‘Pity Is Treason’

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The execution of Maximilien Robespierre in Paris on July 28, 1794

It is clearly impossible to identify a birthdate for terrorism. There are vociferous disagreements about its definition, and even more vociferous arguments about which actions actually count as terrorism. As the old saying goes, your evil terrorist is my heroic freedom fighter. Were the bomb-throwing anarchists of late-nineteenth-century Europe terrorists? What about Guy Fawkes, the radical Catholic who tried to blow up the English Parliament in 1605? What about the Crusaders? The Maccabees? It all depends on whom you ask.

We can, however, date the birth of the word “terrorism” with surprising precision: August 28, 1794, in a speech by the French politician Jean-Lambert Tallien. Five weeks earlier, Tallien had helped to end a period of large-scale, murderous political repression in France, which had claimed tens of thousands of lives. The instigators of this repression had seized on “terror” as a slogan, pledging to make it “the order of the day.”

Tallien himself had done his bloody part to exterminate real and supposed counterrevolutionaries, before turning murderously on his erstwhile allies—including, most prominently, Maximilien Robespierre. Now he sought to place all the blame on their heads and to turn the slogan against them. They had, he claimed, made terror the basis of a depraved and perverted political system: “terrorism.” Within a few weeks, the word “terrorist” also appeared in the French political lexicon, and soon enough a French political society was declaring: “We…declare eternal war…on the terrorists.” The period of repression itself became known, and has been known ever since, as “the Terror.”

Most commentators today would distinguish what Tallien called “terrorism” from the tactics employed by small, conspiratorial nonstate groups like al-Qaeda or the IRA. Robespierre and his allies did not place bombs in public places. They used the police powers of a large, authoritarian state to arrest and execute their political adversaries. But in both cases the word denotes the use of terror—not just violence but also the inducement of a strong emotional reaction—as a weapon: to be struck with terror is to feel wholly vulnerable and helpless.

Terrorism, then and now, does not kill anywhere near as many people as a full-scale war. But just as airplane travel tends to generate more powerful anxieties than automobile travel despite its demonstrably greater safety, so terrorism today tends to generate more powerful anxieties than war, because of that sense of vulnerability and helplessness. At least in war we have a chance to defend ourselves, and therefore a sense of control. For this reason, few things generate greater repugnance in modern society than the use of terror as a weapon, which is precisely why the word “terrorism” is thrown about so indiscriminately.

It would be easy to assume that a similar repugnance has prevailed in all times and places. But as Ronald Schechter shows…

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