The phrase “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” is at once apt, correct, and yet often oversimplified to the point of disingenuousness. The word “terrorist” itself describes its goal. To instill fear in the heart of the enemy. In the past, the target would have been the king, the dictator, the ruling class, and those who served them and upheld their rule. Politicians, officials, solders and policemen. Today, terrorists indiscriminately target whole societies. Irish bombers blasted communities of the rival faith, murdered shoppers, office workers, and pub patrons, as well as soldiers and policemen. Palestinian suicide bombers hit malls and pizza bars in city centres. ISIS, al Qa’ida and the Taliban detonate cars in busy city streets and publicly execute prisoners in callous and calculating “lectures in flesh” (the phrase is civil rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson’s, from his chilling account of the trials and execution of King Charles I of England and those who sentenced him, The Tyrannicide Brief.).
But targeted and random terrorism has a long historical pedigree. For centuries, it has been the desperate and nihilistic weapon of last resort of resistance and rebellion against perceived oppression and injustice, and against invaders and occupiers.
In the second century BCE Palestine, the Maccabees used assassination in their resistance to the Seleucid Greeks, and a century later, the Jewish zealots, the Sicarii, named for the easily concealed small daggers, paid the Romans in like coin, and ultimately in an insurrection that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE and the scattering of the Jewish race (giving history the emotive and symbolic last exit that was Masada). In an etymological irony that Mark Twain would have been proud of, the present unrest in Jerusalem, a large number of young Palestinians have perished in attempting to stab jewish soldiers and civilians. Their jaquerie is called the “Intifada Sakni-in”, the ‘Knife Uprising – an echo of those long-dead Sicarii “dagger men”.
Nowadays, one would be excused for thinking that “terrorism” and “terrorist” are synonymous with Arabs and Muslims. And a historical precedent reinforces this erroneous assumption. The Hashishan or “Assassins” of Middle East fame (yes, that is where that noxious noun originated) were Muslim men and boys mesmerized and mentored by Rashid ad Din as Sina-n, the “Old Man of the Mountain” (and all this, before Osama in the caves of Tora Bora), and were Twelfth Century hit-men contracted out to rival Muslim princes in the internecine conflicts that plagued the Levant in the wake of the Crusades and the demise of the great Arab Caliphates.
But the assassin’s knife (and in modern times, the gun and bomb, and latterly cars and trucks) predates these medieval hoods and links the Hebrew rebels of old to the Irgun and Stern Gang who encouraged Britain and the UN to abandon Palestine in 1948, bequeathing most of it to the new state of Israel, and triggering the Palestinian diaspora. European anarchists and Irish rebels and loyalists were adept at shootings and ambushes. In Algeria, during the ‘fifties, the nationalist FLN and the “colon” OAS shot and bombed each other and those unfortunates caught in the crossfire. The IRA perfected the improvised explosive device that today has crippled thousands of American, Canadian, and Australian soldiers in Iraq abd in Afghanistan. Hindu Tamil separatists of Sri Lanka introduced the suicide bomber, an economical and efficient weapon against soft (civilian, that is) targets, deployed today by Islamist killers in the streets of London and Lahore, Damascus and Dar es Salaam, Jerusalem and Jakarta. Whilst Arabs – and particularly Palestinians may have given the world the hijacking of aircraft – a tactic that fell into disuse due to diminishing political returns and rapid response forces – other Arabs showed us how to fly them into public buildings as the whole world watched in horror and disbelief. The shockwaves of this one are still reverberating through the deserts of the east and the capitals of the western world.
In going up up against their occupiers, the Palestinians have an old heritage. In my old country, Boudicca and Caractacus fought a losing battle against the Romans in Britain during the First CE. The Roman historian Tacitus ascribed to a vanquished chieftain the memorable words “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” – they make a desert and they call it peace. After the battle of Hastings in 1066, the defeated Saxons pushed back against the Normans and brought the genocidal wrath of William the Conqueror down on their heads with the devastating “Harrying of the North”. The Green Man and Robin Hood legends are said to be a retrospective and romanticised remembering of the Saxon resistance. Warrior fugitives from that failed guerilla war fled as far as Constantinple, where many joined the Emperor’s acclaimed Varangarian Guard, (see When Harald Went A Viking)
In the streets and the countryside of Ireland, my parents’ birthplace, the United Irishmen, Fenians, Free Staters, IRA and Unionists fought against the redcoats, tommies, and black and tans of the British Army. Fought amongst themselves, fought against each other, and killed and were killed in their centuries long war of liberation. And in my adopted country, indigenous Australians fought a futile frontier war against settlers and soldiers just as native Americans did, albeit on a much smaller scale, and paid the price in hangings, massacres, poisoned wells, dispossession, marginalization, and “stolen children”. The legacy of those times lingers still – see The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness.
In Central America, Juarez led the Mexicans against the French, and Sandino, Nicaraguans against US marines. Spaniards rose up against Napoleon’s forces, giving the world the word “guerilla”, or “little war”. Russian partisans ambushed the Grande Armé and the Wehrmacht. Throughout occupied Europe, the very term “resistance” became synonymous with the heroic unequal struggle against tyranny. In another of history’s ironies, muqa-wamat, Arabic word for resistance, unites sectarian rivals Hamas and Hizbollah against Israel.
And not just resistance to invasion and occupation, but also against oppression by one’s own rulers. Religious tracts tie themselves in knots reconciling the obligation to obey our rulers with the right to resist and overthrow those that rule badly. The unequal struggle against tyranny – or what is perceived by the perpetrators as tyranny – is the cause that inspires men and women to desperate acts.
The most celebrated in fact, film and fiction is the death of Julius Caesar at the hands of peers who feared that he intended to usurp the ostensibly democratic Republic (ostensible because democratic it was not) and institute one-man rule. That ended badly for the conspirators, and for Rome, as it precipitated years of civil war and ultimately, half a century of empire).
In 1880 the reforming Czar Alexander II of Russia, discovered the hard way that liberating the serfs did not inoculate himself against the bomb that took his legs and his life. His fearful and unimaginative successors hardened their hearts and closed their minds against further reform. setting in train the crackdown on dissent and democratic expression that led eventually to the storming of the Winter Palace on Petrograd in 1917. Narodnaya Volya, the killers called themselves – the People’s Will. And that is what terrorists do. They appeal and owe fealty to a higher court, a greater good, a savage God.
So it was when student and Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914 and ignited the spark that lit the conflagration of World War 1 which precipitated the demise of the old European empires.
So too when John Brown and his sons brought their broadswords to bear on slavers and their sympathizers and made a date with destiny at Harpers Ferry. Their famous raid may or may not have accelerated the downward slide to the secession and civil war that erupted the following year, but it provided a moral and symbolic prelude and also, the resonating battle hymn of the republic. John Wilkes Booth bookended this bloody era with his histrionic and public murder of Abraham Lincoln, shouting “sic semper tyrannis”, “thus always to tyrants,” attributed to Brutus at Caesar’s assassination – today, it’s the Virginia state motto. Brown and Booth were quite clear in their motives. As was were the segregationalist shooters who did for African Americans Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Less so were the killers of the Kennedy brothers in the sixties.
To conclude, sometimes that savage, rebel God is one of faith, sometimes, of blood and soil. In some instances, it is revenge for wrongs real and imagined – the reasons at times lost or forgotten through the passage of time and fading memories. And often, “the cause” is corrupted by the immoral economics of illicit commerce, including contraband, kidnapping, blackmail and extortion. Sometimes all merge in an incongruous hybrid of religious passion, ethic identity, libertarian or anarchistic fervour, and protection racket. As was the case in Northern Ireland, in Lebanon, in sub-Saharan Africa, and currently so in Syria and Iraq.
But most times, terror and turmoil is simply a political weapon planned, targeted and executed as a mechanism of regime change. Rebellion, revolt and revolution. Resisting, opposing, challenging, confronting and defeating the central authority. The seizing, holding, consolidation and keeping of political power.
And one thing is for sure. The outcome is unpredictable. History does not move in straight lines, but often follows a bitter and twisted path. Cliched as it is, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” is an apt one. And when,as Bob Dylan sang, “the line it is drawn, the curse it is cast”, there is no going back. To quote WB Yeats’ famous lines, “all is changed, changed utterly”.
Terrorism, then, can shift the course of history. If we were to stumble into the swamp of alternative histories, imagine what might of happened
If Caesar had walked home from the senate on the Ides of March
If Lincoln had been able to guide the Reconstruction
If the reforming Czar had introduced democratic government to Russia
If Gavril Princip’s shot had missed the archduke
If Kennedy had returned from Dallas
If John Lennon outlived George Harrison
If Yitzak Rabin had left the peace concert in Tel Aviv
If the Twin Towers stood still
To quote “Stairway to Heaven”, a curiously apposite title given the millenarian mindset of many terrorists, “Oh, it makes you wonder!”