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Terrorism: A History of Violence

Peter Oborne

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Few concepts are as muddled as terrorism but David Anderson, the UK’s outgoing terrorism legislation watchdog, has brought insight and scrutiny to bear on one of the defining issues of our age, writes Peter Oborne

Politicians of all parties and many countries have sought to persuade their societies that terrorism is a unique and special form of crime.

They place terrorists in a category of psychopathic evil, marked out by their capacity for inhuman violence. They place terrorists beyond the pale of civilised society and, therefore, beyond the reach of negotiation and settlement. They say that terrorism is the most dangerous and gravest problem of our time.

Most of this political narrative is self-seeking nonsense. It allows politicians to strike resolute poses. It allows them to seek and obtain special powers and to expend huge sums on combatting terrorist threats, to the great benefit of defence and security interests, both public and private.

Few concepts are more widely discussed than terrorism, and few as poorly understood

Few concepts are more widely discussed than terrorism, and few as poorly understood. The idea is constantly reinvented, reshaped and distorted to fit transient political agendas.

As a result it has become muddled. There is no accepted definition. Many authoritarian regimes use the term to disparage legitimate opponents. Saudi ArabiaEgypt and most of the Gulf States describe political parties which advocate peaceful democratic change as ‘terrorist’.

Meanwhile in Britain the concept has been reshaped so that it does not apply only to acts of violence, but also to a range of activities which fall well short of violence. Terrorists are defined not only as men of violence, but also those whose views can be depicted as threats to the British state or the values and way of life of the majority of its people. In this way the concept has become part of the apparatus of state harassment.

The terror of a government

The word “terrorism” was invented after the French Revolution. Following the fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1793, the government of the new French Republic fell into more and more radical and extreme hands, each with an increasingly shallow political base. The last of these, headed by Robespierre, applied a special regime of executions of its opponents, based on denunciation without trial. They described this themselves as the “Terror” and their policy entered the dictionary as “Terrorism”