacular episode of politicized violence, there is no debate among us concerning its ter­rorist character, nor should there be. Even Osama bin Laden acknowledged in an interview for Al Jazeera that the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism, although he added that they must be viewed as a reaction against the immeasurably greater terror of the West in its relations with the Islamic world.44xBruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, trans. James Howarth (London: Verso, 2005) 107. The debate among us turns on how best to fight his al-Qaeda terrorist organization. History may have something to teach us about defeating such an adversary, but it is necessary first to determine the true nature of the threat that fully manifested itself in 9/11.

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