In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, leaders around the world condemned the actions of the terrorists. The outrage committed against the cartoonists and journalists of the satirical magazine was framed as a strike at the heart of French democracy and the right to freedom of speech. The response was constructed as a defence of the Republic and its values; millions took part in the #marchrepublicaine rallies of 11 January, a show of unity that brought to mind the antifascist demonstrations of 12 February 1934 and the agreement of the Popular Front on 14 July 1935; members of the National Assembly sang the Marseillaise; the government released a statement in which it paid tribute to the ‘…passion of the millions of citizens who rose up in unity and dignity to reject barbarism, shun fear and affirm the unfailing strength of our national motto [Liberty, Equality and Fraternity]’. France was not alone in condemning the terrorists’ assault on democracy. German Chancellor Angela Merkl spoke of an attack on ‘a core element of democratic culture’, while PM David Cameron reassured the French that the British stood ‘squarely for free speech and democracy’. This language stretched far beyond the borders of Western Europe, and statesmen from countries as diverse as Cambodia and New Zealand spoke out for the preservation of democracy and its inherent liberties. The democratic values of the French Republic thus seemed to be the values of (French/ European/ Western/ Human) civilization itself.
Terrorism has always been a crime that has struck at the heart of civilization. When anarchists assassinated US President William McKinlay in September 1901, his successor Theodore Roosevelt condemned anarchist terrorism as, ‘…a crime against the whole human race’, arguing that, ‘…all mankind should band against the anarchist. His crime should be made an offense against the law of nations, like piracy and that form of man-stealing known as the slave trade; for it is of far blacker infamy than either.’ In November 1937, at a League of Nations conference to examine the issue of terrorism, the Belgian representative described terrorism as, ‘…acts which, by their gravity and contagious nature, are prejudicial not only to the interests of individuals as such or of one or more specific States, but may affect mankind as a whole’. More recently, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair claimed that the tactic of the terrorist was to ‘divide humanity in hate’, requiring all its opponents to unite around the idea of ‘liberty.’ The New York atrocities were acts of, ‘barbarism [that would] stand as their shame for all eternity’.
The point is that the threat from terrorism has long been framed as an existential one. The history of terrorism shows that past societies have always conceived of their terrorism as the worst terrorism. Of course, today’s terrorists seem to have much greater means of destruction at their disposal than their forebears; late nineteenth-century anarchists could not have killed in numbers on a par with 9/11. Yet terrorists have always taken advantage of new technologies in their societies and the bomb-throwing anarchist of the 1890s seemed no less terrifying to contemporaries than today’s suicide bomber. Furthermore, despite the idea that terrorists are bound one day to employ Weapons of Mass Destruction (a belief nurtured by TV series such as 24), the Charlie Hebdo attacks remind us that terrorists still use firearms to commit their crimes.
Some may object that, despite the comparisons drawn with past instances of terror, the radical Islamic terrorist is more callous and more fanatical than previous militants. After all, anarchists could allow themselves to be arrested rather than die in a pathetic blaze of glory fighting with police. Yet the anarchist desired arrest, all the better to put the State on trial during his or her prosecution. In any case, research by Martha Crenshaw and Donatella della Porta has shown that underground terrorist organizations, whatever their political or religious bias, conceive of themselves as an ‘elite’ with a ‘higher consciousness’ in which activists are ‘heroes’ of their cause. Today’s religious zealot is no more or less committed than yesterday’s anarchist, fascist, communist, anti-colonialist….etc.
The history of terrorism demonstrates that the challenges posed by terrorism are not unique to our society. Historians should be able to make this case without being accused of relativizing the modern terrorist threat. Whatever our personal politics or point of view, it is our job to investigate why and how people acted in the past without making a moral judgement. Knowledge of the history of terrorism offers the chance to learn about how past societies dealt with the threat, and perhaps apply those lessons to today.