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 ...