Etymology of terror
Accusations of terrorism have become all but meaningless. Paul Demarty examines the strategy, tactics and hypocrisy of the T-word
My article last week began with rightwing media attacks on the BBC for failing to directly call Hamas a ‘terrorist’ organisation, and crafty attempts to portray a blood-spatter paint protest at Portland Place as a justified Zionist action against such intolerably ‘pro-Hamas’ editorialising, as opposed to what it really was: a pro-Palestine protest against the totally one-sided, pro-Israel coverage the BBC is actually producing.
Our theme last week was the media at large, but there is another matter arising from this silly bit of Beeb-bashing: is Hamas a terrorist organisation, after all that? What exactly is a terrorist organisation anyway? The BBC is rightly accused of dodging the matter by its rightwing adversaries: it prefers elaborate circumlocutions of the form, “Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Israel and many other countries”; it is being faulted, then, for attempting to retain the phoney veneer of ‘impartial’ fact-based news coverage, instead of behaving unambiguously as a propaganda arm of the US state department (and, in this particular case, the Israeli Defence Forces).
Media organisations live and die by the trust of their consumers - and obtain that trust by the old-fashioned methods of fraud, subterfuge and manipulative framing. If there were a patron saint of bourgeois media, it would be Shakespeare’s Iago. For the BBC, the basis of the fraud is a commitment to ‘balance’; to just come out and say what its editorial line actually is would damage the brand; the Daily Mail - well-known as an ideologically stringent outfit - is, of course, not so constrained.
In a certain respect, the BBC and the Mail share a definition of terrorism, the most vacuous and degraded one available. A terrorist organisation is simply a more-or-less armed force that is on the ‘wrong’ side, according to the particular speaker. Terrorist organisations come in lists - the US state department has one, of course, as do equivalent ministries around the world, and the UN. Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation by a fairly predictable list of parties: Israel, the US, the UK, the EU, and - for some reason - Paraguay. The Daily Mail has an implied list of terrorist organisations that certainly includes Hamas, and says so. The BBC hypocritically nods at the responsible authorities and asks us to draw our own conclusions. Both, in the end, view it as a matter of Carl Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction.
Terrorism was not always a word used in such a deliberately vague, nominalistic way, of course. Its modern history begins with the French Revolution, and the emergence of the word ‘terror’ as a way to describe the bloodier moments of the post-revolutionary order. With all the other European powers attempting to strangle the revolution in its cradle, radicalisation gave way to mass executions - first of reactionaries and later of moderates; the so-called Reign of Terror was met by the White Terror of the famous ‘Thermidorian reaction’, which by and by led to the establishment of the first French empire.
Terror here was a term used by the enemies of the ‘terrorists’, unsurprisingly; and cognate usages have recurred since. The Bolsheviks resolved to meet ‘white terror’ with their own ‘red terror’ after 1917; the mass purges of the 1930s under Stalin is commonly called a terror. Another usage also emerged in Russia, however, and a little earlier. Many in the revolutionary underground embraced a strategy of conducting spectacular acts of violence against elements of the tsarist regime, up to and including the tsar himself. Brave individuals would hurl a bomb at the emperor or some hated minister, with near certain death to follow.
These were not marginal forces. Narodnaya Volya (‘People’s Will’) may not have been great in number, but was quite fanatical in the pursuit of an ‘agrarian socialism’. It was well organised and could be spectacularly successful, as with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Its political support in the wider population led sometimes to juries nullifying charges against its members. The theory was simple: assassinations and the like would frighten the tsar’s flunkies and embolden the masses, who in due course would take up arms in revolt.
In the Russian underground, this strategy became known as ‘terrorism’ - especially (again) among its critics. Yet those critics were not exactly enemies of the Narodniks, or at least not always. Russian social democracy was founded, to some extent, by veterans of the older movement or others like it (Vera Zasulich was a Bakuninist who attempted to assassinate the governor of St Petersburg; Pavel Axelrod and Georgi Plekhanov were members of the populist underground as students). Yet they founded it because populist and anarchist terrorism had met its limits. Success brought infiltration and reprisals; and moreover alienated the embryonic urban proletariat, which cried out for permanent organs of self-defence and looked to the example of the international workers’ movement.
Terrorism was not opposed, in this dispute, to the forces of light (as with modern ‘war on terror’ foolishness); nor to the moderate and temperate customs of good governance, as the French revolutionary ‘terror’ was said to be by the likes of Edmund Burke. It was opposed to mass politics, mass parties, even in the tyrannical conditions of late tsarist Russia. At length, the case was proven by the massive growth in support for social democracy and the decisive role of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in defeating tsarism in the end.
It seems fair to describe Hamas, by the ‘Russian’ definition, as a terrorist organisation. The abductions, bombings and other spectaculars that typified its activity through the first and second intifadas plainly meet the definition - they are useless purely as military operations, take no territory and destroy no armies, but attack instead the psychology of each side. ‘Operation Al-Aqsa Flood’ was clearly on a far greater scale - an impressive feat of improvised combined-arms warfare, which perhaps killed more Israelis in one day than Palestinian forces managed in both intifadas put together. But it cannot seriously be supposed that Hamas militants thought they would keep the kibbutzes and army bases they took on October 7.
It is its old strategy, but writ, very, bloodily, large; and it has the old flaws - flaws familiar to Zasulich and Plekhanov a century and a half ago. One coup de main against a superior enemy force, no matter how astonishing, changes nothing for the positive.
Of course, this is not the definition under which the BBC is to be denounced by its own enemies. That would be the friend/enemy version: a terrorist is an evildoer. Per se, this is not defensible, so some reason must be given for placing people on the ‘enemy’ side of the line, and the most common such reason is the deliberate targeting of civilians for violence. This is, again, hard to deny in the case of Hamas, which began to hit Israeli civilian targets with suicide bombs in 1996, in retaliation for massacres of Palestinians.
The problem is that this principle does not distinguish between Hamas and its enemy, except inasmuch as so very, very much greater terror is inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel that the comparison is all but facile. A distinction could be drawn between state and non-state (or para-state) violence, the latter qualifying as terrorism - but that was abandoned long ago for the expediency of absorbing states like Iran and Gaddafi’s Libya into the same rhetorical frame as Hamas and Carlos the Jackal.
There is no more foolish idea, upon a moment’s reflection, than the one that a ‘normal’ army does not attack civilians - only a ‘terrorist’ army would do such a thing. However, any war more serious than a few minor skirmishes results in massacres, burned and bombed towns, minefields, rivers of blood. Israeli spokespeople openly cite the destruction of Dresden as a precedent for their present crimes - an action still formally defended by the western powers, despite its appalling brutality and apparent military redundancy. The Soviets were hardly much better behaved on the eastern front, of course; and we will not insult readers’ intelligence by reminding them of the crimes of Nazi Germany.
Israel’s backers are guilty of hypocrisy if they denounce Hamas for targeting civilians, for obvious reasons. But they are also complicit in a greater hypocrisy, the idea that the ‘wrong’ side in a war follows from their methods, tactics and strategy. From that narrow point of view, there just are no ‘good’ wars at all. To accuse some military power of targeting civilians is no more than to identify them correctly as a military power. There are, of course, variations - extreme excesses of bloodlust, as demonstrated by the Israeli government and its keenest supporters in the present conflict. If we are to discriminate meaningfully, however, we must cease treating war as an inverted beauty pageant and ask whether military action brings us any closer to a world without armies, without aerial bombardment, sniper fire and evacuation orders altogether. We prefer peaceful means to warlike ones - but warlike ones to the perpetual warfare of class society.
Which brings us back to the Russian disputes of the 1880s-1910s. Hamas is not, of course, a leftwing organisation (although leftwing groups did participate in Al-Aqsa Flood). The aims of the Narodniks and RSDLP differed in many important details, but had the same rough shape; the same is not true of communists and Hamas-style Islamists. The question is rather posed regarding left sympathisers with Palestinian liberation, who could not help but welcome Hamas’s breakout effort, merely for proving that such a thing was possible.
Leftwing discussion has focused on the question of whether violent resistance is morally permissible - understandably so, given the hypocrisy of the mainstream media on this point. We cannot be satisfied with this, however: we have a world to win, not an argument. Terrorist spectaculars failed the Russian socialists of the last two centuries; they found another way. Perhaps Hamas and its allies can inflict so great a defeat on Israeli ground forces to make this gambit pay off. If not, those of us who seek the victory of the Palestinians over their oppressors will need to press for another strategy.