“Madness alone is truly terrifying.” – Joseph Conrad
Terrorism appears to be a specific malady of modern civilization. No other society, we tend to assume, has suffered to the same extent from precisely the same social and moral pestilence. This assumption is wrong, if we apply the dictionary definition of terrorism literally, yet not entirely wrong. For terrorism as we know it today is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon in world history. Its embryonic forms date back less than a hundred and fifty years.
To be sure, methods of terror, nore or less systematically employed, either as instruments of tyranny or as weapons against it, are as old as organized society. Nero and Ivan the terrible were both undeniably terrorists in the literal sense. So, on the insurrectionary side, was Guy Fawkes, who hoped to destroy what he thought of as a repressive anti-Catholic regime in England by setting off barrels of gunpowder in the cellar of Parliament while King James I was present at a session. So, too, were the guerrilla outlaws of the Balkan Peninsula, who through the dark centuries of Ottoman oppression helped keep alive the spirit of freedom among the subject peoples of southeastern Europe.
So, in every age, were many others: rulers and rebels, heroes, inquisitors, and assassins; sometimes acting as mass killers or torturers, but always sowers of terror, and all therefore terrorists.
But none of them were quite the same as the skyjackers, the letter bombers, the kidnappers and murderers, the street snipers, the parkers of booby-trapped automobiles near school playgrounds, the saboteurs of waterworks or power lines on which the life of a city may depend, suicide bombers, and the knockers on doors in the night, in or out of uniform, that the word “terrorist”conjures up in our minds today. The difference is subtle but unmistakable, not so much in the scale or degree of the terror as in its moral texture. (to be continued)…