Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Terror / Terrorism

Terror comes into English in late 14c from Middle French terreur, itself derived from Latin terror. The word means both ‘the state of being greatly frightened’ and ‘the cause of that state’. This ambiguity is central to its future political meanings. In Early Modern English, terror came to stand for a state of fear provoked on the very edge of the social. That state is associated with the god Pan and the fear that grips men when they feel themselves removed from any social contact. It also stands for death itself.

The political meanings of terror date from the period March 1793 to July 1794, when the use of organised intimidation became an instrument of policy in France for the Jacobins and Robespierre. Interestingly, the announcement of terror as public policy was as much an attempt to claim the breakdown of social order as a government policy as it was a deliberate attempt to cause that breakdown. Throughout the first half of 19c, ‘a state of affairs in which the general community live in dread of death or outrage’ was the dominant political meaning, and was still the most important meaning for the first edition of OED. It is worth remembering that most political terror during 20c, from the German genocide in the Herero war of 1904-05 to the gulags of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the terror bombing by Allied air forces during World War Two, has been state terror (to be distinguished from state sponsored terrorism, discussed below). 

The invention of dynamite in 1863 by Alfred Nobel provided the crucial technological condition for modern terrorism. Although both terrorism and terrorist are coined in relation to the Jacobins, widespread use of these modern nouns comes when small groups of political dissidents attempt to use violent explosive force against an existing state to bring about political change. Three more or less distinct stages in this process can be sketched. The first, up until 1914, sees particularly in Russia the growth of a kind of terrorism which describes itself as such, and which believes that the social order is so rotten that a single act of violence aimed at the centre of power will bring about a revolutionary transformation. Some sense of this is captured in the phrase little terror, which begins to be used at this time to describe difficult young children. This first wave of terrorism met with unprecedented historical success when the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 occasioned what Keynes called the ‘European Civil War’.

It was in the aftermath of that war that the Irish, who had participated in this first chapter of terrorism, developed a terrorist campaign targeting the police, a campaign that described itself as part of a military struggle for national liberation. This conception of terrorism, the model for a host of imitators, is captured in the slogan “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. The focus for defining terror passes from the act of terrorism itself to the status of the terrorist, and whether he or she is authorized by an alternative and unrecognised legal authority. Thus Michael Collins and the Irish Republican Army claimed their actions were legitimized by the Irish Republic that Pearse had proclaimed on the steps of the Post Office on Easter Monday 1916.

Similarly Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated as ‘Spear of the Nation’, claimed authority for its violence in reference to the African National Congress, an authorization accepted by George W Bush when he signed a Bill removing the ANC from the US terror blacklist.  It is in this period that use of terrorism and terrorist becomes widespread. Note for example the decision made by British colonial authorities in the Malayan emergency of the 1950s always to refer to “Communist terrorists” and never just “Communists”.

This second stage culminated in the terror campaigns of the FLN (one of which is famously represented in Gilles Pontecorvo’s film Battle of Algiers) that led to Algerian independence in 1962. The Algerian experience became the constant reference point for a new wave of terrorism in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967, when a variety of Palestinian groups adopted terrorist tactics now taken onto an enlarged, international stage. This was also the start of state sponsored terrorism, as different Arab states supported different Palestinian groupings.

A full history of terrorism would need to reflect continuously on both the development of weapons and communication technologies. The new phase, for instance, was marked by plastic explosives (the expression car bomb is added to the language in this period) and the ability (most famously at Munich in 1972) to gain the world’s instant attention through television screens. In the 1980s, with the failure of Arab nationalism to deliver either socialist or capitalist success for its peoples, a new form of Islamic terrorism began to develop. This new variety of terrorism claimed authority not from a political but from divine authority. The incorporation of the divine into terrorism was one of principal conditions for the emergence of the suicide bomber (another was further sophistication in the technology of plastic explosives). These developments culminated in the attacks of September 11th 2001.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, George W. Bush announced his “War on Terror”, thus, as the British film-maker and comedian Terry Jones remarked, becoming the first world leader to declare war on an abstract noun. The political effects of this use of terror have prompted widespread questioning of the term and of the nature of terrorism itself. Distinguishing between terrorist and non-terrorist acts of violence in terms of the acts themselves is problematic. Further, if we follow the Hobbesian argument of the German legal philosopher Carl Schmidt, that at the root of every state’s legitimate use of violence is an illegitimate use of violence, it is difficult to produce a distinction in terms of legal authority. The linguistic effects of Bush’s war are difficult to gauge. But it could be argued that Bush completed a process begun by Robespierre, and that a word initially used to describe emotional states experienced at the very margins of the social is now limited entirely to describing emotional states experienced at the very heart of social and political life.

[CMC]