'The desire for independence runs as deep in nations as it does in adolescents.' (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

November 2, 2023   6 mins

Like many a supposedly timeless phenomenon, terrorism is a modern invention. As a political idea, it first emerges with the French Revolution, so that terrorism and the modern democratic state are twinned at birth. In the era of Danton and Robespierre, terrorism began life as state terrorism. It was a violence visited by the state on its enemies, not a strike against the rulers by dissidents. Far from lurking in the shadows, terror set up home in the public square. Decapitation was a state-authorised spectacle, not a barbaric individual act.

The state has always had two faces, one civilised and the other coercive, and you generally need a balance between the two. As Edmund Burke argues, it’s affection which binds us to authority; but if we don’t feel daunted by it as well, we will cease to respect it. Burke saw this dilemma in gendered terms: how can sovereign power avoid indulging us like a doting mother without frightening us out of our wits like a heavy father? During the Terror in France, this balance between softness and severity was thrown to the winds, as the law rampaged like a madman.

Is it an act of terrorism to detonate a bomb in a crowded pub because you have a grudge against the landlord? Perhaps. But most people would see terrorists as having political motivations, not personal ones. Letting off a bomb in a pub as a protest against the decadence of Western culture is a better example. Shooting people in a shopping centre just for the hell of it doesn’t really count as terrorism because to be a terrorist you need a cause — perhaps one which you feel is being overlooked, and which you must therefore bring to public attention in the most dramatic possible way. Terrorism is politics at its most lethally theatrical.

Terrorists commit unspeakable acts of inhumanity. If they don’t lose any sleep over this, however, it is because they aren’t out to win sympathy. Unlike a regular army, they don’t have a legitimate military aim and then apologise when it goes grotesquely wrong and kills 50 schoolchildren. The intention is to spread horror and outrage as a strategy in itself.

Like guerrilla armies, terrorist groups emerge, strike, melt away and reappear somewhere else, which gives the impression that they are everywhere and indestructible, and thus compensates for the fact that they may be fewer in number than their enemy. An invisible adversary can be as formidable as one whose tanks stretch to the horizon. Not wearing uniform enhances this sense of ubiquity, since anyone you see on the street may be a military commander disguised as a window cleaner.

The IRA behaved roughly like this during the Northern Irish Troubles. They weren’t able to defeat the British army in the sense of winning a series of pitched battles with the Paras, but neither did they need to. They just had to slaughter enough people for the British government to suspect that this stalemate was likely to last forever and decide to pull out its troops. After a while, so the IRA calculated, the British people would become so disgusted and fatigued with the whole operation that it would withdraw its support. This was much more likely than the Irish Republican community withdrawing its support from the IRA, however much they may have complained about them behind their backs.

Terrorism, however, is by no means confined to terrorists. I don’t remember the word being used of the USA’s “shock and awe” assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but that’s what it was. Terrorism in the sense of committing atrocities has been the stock-in-trade of regular armies since the dawn of history. It isn’t confined to non-state actors, or (as The Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “unauthorised” forces. Many national armies engage in terrorist activities from time to time, raping civilians or shooting prisoners of war, rather as most terrorist groups don’t just murder and torture but also blow up bridges and ammunition dumps. The line between the regular and the irregular isn’t always clear.

Those who are revolted by the moral obscenity of terrorism sometimes see its perpetrators as mad. They must be mad, because otherwise one would have to consider the possibility that they have a reason for what they do, and to attribute a reason to their actions would seem to grant them a certain humanity. If you act for a purpose, however malign, you must be some kind of rational being. If you’re out of your mind, however, you can be excluded from the civilised world of ends and intentions, but only at the cost of being absolved from blame, since the mad can’t be held responsible for what they do. You can’t be crazy and evil at the same time. During the Irish Troubles, the British tabloid press sometimes portrayed the IRA as monsters or animals, but Downing Street was well aware that they acted with reasonable aims in mind — not necessarily reasonable in the sense of acceptable, but reasonable in the sense of capable of being argued over. They didn’t just want to drown the British in a sea of blood; they wanted a united Ireland. People who want a united Ireland may be fantasists or sentimentalists, but they aren’t lunatics.

There’s a confusion here between excusing and explaining. Some people feel that examining the reasons why terrorists do what they do comes perilously close to justifying it. But you can explain why Hitler came to power, or why Boris Johnson exudes an air of entitlement, without justifying it, just as you can understand why someone acts to avenge the fact that their people have been shackled and humiliated for decades without endorsing the action they take. In fact, if you don’t see their actions as comprehensible from their own viewpoint, you are unlikely to defeat them. To deny that they are acting for what seems to them a good reason means you can make nothing at all of what they do. It is just a piece of nonsense or absurdity. So we are back to the madness hypothesis, in which case we sail dangerously close to letting the terrorists off the moral hook. One should beware of gazing at some piece of carnage and murmuring that this is pure insanity.

There are, in fact, historical connections between terrorism, absurdity and madness. In his novel The Secret Agent, which concerns a group of sinister foreign anarchists in London, Joseph Conrad invites us to envisage an act of terror so momentous that it would beggar all meaning. Common or garden anarchists may attack this or that bit of the world, but the perfect anarchist is the one who is out to destroy nothing less than reality itself. To do this, you need to pull off some piece of savagery which will shake the mind to its roots and shatter belief in the very possibility of sense-making. The ruling social order can take an onslaught on particular institutions; what it can’t abide is the subversion of meaning itself through some monstrous act of absurdity. In continental Europe at about this time, avant-garde artistic movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism were experimenting with much the same project. As civilisation staggered towards that collapse of meaning known as the First World War, art, evil, anarchy and nihilism began to make strange bedfellows. It all seemed a long way from E.M. Forster.

The target of terrorism is usually the state, but many states were themselves born in the blood and fire of invasion, dispossession, forcible occupation or extermination. If they are to become legitimate, they need to live down this original sin and not inquire too deeply into their own murky beginnings. For this, the sheer passage of time is usually enough. “Time alone,” declares the philosopher David Hume, “gives solidity to [the rulers’] right; and operating gradually on the minds of men, reconciles them to any authority, and makes it seem just and reasonable.”

Legitimacy, in a word, is longevity. The longer in the tooth you are as a nation, the more your tainted origins fade from collective memory and the more respectable you become. Political power is founded partly on oblivion. For Edmund Burke, there was a violence at the foundation of the state which mustn’t be brought to light, and which the merciful passing of time would gradually obscure. It follows that political states that were founded more or less within living memory, and whose origins involve displacement and occupation, have a particular problem of legitimacy. Like Macbeth, they are haunted by the illicit way they achieved their sovereignty, as the taste of victory turns to ashes in their mouths. Like Macbeth, too, they come to recognise that power is nothing without security, and that security continually eludes them.

For much of the 20th century, rich and powerful nations fought poorer and weaker ones in a series of anti-colonial wars. Taken as a whole, the struggles of these poorer nations transformed the face of the earth. The lesson of this history is that the desire for independence and self-determination runs as deep in nations as it does in adolescents. It is one of the ideas of our time. Nothing is easier in the modern world than killing people; but defeating an idea is a much harder business, and if you destroy it in one form it is likely to crop up again in another.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.