"Terror" is the unlawful use of violence by a government, or a
private group or individual, in pursuit of a political goal. In
modern regimes, laws forbid groups or individuals within the state
from using violence against each other or the government. Governments
themselves, which insist on a monopoly of the legal use of violence,
in theory may only use violence against their citizens under circumstances
well defined by legal codes, such as the execution of individuals
judged guilty of capital offenses. The careful regulation of violence
between states and individuals, therefore, is at the heart of current
political systems. When a violent action initiated by a government,
a group, or an individual outside of accepted legal norms takes
place, an act of terrorism has occured. Terror represents a threat
to established political regimes; it also allows those regimes to
define the limits of acceptable violent activity.
Incidents like the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and
the Pentagon, the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City,
or the activities of Theodore Koszinski, the so-called "Unabomber",
leave the impression that small groups of extremists or crazed individuals
are the only originators of acts of terrorism. World history over
the last two centuries, however, contains many examples of state-sponsored
acts of terrorism against private citizens. In 1793-94 for example,
during the French Revolution, deputies elected to the nation's representative
body decreed "terror" to be "the order of the day". By this statement
they meant that they were justified in suspending laws created only
a few years before that governed the state's use of violence. Rules
defining capital offenses, arrest procedures, and legal processes
were rewritten to increase the state's power to execute those it
perceived as its enemies. Revolutionaries thought the threats posed
to the new regime by internal and external foes justified these
measures, but the wave of blood-letting that ensued ultimately delegitimated
the government they created, paving the way for Napoleonic dictatorship
and compromising the French republican tradition for much of the
nineteenth century. From the genocide committed by the Turkish government
against the Armenians in 1914 to the Argentinian desaparecidos of
the 1970s, the 20th century was replete with acts of state-sponsored
terrorism. Often it has been these state-run operations that have
inspired spectacular individual acts of terrorism in retaliation.
Questions to Consider
- What is the difference between "war" and "terrorism"?
- Name an act of state-sponsored terrorism within your lifetime.
Why does it qualify as an act of terror?
- Name an act of terror committed by a private group or individual
within your lifetime. Why does it qualify as an act of terror?
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