The popular concept of terrorism in the earliest years of the 21st century is often confined to acts of suicide bombings or other attacks on civilians perpetrated by enraged religious or political fanatics in the Middle East or in other locales in which these attacks receive extraordinary media coverage. However, terrorism as a political phenomenon is much older and much more diverse than the lead stories on the nightly television news might indicate.
The functional origins of terrorism have been lost to history, but it is known that terrorism was used to achieve either military or political ends as early as the Roman Empire. Terrorism by definition is the use of lethal martial force against civilians in the expectation of tactical or strategic victory. In its tactical use, terrorism achieves a specific short-term objective but in its strategic aspects also functions as a tool of psychological warfare that lingers at the fringes of human memory (especially for the victims) such that others choose not to become victims themselves.
Caleb Carr, in his book The Lessons of Terror, clearly illustrates how Roman soldiers frequently resorted to terrorist tactics in their battle philosophy of “relentless but disciplined ferocity.” When the Romans finally occupied the African city of Carthage, they laid it to waste, eliminated men, women, children, corps, livestock, and places of commerce and habitation, and on these ruins built their own city. In 9 A.D., Roman legions confronted Arminius in the Rhineland province (now Germany) and mercilessly repressed the “barbarian” invaders using terroristic total war wherein no person “despite age, gender or ability” was spared. The Germanic tribes responded in kind but ultimately lost to the numerically superior Romans. But the lesson was learned, the news of the viciousness of this battle spread throughout the empire, and the Romans never again waged any military campaign in northern Europe.
Centuries later, the Vikings used similar tactics in their pillage of Britain and the northern European sea coast. The brutality with which the Vikings pillaged struck resonant fear into nearly every coastal village, and the mere appearance of an approaching Viking ship terrorized many villagers into complete and abject submission. The Christian Crusades of the 11th to 14th centuries, while substantial military campaigns against the Muslims holding Palestine and Christian holy sites, were not above terrorizing civilians to achieve their putatively righteous objectives.
Carr notes that tracing terrorism back to, for example, an obscure source is misleading, in that it suggests that terrorism is outside mainstream political tactics. One such marginal group was the Muslin sect called hashshashin. This group of Shiites smoked hashish and worked themselves into drug-induced frenzies, after which they killed specifically targeted persons. The English word assassin comes from this term. Carr’s point is that it distracts from accountability if we consider terrorism as lunatic acts of unstable persons or fanatical groups.
The modern use of the term terrorist seems to come from actions of the radicalized mob in the French Revolution of the late 18th century, whose use of violent excesses in separating those loyal to the French crown from those loyal to the French state invoked mass panic. George Washington was part of a terror campaign against Native Americans as a commander in the French and Indian Wars. General William Sherman’s complete devastation of Georgia in the American Civil War could also be considered part of an organized terror campaign. Genocidal actions in the 20th century perpetrated by the aggressors in World War II contributed to vengeful terrorism by Jews against Arabs in Palestine in the 1940s, as they sought to establish a Jewish state that would ever protect Jews from racially motivated attacks and mass murders. In the process, however, Jewish nationalists resorted to the same tactics as their earlier tormentors in trying to alter the psychological environment such that it would further their political agenda.
The contemporary notion of terrorism stems from two particular actions in the 1960s. The first was the reaction of Arab states, specifically the nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to the success of Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. The Arab reaction to such humiliation was to mount a terrorist campaign against Israel that initially relied on airplane highjackings and kidnappings. Later developments included airport massacres of passengers at several terminals from which the Israeli national airline departed, resulting in the mass murder of hundreds of innocent civilians. The second development was the use of automobiles as bombs, a technique first used by Irish nationalists against the British. The strategy of a car bomb was that movement around cities was essentially undetected, and when the car was parked in the right spot and the bomb detonated at the right time, casualties and the resultant media coverage made the attack a significant event.
Thus, the combination of more elaborate devices meant to increase mass casualties and media coverage gave terrorists the platform they needed to promote their ideas and causes. Some would argue that the inclusion of the media meant that terrorists were less politically motivated than they were celebrity motivated, but the end result was essentially the same: Terrorists could garner for their cause a certain degree of notoriety when the media covered their attacks.
The content of the attacks also changed. In the late 1960s, structures or property were more often the targets. In 1970, Palestinian terrorists simultaneously hijacked three European airliners and had them rendezvous in the Libyan desert, whereupon all three jets were blown up. Since then, attacks against persons have increased, for example, the 1983 mass killing of U.S. peacekeepers in Lebanon by a truck bomb, or the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in eastern African, in which 300 people died.
The most frequent place for terrorist attacks is Israel, where Palestinian nationalists under the guise of the PLO, Hamas, or Hizbollah seek to kill Israeli citizens. The most common form of attack is the car bomb, but since the Intifadah in 1998, scores of young Palestinian men have used themselves as suicide bombers, thus bringing terrorism into shops and pedestrian areas (such as markets or malls) where automobiles are prohibited. The use of suicide bombers has also been a tool of Tamil nationalists fighting for a Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka. In at least a few instances, Tamil women have been suicide bombers; in one instance, the head of a female bomber was found on the roof of a nearby building after a suicide bomber assassination attempt on the Sri Lankan prime minister.
Terrorism can also be the tool of those seeking to overthrow a domestic government, as in the case of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Convicted and executed for his role in the attack, former U.S. Army soldier Timothy McVeigh was part of a militia movement in the United States that believed the U.S. government had deviated from a constitutional path and needed to be “realigned.” His capture and trial effectively put an end to the militia movement in the United States and severely limited the activities of other domestic terrorists.
Occasionally, the word terrorism is applied to any act of violence whether the intended target is a government entity or not. “Eco-terrorism” is not terrorism per se, because it consists of criminal acts (arson, assault, battery, or even in extreme cases, murder) perpetrated by ecological fanatics against some corporate entity or a representation of the same. Attacks by such “terrorists,” for example, against corporate research and development labs in which experimental mice or rats are released; the setting free of mink or other fur-bearing animals from pelt farms; or the burning of seafood wholesalers, are criminal acts but not necessarily terrorist attacks. Although their intent is to alter people’s ways of life by interjecting notions of fear and apprehension, such attacks have proven to have far less significance and effect than politically motivated nationalist movements.
Aeronautical Mass Murder; Assassins; bin Laden, Osama; History of Violence in Religions; Oklahoma City Bombing; Olympic Park Bombing
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