Skip to Main Content

The modern understanding of the word “terror” dates from the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution of 1789. One of the key figures in the Revolutionary Council—the governing body responsible for thousands of deaths by guillotine—was Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794). Robespierre’s observation that “Terror is nothing more than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue” rings familiar to anyone who has read or listened to the righteous rhetoric of terrorist organizations, be they Islamic militant groups, the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland’s civil strife, or even in the words of homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh. There are numerous examples that fit this definition of terrorism throughout both modern and ancient history.

The United States has had its share of actions that meet a modern view of terrorism. Whether one is speaking of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1866, or the 1998 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, terrorism may reflect homegrown conflicting worldviews as well as imported ones. As the 20th century drew to a close, religious justification for terrorism emerged across the globe and in widely different societies and cultures—from Northern Ireland to Africa, from Indonesia to the Middle East. Throughout human history, terrorism has been employed by religious, political, and ideologically driven individuals, organizations, or governments to communicate their agenda, their resolve, and their capacity to disrupt life as usual.

One definition of terrorism is the deliberate, planned violent act whose purpose is to cause injury or sow fear to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives. According to the New York Times, “terrorism seeks to hurt a few people and to scare a lot of people in order to make a point” in contrast to traditional warfare whose purpose is to conquer territory and capture cities (January 6, 2000). Terrorism may take the form of individual or state-sponsored terrorism but in all instances maintains these characteristics. When we talk about terrorism in the modern sense, we are usually referring to acts that target individuals, organizations, or governments.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, then Deputy Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, declared that the fall of the Soviet Empire was the final event marking the coronation of Western liberal democracy. The world, he argued, had fully and finally been delivered. The title of his book on the subject summed up this view: The End of History. At the time, it seemed a possibility: our enemy had been defeated and the new world order was at hand. On September 11, 2001, this comforting view shattered.

Instead, a new world enemy has been ordained, a different type of enemy: different worldview, different culture, different means. This enemy is unfamiliar, elusive, without institutions or uniforms or clear structure, and it wages its violence in unconventional ways; among these are thought to be biological, chemical, and nuclear (BCN) weapons. The existence and threat of such ...

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.