(photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)
The purpose of terrorism, Lenin wrote, is to terrorize.
The terrorist succeeds when his or her target population succumbs to fear and is dominated by it.
To this end, terrorism exploits the media in order to achieve maximum publicity, which then serves to amplify the fear of violence to sway the target audience and achieve a certain goal.
While there are few legal definitions of the term, no one exposed to news media today should fail to recognize a given suicide bombing, shooting attack or hostage situation as terrorism, particularly when it is perpetrated in the name of religious fanaticism.
A study of political terrorism analyzed more than 100 definitions of “terrorism” and found 22 distinct common elements, such as violence, force, fear, threat, and victim-target differentiation. To make a definition even harder, the same group or organization may be described as “freedom fighters” by its supporters and considered to be terrorists by its opponents, not to mention surviving victims.
As far back as 1994, the United Nations General Assembly pronounced its definition of terrorism: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons, or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.”
The word “terrorism” comes from the French terrorisme, specifically the state terrorism that followed the French Revolution, known as the Reign of Terror. State terrorism has over the centuries become democratized, so that it exists everywhere on Earth where extremism is allowed to flourish, from the Middle East to Australia. But whatever the brand of religious, political or ideological terrorism, all thrive on the very essence of terrorisme: the French term itself comes from the Latin verb terreo, which means “I frighten.”
Zealotry is often a component of terrorism, and some scholars argue that the history of terrorism actually began in ancient Judea at the turn of the first century CE, among Jewish religious extremists. The Sicarii, according to Josephus, were named for the concealed knives they carried, which they used to murder those they considered to be collaborators with the Romans – and a list of other victims that eventually grew to include priests in the Temple, Sadducees, Herodians and other rich people.
Two millennia later, it is not Jewish terrorists the world fears. In its jihad to impose its interpretation of Islamic rule in a global caliphate, Islamic State has waged a campaign of conquest across the Middle East marked by beheadings, mass executions, rape, sexual slavery, conversion to Islam or death – not to mention the destruction of churches. The so-called enlightened West has slowly gathered a coalition to fight back, but this has come too late to prevent the destruction of the oldest Christian community in the world, Iraq’s, and the flight of its survivors from their ancient homeland.
The Islamist terrorism that recently migrated to Australia is a religious subset of the same state terrorism that gave the world terrorisme, and that survives today in North Korea, to cite just one example. This pariah nuclear nation briefly threatened American moviegoers with violence if a film its dictator objected to was not kept from being shown.
The Internet threat against Sony’s film The Interview made by the North Korean proxy hacker group Guardians of Peace intimidated US theater chains and then Sony itself.
The mere threat of a 9/11-style attack was enough for Sony to immediately yank the film, no matter that the US Department of Homeland Security did not recognize a real threat.
Fear can be immobilizing, but it can also be a positive motivating factor. Public outrage and perhaps an even greater fear of losing money drove Sony to take a baby step back and release the movie – for pay – on YouTube and in “selected theaters.” But the damage was done: Internet terrorism had scored its first big success – and Guardians of Peace did not behead a single Sony executive.
Fear of being killed by fellow motorists – who slay many more Israelis than terrorists – might promote a culture of defensive driving. But the fear of terrorism is the kind that feeds on itself. If not resisted and kept in perspective, it can lead to panic.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address of 1933 is remembered for perhaps his most famous quote: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Although he was speaking about the Great Depression, his words have direct bearing on a world struggling to function under the depressive influence of terrorism.