Themed Set: Terrorism

Inhabiting though we do a world which promises an unending war on it, we have a devil of a time defining the word “terrorism”. Efforts merely to make a taxonomy out of the scores of interpretations scholars have given it resolve in the end to violence … violence by someone’s official enemies. One needs a number of caveats to rule in the good violence and rule out the bad since use of deadly force to cow people towards one’s political objectives is not so very distant from a definition of government itself — obviously including the hangmen that are this very site’s stock in trade.

In our custom execution playing cards, the Eights of all four countries’ suits are terrorists. (Pictured: Tsar Alexander II’s assassins)

Though deeds that meet the know-it-when-I-see-it standard of terrorism go back many centuries — remember, remember, the 5th of November? — the word terrorisme dates only to the French Revolution, when Jacobins self-described with it to position their implacability as a creditable necessity: Terror to the enemies of the Revolution, the armament of Virtue.

“Is force made only to protect crime?” Maximilien Robespierre demanded in his definitive vindication of Terror. “And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?”

Those guillotine years inaugurated a long revolutionary age, arguably still underway now, during which thunderbolts have smote many a head, proud and otherwise; in spite of that or perhaps because, terrorisme never caught on as a laudatory and soon fixed its place amid the peals of 19th century dynamite and infernal machines as mostly a term of abuse.

One may be assured that every reader will have many present-day examples of the phenomenon ready to mind, though it is not unlikely that one reader’s perfidious atrocity might be the next reader’s righteous resistance. Whatever its form — whatever its definition — and whatever the exertions of the flying death-droid program — terrorism by now seems destined like the poor to be with us always. But as the next few days’ posts illustrate, ours is not the only era to have believed that.

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