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Reflections on Terrorism

Mr. Hyams gives Ireland much space, but little attention. “Since the freedom of Ireland and the establishment of the Republic were won by terrorism, the Irish case deserves two chapters to itself.” Bully for us. There were indeed—and are—terrorists in Ireland, of various types, and there are various views of their “effectiveness,” and what and whom it has served. But the odd thing about the particular terrorists whom Mr. Hyams believes to have won the freedom of Ireland is that they weren’t there at all:

By 1912 the Irish terrorists had convinced even that part of the British Establishment which had thrown out earlier Home Rule Bills, of what Irish Parliamentarians and publicists had not been able to convince them and probably never would have convinced them, that the Irish must be given Home Rule.

But in 1912 there were no Irish terrorists active, either in Ireland or in Britain. The last terrorist campaign—and a singularly ineffective one—had been nearly twenty years before, in the mid-Eighties. The Home Rule Bill of 1912 was the product not of terror but of parliamentary pressure, with the Irish Party holding the balance of power in the British Parliament. The terrorists of several sorts came later, much later, with a world war in between. Mr. Hyams’s version is notable for the strength of the wish behind it: he wants so much to see terrorism as the key to historic change that he simply infers from the change itself that it must have been preceded by terrorism. As he says later, “There is no point whatever in trying to blink away the truth…. Let us take a long, hard look at the facts.”

Mr. Hyams also writes about Palestine and about czarist Russia. Having tried him in an area I know something about I am not prepared to accept him as a guide in other areas. In a penultimate chapter he comes back to Ireland again, with undiminished conviction of the success of terrorism:

It is terrorism, not argument, that is responsible for the project to create a Council of Ireland; and if that is not a step towards union of all Ireland, I don’t know what is.

The project to create a Council of Ireland” in 1973-1974 can be seen as a terrorist success; if so it was a success of the kind that was immediately canceled by another success, for the Council of Ireland succumbed—a good many months before Mr. Hyams’s book was published in New York—to a combination of continued terrorism by the IRA and industrial action (backed by vigilante-type intimidation) from organized Protestant loyalists in Northern Ireland. One of the reasons for the strong loyalist reaction was that loyalists believed, with Mr. Hyams, that the project for a Council was both a victory for terrorism and a step toward a united Ireland. To the degree that a given result is ascribed to terrorism it will be regarded as vulnerable to counter-terror; especially where the terrorists are a minority of a minority, as in Northern Ireland.

Revolutionary Guerrilla Warfare is a bulky anthology of miscellaneous writings on this subject. Most of the essays (reprinted from various periodicals) are by contemporary American academics, but there are also selections from Sun Tzu and Mao Tse-tung, summaries of Clausewitz and Che Guevara, Lenin’s 1906 paper on partisan warfare, and the text of Carlos Marighella’s famous and fatuous Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. The academic contributions range from general theory—one essay has the appetizing title “The J-Curve of Rising and Declining Satisfactions as a Cause of Some Great Revolutions and a Contained Rebellion”—to microstudies like “Political Mobilization in Guinea-Bissau.”

Most of these studies were written at various dates between 1968 and 1972, and they often bear the marks of their period. One essay entitled “An Approach to Future Wars of National Liberation” (1971) by Avrom H. Katz (of the Rand Corporation) is in fact an attempt at an approach to what is now a past war—that in Vietnam. For Mr. Katz, Vietnam was an “interdisciplinary war,” to be won by setting up an interdisciplinary agency.

This essay is a museum specimen of a once-prevalent form of academic “contribution” to the war effort, and on that ground perhaps might merit inclusion in a 1975 anthology. But I do not have the impression that it was for that reason included. The editor seems to take all his contributors equally seriously, and must be a very confused man. The last essay in the book (other than a note on “sources”) has the title “Morality and National Liberation Wars” (1971). The author, Professor Charles Burton Marshall, equates morality with what he calls “prudence,” and “prudence” with a refusal to allow “allocations for strategic security” to be encroached on by “great social programs.”

Vigilante Politics is by far the best and the most disturbing of the five books under review. It has a clearly defined subject: the use of illegal violence in support of an established social and political order, “order without law.” The individual essays, almost all of which were written specifically for inclusion in this book, are all of high quality and together make a coherent whole, in three parts.

Part 1 is theory; Part 2 is about vigilantism in the United States; and Part 3 contains examples from Asia, Africa, and Europe. Anyone at all inclined to make the fairly common contemporary assumption that illegal political violence is mainly a left-wing affair will have to think again if he or she even looks at the impressive evidence which accumulates in this volume about the persistent recurrence of right-wing illegal violence, throughout the world, over a long period. Vigilantism, say the editors in their introduction, “consists of acts or threats of coercion in violation of the formal boundaries of an established sociopolitical order which, however, are intended by the violators to defend that order against some form of subversion.”

Among the ways in which subversive violence can be “effective” is the unleashing of vigilante violence, as in the case of Northern Ireland (discussed in this volume by Richard Ned Lebow). Right-wing violence, like the left-wing kind, attracts the commoner varieties of criminals: “quasi-criminal elements are attracted to the movement as a semi-legitimate avenue for the expression of their anti-social tendencies.” In their relation to Northern Ireland, Protestant criminals are “vigilantes,” while Catholic ones are “subversives”; the other way around would not even be “semi-legitimate” in the relevant eyes.

The recent rise in vigilantism in the United States, and the extent to which it is condoned by the press and the media, are no doubt among the reasons why the editors set about making this valuable collection, and the part of the collection which deals with contemporary vigilantism in the United States is both impressive and disturbing. The key essay here is “Community Police Patrols and Vigilantism,” by Gary T. Marx and Dane Archer. The authors of this pioneering essay have gathered “descriptive information on twenty-eight self-defense groups…based on interviews with police and patrol group members, observation, newspaper accounts and analysis of documents.” They break down the groups studied into four categories, defined with a shrewd eye for relevance in relation to the attitude of the police:

Type 1: Supplemental and encouraged by police.

Type 2: Supplemental and opposed by police.

Type 3: Adversarial and encouraged by police.

Type 4: Adversarial and opposed by police.

Only the first two categories are strictly vigilante, in relation to the society generally, but the last two are vigilante in relation to their own communities, while all four share the “self-defense” psychology of vigilantism. (Of course a body can be both subversive and vigilante: thus the IRA is subversive in relation to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, but has a vigilante aspect inside the Catholic ghetto.) The authors note a tremendous increase in the number of privately owned handguns—from ten million to forty million in ten years—and a very high level of support for citizen anticrime patrols: in the Boston region 55 percent of whites and 69 percent of blacks supported these patrols. The authors put the two sides of the case:

Who, after all, can be opposed to self-defense? In the best of American violent and populist traditions, the groups can be seen to represent action and involvement, self-help, embattled neighbors banding together in a righteous crusade against the dark forces of crime and disorder. Yet there is clearly another side; the antidemocratic potential of privately organized citizen violence. Mass enthusiasm for direct action in the face of institutional restraints (the law, courts, elected officials, formal police bureaucracy, and procedure, etc.) for many people raises the spectre of the Ku Klux Klan and European fascist groups. The picture of independent armed entrepreneurs patrolling “their” heterogeneous communities is not one that can be unequivocally welcomed.

They note that if the Boston levels of support for citizen patrols were typical of urban areas the number of Americans who would support such patrols would be over 42 million. They go on to say:

These perhaps unexpectedly high levels of support for citizen patrols make it interesting to speculate about the potential for vastly more widespread citizen mobilization in America under various kinds of provocation. For example, if crime or riots and social movements were more sustained or perceived as more of a threat than they have so far been, and law-enforcement authorities were unable to restore order, would literally millions of Americans pick up the gun to respond to the perceived threats with private violence?

Understandably, they don’t answer this question. They do however conclude that citizen patrols are going to be a lasting feature of American city life:

To judge from the last ten years and the conditions of the cities, more responsible and sensitive regular police are not likely to be forthcoming in adequate supply. In such a context we may be left with the patrols as the better of limited alternatives.

The citizen patrols are of course on the borders of legality: they have potential for counter-terror but, perhaps with some exceptions, are not now engaged in it.

The book is full of bracing insights. For example this, on educating policemen:

There is no proof that education makes people any kinder or more law abiding. There is some proof that it makes people smarter. Smarter policemen will not automatically eschew vigilantism as a tactic or practice. As a matter of fact, there is good logic in saying that the increased education may help the policeman have the requisite perceptual talents to be a true vigilante (rather than an ordinary brute).2

In the space available to me I cannot give anything like an adequate description of the observations and ideas in this collection. Frightening though much of its content is, it is refreshing to see so much intelligence now brought to bear on one significant part of the generally murky field known as “conflict studies.”

Not long ago, I contributed to a symposium on British television on political violence. I argued that there was no justification for political violence in a democracy, no justification for ambiguity about such violence, or failure to support its repression under law. What I said was, I believe, right in its context. But in generalizing about democracy I left out of account an important distinction which is made in the essay by Marx and Archer on vigilante politics.

Max Weber has argued that a major characteristic of the modern state is its ability to claim “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” But, compared to highly centralized European countries, this process is much less pronounced in the United States, a country whose Bill of Rights guarantees each citizen “the right to keep and bear arms.” Where it exists the struggle between citizen patrol groups and the state is part of a broader historical process and the unresolved conflict over the role of force in modern American life.

If democracy includes placing “the monopoly of the legitimate use of force” under the control of elected representatives, as generally in Western Europe, then a clear distinction can be drawn between the legitimate democratic monopoly and all illegitimate competition. In America, the distinction cannot be drawn in just that way. Violence, both potential and actual, is too diffuse and too sanctioned, and tolerance for vigilantism—including police vigilantism—too widespread for the tidy “European” distinction to be tenable. Democratic process can be used to pay for illegal violence, as recent revelations about the FBI and CIA have shown.

The Church committee report on intelligence activities has raised (without fully answering) the question: “What happened to turn a law enforcement agency (the FBI) into a law violator?” The violations included incitement to violence, as the report also shows:

Although the claimed purpose of the Bureau’s COINTELPRO tactics [inside the United States] was to prevent violence, some of the FBI’s tactics against the [Black Panthers] were clearly intended to foster violence and many others could reasonably have been expected to cause violence.

This is the kind of tactic which is partly deprecated and partly condoned in the passages from Mr. Bell’s book quoted above, and the most obvious gap in Vigilante Politics is its silence about such activities (that collection of essays was certainly planned, and most of the essays presumably completed, before the recent spate of revelations).

Mr. Bell’s opinion that by murdering a few people you may save the lives of a lot more is obviously not confined to Mr. Bell. But in fact there is no calculus of violence permitting such certainties, and the often rather dim minds which experiment in this area have no real conception—as the documents published by the Church committee make amply clear—of what forces they may be playing with or what they may let loose. The tendency to see “international communism” as the arch-enemy can blind people to more elemental forces, and an apparently clever anticommunist stroke can unleash violence on a much greater scale than would have been likely without such a stroke.

Thus, in Ireland, certain members of Mr. Lynch’s government in 1969-1970 encouraged the toppling of the then “Marxist” leadership of the IRA and the establishment of a new IRA led by “good Catholics”: the Provisionals. But in fact, in this particular situation, the “Marxist” leadership had been a factor tending on the whole to confine violence, in the conditions of Northern Ireland. It sought indeed to promote class war, but to avoid sectarian civil war. And in Northern Ireland it is sectarian issues, not class issues, which are explosive. The “good Catholics” who replaced the “Marxists” dismissed the danger of sectarian civil war as “unreal” and now find themselves engaged in precisely such a struggle.

The bloody cycle of sectarian-political retaliatory murder has attained its present intensity as a result not only of the forces of terrorism and vigilantism, but also of the efforts by elected persons (in 1969-1970) to manipulate forces which they failed to understand. I do not know whether the Irish political Sorcerer’s Apprentices who conjured up the Provisionals had any international mentors, but they certainly had models. When democratic governments, whose strength and appeal are in the rule of law, break that rule, they are inflicting a real and certain damage on themselves and those whom they represent, in exchange for a purely hypothetical gain, which may in fact turn out to be a supplementary damage.

The forms of the danger vary, as between America and Europe. The American system, with its guarantee of “the right to bear arms,” may be more democratic than most European systems, but it is much more violent. (Northern Ireland is extraordinarily violent by European standards, but by American standards what is extraordinary about it is not the level of violence but the ways in which violence is legitimized.) Americans have, on the whole, rather more cause than Europeans3 to put to themselves Yeats’s question

What if the Church and the State
Are the mob that howls at the door?

There would be wide agreement that, for people living under military despotisms, or subjected to other forms of government in which they have no say, the right to rebel exists. Only despots or pacifists would be likely to deny this. The assertion of a right to use political violence in a democracy is a different matter. Such a right can be asserted against the denial of minority rights; or it can be justified on the grounds that democratic processes are fraudulent. Certainly minority rights have been violated in democracies, and certainly democratic processes can involve a good deal of fraud. Yet it does not seem to me that either of these truths can be plausibly invoked to justify major or sustained political violence in a democracy. The cause of minority rights may be and probably has been served by episodes of token protest, blackmail-violence, but sustained political violence would be suicidal, almost by definition, for any minority population. Vigilante Politics is full of grim instruction in that matter. The Catholics of Northern Ireland know by now some of the cost of being protected by terrorists.

As for the fraudulency, what is in doubt are not the frauds of democracy, but the claim of the terrorist groups to be replacing fraud with truth. Their own organizations are authoritarian-militarist, tending toward a monopoly of both fraud and power. The career of Joseph Stalin, from the “dedicated” terrorist in Baku to Lord of Gulag Archipelago, is relevant here. It is true that the apologists for the terrorists can make effective use of the point that the democratic politician’s condemnation of terrorist violence is hypocritical, since the democratic state is violent itself. But in so far as this charge rests on the concept of “institutionalized violence” under law, it is not very convincing. Where the use of violence can be restricted and restrained, under the rule of law, there is an advance in civilization, from which terrorism is a regression.

But of course wherever democratic leaders themselves sanction illegal violence they have no effective moral response to the terrorists, because they are terrorists themselves. The various types of terrorism and vigilantism, accelerating by reciprocity, are capable of destroying democracy. No one who reads Vigilante Politics will be likely to feel that threat as remote or unreal, or to doubt that if democracy perishes in an advanced industrial country a form of right-wing authoritarianism, resembling fascism, will take its place. The glorification of the terrorist/vigilante, whether it comes from the right or the left, is a pre-fascist phenomenon in societies like those in North America or Western Europe.

If we go back to the sources of our civilization, we find that Antigone rejected not law, but authority that failed to respect the law; this rebel was no terrorist. As for the Pharisees, they were terrorists all right, and brought ruin on the society whose values they set out to defend. Christ’s preference for the publicans remains relevant, as Simone Weil saw.

  1. 2

    Vigilantism and the American Police,” by Kanti C. Kotecha and James L. Walker.

  2. 3

    If this sounds like European complacency I can only plead that the thought was suggested by a corrective comment by two American scholars, quoted above, on a generalization by a European, Max Weber.

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