When will it end?
According to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ were first used in English in the late 18th century, which suggests that the problem of terrorism has existed for over 200 years, if not longer. The OED defines terrorism as “the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, especially into acceding to specific political demands.” (3258). Our current obsession with terrorism has come about because of 9/11, as Townsend makes clear:
After September 11 we found ourselves in an apparently open-ended and permanent state of emergency, a “war against terror”, whose ramifications are as inscrutable as terrorism itself. (5)
However, if we take a longer historical view, we will see that terrorism has always existed in human societies and will probably always exist, although its nature and the identity of the terrorists themselves will change over time.
Terrorism happens because groups who have little military power disagree so violently with the state they live in or a foreign state’s policies that they resort to random acts of violence in order to achieve specific political ends. Townsend writes that “war is what happens between states, terrorism is the recourse of those too weak to oppose states openly.” (11). In terms of current Islamic Jihadists their political aims are to coerce the British and American armies to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, to stop American forces being stationed on Saudi Arabian soil, and to establish a separate Palestinian state. But terrorism is centuries old: in the first century AD in the Roman province of Judea, Roman forces were attacked by Jewish zealots in hit and-run attacks which we would know think of as terrorist attacks. (Whitaker, 13). Robin Hood, the famous English folk hero, was, many modern historians agree, not one person but a generic figure representing all the Anglo-Saxon terrorists fighting the invading Normans. (Zwinkler, 18). The early American revolutionists in their actions against the British might well have been seen, by the British authorities, as terrorists. Partisans and members of the resistance all across Europe during the Second World War were termed “terrorists” by the Nazis. The founders of the state of Israel, later prominent and respected politicians, had engaged in terrorist activities against the British authorities in Palestine. Before 9/11 the biggest terrorist attack on American soil had been the attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City – by anti-government right-wing Christian militias. Whom we term “terrorists” depends on our own geo-political outlook. Townsend points out that “’terrorist’ is a description that has almost never been voluntarily adopted by any individual or group. It is applied to them by others – first and foremost by the governments of the states they attack.” (9). Those who employ terror against are terrorist, but they are someone else’s freedom fighters.
Looking at the present, an end to Islamic terrorism does not seem likely, while Iran and Pakistan fund the activities of jihadists and while there is no solution to the problem of the Palestinians. Longer term, terrorism has always been with us and always will be – as long as minority groups are prepared to use terror tactics to reach for political goals which they cannot achieve by peaceful means.
The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary. Volume Two. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Print.
Townsend, Charles. Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. 2002. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Print.
Whitaker, David J. Terrorism: Understanding the Global Threat. 2007. London: Pearson Education. Print.
Zwinkler, Martin. The Anglo-Saxon Outlaw in Medieval England. 2006. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Print.