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Reflections on Terrorism

On Revolt: Strategies of National Liberation

by J. Bowyer Bell
Harvard University Press, 271 pp., $15.00

Transnational Terror DC/Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University

by J. Bowyer Bell
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington,, 91 pp., $3.00 (paper)

Terrorists and Terrorism

by Edward Hyams
St. Martin’s, 200 pp., $7.95

Vigilante Politics

edited by H. Jon Rosenbaum, edited by Peter C. Sederberg
University of Pennsylvania Press, 292 pp., $10.00

Mr. Bowyer Bell opens his On Revolt: Strategies of National Liberation with a chapter on “The Nature of Revolt.” The theoretical base of his analysis is shaky. On the very first page we are told that “Antigone denied authority and the gods.” This statement is a certificate of unfitness to write about the nature of revolt. The whole point of Antigone is her refusal to deny the gods, even when ordered to do so, on pain of death, by local and temporal authority. And the whole point about the tradition of revolt which she represents is this assertion of a higher law and loyalty, as against the rulers of a particular place at a particular time.

In the case of revolts of national liberation—which take us away a bit from Antigone—the gods are both ancestral and somehow identified with the order of the universe. The Irish Republic, on Easter Monday 1916, was proclaimed “in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she [Ireland] receives her old traditions of nationhood….” The leaders of other “revolts of national liberation” may use a different style—the higher laws invoked may be those of History—but the principle is the same. Revolt has to be in the name of something higher than that which is revolted against. Rebels are unusually pious people; always in what they profess, and quite often in reality. Not entirely a compliment; pious people can also be cruel and devious, for the higher good. In the Judeo-Hellenic tradition the prototypes are Antigone, in one branch, and the Pharisees (with a significant difference), in the other. It makes no more sense to have Antigone deny the gods of Thebes than it would to have the Jewish rebels against King Herod revolt at the same time against Jehovah.

The frivolity implicit in Mr. Bell’s approach to Antigone is evident also in the structure of his new book. The revolts he considers are all revolts against Britain, yet he makes the claim that “broader conclusions” can be drawn from a range of examples thus specifically limited:

These rebels against the crown—seven very different movements motivated by the most diverse ambitions—applied a remarkably wide spectrum of strategies, however defined, against an equally remarkably consistent opponent. This existence of a single British stage, the twilight empire, permits a greater degree of comparative analysis than might a different mix of case studies, but it by no means limits the results to an isolated sub-genre. The revolts against the crown were special, but not so special that broader conclusions are merely speculative….

Instead of a simple series of isolated, independent case studies of anticolonial revolts, where rebels succeed or fail in the mountains or in the back alleys, what evolves from the postwar generation, tentatively if not clearly, is an anatomy of revolt that can with some profit be compared to other rebels.

That last horrible sentence is the conclusion of the chapter on “The Nature of Revolt.” The confusion of the language matches a confusion of ideas. The only valid conclusions one can draw from examining case histories of revolts against Britain are limited to revolts against a power of that kind. Even there, the seven cases considered do not include India, where revolt took many forms. They do include one case (Ghana) that was hardly a revolt at all, and one (Malaya) whose course and outcome were quite unlike the others, probably because it was not seen as just a revolt against Britain, but as part of a communist attack on “the free world.” Studies of “revolts of national liberation” directed against one declining power are not likely to shed much light on the course or prospects of revolts against powers which have not declined. Perhaps they are not intended to.

Mr. Bell develops the concept of “strategies,” given prominence in his title, in his opening chapter where he discusses various national “models” with capital letters: Optimum Moment, Instant Alternative, Alternative Legitimacy, Incremental Strategy, Magic Means. When he gets down to his case histories, however, he has little or nothing to say of these strategic fancies—though new ones such as the “Strategy of the Stationary Epicenter” pop up occasionally—and in his concluding essay he comes near to abandoning the idea of strategy altogether. He acknowledges that the rebel’s “strategy” is often “little more than the mix of possible tactics under an appropriate ideological banner.”

All things seem to limit the rebel’s options, to restrict his strategy to tactics, his organization, cause, scenarios and expectations limit his prospects.” Quite so. A recent article on Marion Coyle, one of the kidnappers of the Dutch businessman Herrema in Ireland, gives a whiff of the reality:

The Irish Republicanism in which she was more and more absorbed was an intensely tactical affair. There was nothing intellectual about it. A person who shared a cell with her during her first period of imprisonment says: “even inside we never discussed why we were doing it.”1

Mr. Bell’s treatment of his case histories, when he gets down to them, is much more sensible and straightforward than one might think likely from his generalities and excursions into theory. His seven case histories are: Palestine, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Malaya, Kenya, the Suez Canal Zone, Cyprus, and South Arabia (Aden). He also considers Northern Ireland, as a sort of afterthought; he is the author of a useful, though now dated, book on the IRA. The best of his individual studies is that on Palestine; his exploration of the relations between the Irgun and “official” Zionism is of great interest, notably for the account of “the Season,” the Haganah’s campaign against the Irgun and the Stern Group, an episode “forgotten”—as Mr. Bell points out—in conventional retrospects of the period.

During “the Season,” which lasted roughly from October 1944 to July 1945, it was the policy of the Haganah—to summarize Mr. Bell’s account—to cooperate with the British forces in combating terrorist activities, felt to endanger Zionist postwar objectives, especially after the murder of Lord Moyne in November 1944. This policy broke down when the Zionist leadership reached the conclusion that these objectives would not, after all, be attained by negotiation. It is doubtful how far the Zionist leadership realized the long-term consequences of setting—or accepting the setting of—an example of “the effectiveness of terrorism” in Middle East conditions. Certainly the competing terrorists of that region have made good propaganda use of that example, in all the borderlands of Israel, including ruined Lebanon. (Similar, though not identical, considerations apply to the Irish guerrilla of 1919-1921, the cult of that guerrilla, and the rise of the Provisional IRA.)

Mr. Bell’s study of South Arabia is also very interesting, and one aspect of what “national liberation” can mean emerges particularly clearly from it. This aspect concerns not the “foreign oppressor”—who is on his way out anyway—but the question of who is to rule the territory after he is gone. This was the sole question really involved in the fighting in South Arabia, but it has also been present, more subtly, in other “national liberations.” Nkrumah’s mass demonstrations in the Gold Coast, ostensibly directed against the British, really defeated the old African elite of the Gold Coast itself, and replaced it by the new elite of Nkrumah and his friends. Recourse to arms in Ireland in the 1916-1922 period had similar effects. Self-government (for what is now the Republic) was coming anyway; what the violence determined was not the departure of the British, but the question of who should be in charge after they left. Violence can indeed achieve results, but the results are not necessarily the same as those which its beneficiaries claim for it.

Mr. Bell’s very short book Transnational Terror deals mainly with fairly recent international acts of terrorism, and concludes with what looks like an appeal for a moderate response:

These new transnational terrorists may be countered with special techniques, technological innovation, the deployment of new knowledge, the enactment of new law, or by quiet diplomacy and discreet coercion, but hopefully not by recourse to counter-terror or means alien to traditional American sensibility. And perhaps where possible real efforts can be made to alleviate the legitimate grievances that fuel rebel frustrations. Most important, the threatened must accept that, however spectacular the deeds of terror, they are more easily tolerated than prevented.

Hopefully” perhaps where possible, and perhaps not.

Mr. Bowyer Bell, like Machiavelli, sees that terrorism can have its uses. He does not rule it out for “our side,” and finds the general public too squeamish on the subject:

Sometimes the public finds terror unacceptable even when it is the more merciful alternative. Few of the uninvolved want to be told that the judicious murder of scores of Vietnamese headmen might be a more effective and humane technique for controlling the country-side than the indiscriminate use of B-52s. In America, after the trauma of the last decade, few can view assassination dispassionately as a merciful means to effect change in areas where conventional politics might engender more widespread violence.

Mr. Bowyer Bell writes about terrorists with a degree of sympathy which the present reviewer, being perhaps oversensitive on the subject, finds moderately repugnant. He sometimes, though not consistently, adopts the language of the terrorists themselves, terming their killings “executions” or, even worse, using coy euphemisms like “elimination,” and he is impressed by the “logic” or “elegance” of various bloody deeds. He thinks that “the practitioners of terror can largely be categorized on the basis of their aspirations” and resists other methods of categorizing them, such as those which would include among others the categories of lunatics and gangsters. He thinks that psychotics can “mimic revolutionary violence,” while criminals “may drift on the violent edge of revolution,” but “the true terrorist” is something else. He does, however, admit that “tidy academic categories readily became blurred when applied to real-life situations.” One is reminded at this point that he has, after all, met real-life terrorists in Northern Ireland.

Edward Hyams, the author of Terrorists and Terrorism, is one of those pacifist anarchists who are so hostile to the “institutional violence” of even democratic states that they end up with a relative justification of non-governmental terrorism. He insists, repetitively, that terrorism is “effective,” which is true in so far as it produces effects, most tangibly in the form of dead people. Like Mr. Bell, but much more unwarily, he is disposed to be snobbish about that difficult distinction between terrorists and those other “victims of institutionalized violence,” the ordinary criminals. Thus he rebukes George Woodcock for calling Nechayev “this sinister youth.”

Even granted that Nechayev was a murderer and a blackmailer, he was so in his self-made persona as a dedicated terrorist; he was certainly not a common criminal.

But no one said he was a common criminal; fortunately he was a most uncommon one. It is possible to think of most “common criminals” as less sinister than those rare murderers and blackmailers who are also “dedicated.” One would also like to know, and not just from their own lips, exactly what each of them is dedicated to—that why? which the imprisoned Marion Coyle would not discuss. As a harassed vigilante told a contributor to Vigilante Politics: “the line between dedication and screwballs is very close.”

  1. 1

    The Marion Coyle Story,” by Eamonn McCann, in the Sunday World (Dublin), April 25, 1976.

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