On Terrorism

State sponsored terrorism is not rare

By James Rodney Ledwich | 2007-10-01 12:00:00

Although terrorism has been present throughout history, the word stems from the "reign of terror" pursued by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. The modern use of the word terrorist designated the members of revolutionary groups in 19th century Russia. Today the subject of terrorism is a minefield of controversy and dogmatism.

The word "terrorism" is sometimes simply an exercise in vilification and name calling - as, for example, Robert Mugabe's characterization of the political opposition in Zimbabwe as terrorists. In a similar vein the characterization of the Guantanamo Bay detainees as terrorists when they have not been charged or tried is an attempt at character assassination to justify their continued detention.

Terrorism may be Perpetrated by Governments

Governments frequently apply the word terrorist to their opponents, with the subliminal message that because they are governments then ipso facto they are not terrorists. Examples of this are numerous. In Chechnya severe humanitarian abuses amounting to terrorism have been perpetrated by both sides. The terror tactics of the Sudanese government-sponsored Janjawid militias on the population of Darfur has been massive, A little-reported example of state terrorism is the massive terror campaign carried out by the government on the people of Myanmar, particularly on the ethnic minorities in that country. The previous military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile carried out state terrorism, targeting what they regarded as subversive elements in the population. Thousands of people were tortured, disappeared, or driven into exile. These military dictatorships have now been replaced by democratic governments.

This list shows that government terrorism or government sponsored terrorism is not uncommon, and since governments possess far greater resources, their terrorism is often more excessive than that of nongovernmental groups. Governments sometimes use surrogate groups with which to practice their terrorism, the obvious current example of this being the Sudan's use of the Janjawid militias to terrorize locals in the Darfur region.

Both sides in a conflict may use terrorism

In Chechnya both the Russian government and the Chechen opposition group have carried out acts of terrorism, and continue to do so. The same is true of the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers opposition group. In both examples each side accuses the other of terrorism, though the evidence is overwhelming that both sides carry out terrorist attacks. In the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers opposition group, politics has skewed the situation. The Tamil Tigers has been labeled a terrorist group (which they are), and has been subject to the usual restrictions such as constraints on fund raising. The Sri Lankan government (who also uses terrorism), has not fallen foul of any major power, and is not subject to any restrictions.

Terrorism is a strategy, not an entity

Terrorism is a strategy with a particular end in view, and not an intrinsic, necessary part of a government or non-government entity. Even the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge had ends in view that can be separated from their terrorist activities. This is obvious with the IRA, which used terrorism as a strategy to achieve its aim of a united Ireland, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which used terrorism to destabilize what they saw as an illegitimate government in Egypt. In 19th Century Russia, the self proclaimed terrorist group the "People's Will" attempted to overthrow the existing regime; however, their assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 backfired, and they were ruthlessly suppressed. Although the "People's Will" used terrorist tactics, its basic aim was to improve the Russian social system, especially by emancipating the serfs.

Groups practicing terrorism may discontinue its use

If terrorism is a strategy and not an intrinsic part of a government or non-government entity, then its use can be discontinued. Examples of this are for instance the African National Congress, which stopped using terrorism once Apartheid had been overthrown. Its leader Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first post-apartheid President, Nobel peace prize recipient, and honorary citizen of Canada. A second example is the IRA, which stopped using terrorism when all sides in the Northern Ireland conflict started negotiating with each other and terrorism became counterproductive. The Irgun Zvai Leumi, a self declared Jewish terrorist group in Palestine led by Menachem Begin, stopped using terrorism when Israel obtained its independence. Begin later became Prime Minister of Israel. The lesson to be learnt is that labeling a government or nongovernmental organization as terrorist, implying that this is an unchangeable characteristic, may be counter-productive and at times a self fulfilling prophesy.

Terrorism was not always considered a bad thing.

Terrorism was not always as morally tainted as it is today. No nation today will admit to using terrorism. But Robespierre during the reign of terror in France 1793-1794 proclaimed that "Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue." Following the Reformation in Germany, there was an uprising in 1524 known as the Peasants War, whose leaders promised salvation for the poor if they would only rise up against their oppressors and do God's work. In response to this uprising, Martin Luther wrote a tract "Against the murdering thieving bands of the peasants," exhorting the German princes to crush the rebellion with the utmost severity. This resulted in a campaign of "righteous terror" against the peasants by the German princes.

At the Council of Clermont in 1095 Pope Urban III preached the First Crusade to liberate Jerusalem and the holy places from the infidel. Waves of people appearing to orthodox Christian Byzantines and Middle Easterners as uncouth, uncivilized barbarians in the form of Western European soldiers, descended on Byzantium, Syria, and Palestine, where a refined and for those days tolerant culture of Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in relative harmony. This population had never seen such coarse brutality as that displayed by the European soldiers. In a first-hand account of the capture of Jerusalem, the author describes the massacre; the crusaders praising God and singing with joy as they slaughtered every human being they could find. These Western European barbarians as they appeared to the indigenous inhabitants, spread recurrent terror throughout the region until their final denouement with the fall of the Acre in 1291.

In 1209, at the instigation of Pope Innocent III, the King of France sent an army into Languedoc, that swath of Southern France lying west of the Rhone and extending to Montauban and Toulouse; and extending also south to the Mediterranean and the Western Pyrennees. This was a crusade to root out the Cathar heresy, which had a firm hold on this region. From then until 1244 when the last Cathar stronghold of Montsegur fell, the French monarchy and nobility, aided by the papacy and the inquisition, relentlessly waged a reign of terror against the population of Languedoc. In 1211, for example, after the fall of Lavour, 400 reputed Cathars were burnt at the stake.

All the above examples of terrorism would today constitute the most heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity; and yet Pope Innocent III and his successors granted remission of sins to anyone who "took the cross" and went to fight the infidels in the Holy Land. The crusade against the Cathars was also viewed as "doing God's work."

Terrorism must be distinguished from war

The rules governing when to resort to force have been defined by Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1546), Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and in particular the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Prior to these publications, and in particular the 1949 Geneva Conventions, there were few universally recognized laws concerning a just cause for going to war, or what was allowable during the conduct of a war. Prisoners were slaughtered without compunction. When a walled city was captured following a siege, the victorious army was allowed a specified period of time to rape, pillage, and destroy. The gratuitous slaughter of civilians was not uncommon. Thus terrorism was practically an integral part of warfare.

Since World War II and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, international law stipulates what constitutes a legitimate reason for going to war and what is and is not allowable during the conduct of a war. International law now defines a civilian, a prisoner of war, and an armed combatant and how these various categories of persons should be treated. In theory, identifying the various categories and those requiring protection should not prove to be an insurmountable task, but regrettably, in practice the laws are honored more in the breach than in the observance.

It is not necessary to return to Ghengis Khan to find examples of terrorism during war. In World War II, the bombing of London and Coventry by the Germans, the strategic bombing by the Allies of European cities, particularly Hamburg and Dresden, the fire bombing of Tokyo, and the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all had the aim of attempting to break the morale of the enemy civilian population, in essence fulfilling the definition of terrorism. It should be noted that although the legality of these events is still debated over fifty years later, this stands in sharp contrast to the universal condemnation evoked by the German bombing of the defenseless town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the first example of airborne terror. More recently, the war in Iraq commenced with a massive bombing campaign labeled ironically "Shock and Awe." The use of powerful bombs and cluster bombs clearly was not designed to minimize civilian casualties. As proof, consider the high initial Iraqi death rate of over 100,000. This must be considered therefore an act of terrorism.


Although in the past terrorism was not necessarily considered a bad thing, it is now illegal under international law and considered by most people very wrong. It is frequently used by all sides in conventional warfare, when it often goes unrecognized, unreported, and denied. Terrorism is so common as to raise the question whether it is possible to wage a just war. When it is used on both sides in a conflict, each side only recognizes the acts of terrorism carried out by the other side. The demonization of the enemy, the suppression of unfavorable news and the resort to mendacity have given rise to the aphorism," The first casualty in war is truth."

Organizations or governments practicing terrorism may stop using this strategy for a number of reasons, though this is often unacknowledged by the opposing parties, who find the label useful for blackening the character of their opponents. In these murky waters organizations not using terrorism are often labeled terrorists to disparage them. A current example is the description of the political opposition in Zimbabwe as terrorists by President Robert Mugabe.

Terrorism is now regarded as uncivilized and immoral. Unfortunately it is very much with us today, and far more widespread than political leaders would have us believe. They readily admit to the terrorism of others, but fail to recognize the same evil done by their own hands or ours.

Dr. Ledwich is a retired physician in Manitoba with a keen interest in history.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2007

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2007, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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