Sunday, January 03, 2010

A short note on terrorism

It's 2010 and global jihad is still on with volleyball players and elderly cartoonists finding themselves in the frontline. I am not suggesting that anyone on the left has been making excuses for either of these outrages. But if I might make a prediction for the new year, incidents like this will do absolutely nothing to cure the ambivalence towards terrorism that one finds in certain leftist circles. The intention is not to strike a Jeremiah-like pose and denounce the moral degradation of these. This is not only futile, it gives credence to the notion that this is somehow a new aberration. I'd like to suggest instead that this ambivalence is as old as the left itself and that perhaps part of the reason for this can be found in the way in which the historical narrative has been drawn.

Terrorism, if understood to be the pursuit of political objectives by acts of extreme and indiscriminate violence that have an intimidatory purpose, is an ancient practice. But it is customary in most historical commentaries to note the fact that the epithet 'terrorist' as a form of abuse became commonplace after the Jacobin Terror. It may be an unrepresentative sample I've been reading but most jump from this to the example of the anarchists in Tsarist Russia.

I was wondering if this is how the idea that terrorism, while indefensible in itself, has been understood to be an understandable - in some cases, essential - response to oppression and injustice?

Only those who have dropped their moral compass into the murky well of historicism seriously argue that the Jacobin Terror was necessary or justified. But the cleavage to the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity in European political culture is deep and profound. Today even those calling themselves conservatives feel the need to define themselves in these terms, usually arguing that liberty justifies the inequality they defend and advocate.

In the same way, while those prepared to justify Stalinist terror are thankfully an endangered species, I don't think many serious students of history would argue that the survival of the Romanov dynasty was a realistic option for Russia in the 20th century.

Is it possible that this essentially Euro-centric reading has coloured perceptions of the political use of terror ever since? The example that is often used to demonstrate the absurdity of finding the roots of terror always in injustice is the Baader-Meinhof gang. That it is also a European example tends to reinforce the impression. While I wouldn't disagree with the way in which this example is used, there's an older tradition of terrorism that illustrates the point and it is that which is found in the United States of America.

In 1870, a federal grand jury designated the Ku Klux Klan as a 'terrorist organisation'. In 1999, the city council of Charleston came to the same conclusion. There are good reason for this. From its foundation in 1865 to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, the KKK were the most prolific terrorist movement in the United States, responsible for numerous acts of intimidation, violence, arson and murder. Prior to 9/11, up to and including the Oklahoma City bombing, practically all acts of terrorism in America had been committed by angry white males. Now, their 'grievances' were, I think, illustrative of the point I'm struggling to make. Defeat in the Civil War, Abolition and later the dismantling of Jim Crow were racist repositories for their rage at a loss of status. The response was typical of extreme reactionary and fascist movements everywhere in that it was near nihilistic towards the present and dreamed of the resurrection of a mythical lost age. What is always characteristic of these imagined histories is that they are places where everyone knows their place.

It's a pattern into which Al-Qaeda and Islamist revolutionaries fit. The annihilation of the present is held to be a necessary step towards recreating the past. What the American example shows us is what Howard Jacobson once argued should have been clear from Othello and the character of Iago: hatred doesn't have to have a cause, still less a just cause. Moreover, even if it could be argued that it does, the mythical past these want us to return to is not a place where any civilised person would want to go - and certainly not agree with the means by which they've decided to get there.

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