Bridgeman Images

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 in his remarkable new book, A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France, this is not the case. Terror, he argues, was once held to be quite an admirable thing in the Western world, not just as something to induce in one’s adversaries but as something one should feel oneself. Writers often paired it with the adjective “salutary.” Terror was purgative, restorative, and perhaps even salvific. Terror was good. When Robespierre declared, in the winter of 1794, that “terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue,” he was not being deliberately perverse, paradoxical, or provocative. According to Schechter, he was expressing a belief that drew directly on centuries of European writing and thinking on the topic.

Opinions about terror only shifted toward the end of the eighteenth century—as a consequence, Schechter argues, of the Terror itself. This last point is contestable. More plausibly, the shift took place gradually, for reasons that went far beyond the events of the French Revolution and the borders of France. Indeed, I will propose that the revolutionary Terror shocked observers in large part because its embrace of terror so blatantly defied much larger changes in moral attitudes. Even so, in his fascinating and lucid analysis, Schechter has suggested a new way to think about one of the most important political and cultural transformations of the modern world.

Most of Schechter’s book consists of a close analysis of the uses of the word “terror” in France in the century before the Revolution of 1789. He does not comment on his research methods, but this is the sort of project that would have been almost impossible to carry out before the Great Digitization of the past two decades, and particularly the extraordinary work carried out by Google in scanning tens of millions of books previously accessible only in research libraries. Thanks to the Google Books database, supplemented by several other, more specialized online collections, it is now possible, sitting in the comfort of one’s home, to track virtually every single occurrence of the word terreur in print during the period in question.1 Schechter is an expert in this sort of analysis. His previous book, also written with the benefit of digital resources (although more meager ones—it came out in the digital dark age of 2003), traced the images of Jews in eighteenth-century France, showing how they became a touchstone for philosophes and revolutionaries trying to deal with issues of ethnic and religious difference.2


Tracing the use of terreur in France was already a Herculean task, and Schechter understandably did not try to extend his research to other countries. Still, by limiting his work to France alone, his claim to have uncovered a “momentous cultural shift” stretching across the Western world seems somewhat overstated, and depends on the assumption that the French Revolution had as strong an impact on notions of terror outside of France as inside. Did the English notion of terror change in the same ways as the French notion of terreur did? Perhaps—the French revolutionary Terror of 1793–1794 certainly obsessed British writers and politicians—but the argument remains to be proven.3

Despite this limitation, Schechter still makes an enormously suggestive case. He is wholly persuasive on the point that in France before the late eighteenth-century, “the word ‘terror’ had largely positive connotations.” His chapters patiently sift the uses of the word into distinct categories: religious, political, legal, artistic, and medical. And in each one he uncovers much the same pattern. Catholic preachers and theologians, for instance, routinely spoke of God justly striking terror into the wicked, drawing particularly on the Old Testament, whose authors had admired the use of “terror” in certain circumstances. For instance, when scripture speaks of God delivering the Israelites from Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (words central to the annual recounting of the Passover story), it sometimes adds “and with great terror” (e.g., Jeremiah 32:21). French preachers and theologians also insisted that Christians should feel terror when contemplating their creator. “Fill us with terror at the sight of the judge who is to come,” declared the late-seventeenth-century bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet.

God was not the only source of salutary terror. Kings, considered the images of God on earth, were praised for striking terror into their foes, and a king would often receive the sobriquet “the terror of his enemies.” The law, meanwhile, was supposed to instill terror in malefactors. In 1712, King Louis XIV declared that corpses could be put on trial if the persons in question had committed sufficiently grievous crimes. “Cadavers are tried,” he stated, “in order to imprint terror onto the living.” Art and drama fulfilled salutary purposes by striking terror into their audiences. Edmund Burke’s treatise on aesthetics, which called terror “the common stock of everything that is sublime,” had a large and enthusiastic readership in France.

Medical doctors had a particular fascination with terror, which they considered a possible cure for paralysis, epilepsy, and many other diseases. A popular eighteenth-century medical treatise recounted the case of the scholar and physician Gabriel Naudé, whose wife had cuckolded him. He decided to cure her supposedly excessive libido with terror, waking her up in the middle of the night with cries of robbery and firing off pistol shots in her presence. He then diagnosed her with a high fever, for which he prescribed copious bleedings and the application of leeches. “By this means,” the treatise continued, “he so cooled her temperament and made her so thin, so pale, so exhausted, that he extinguished in this poor woman the fire of love.” Another doctor who firmly believed in the curative powers of terror was Jean-Paul Marat, who would soon emerge as one of the most ferocious advocates of political terror in the French Revolution.

Given this background, Schechter argues, it is no surprise that terror held such an appeal for French radicals such as Marat and Robespierre. As he notes, the records of the revolutionary legislative debates contain nearly 600 instances of praise for “terror” and 139 separate calls for it to become “the order of the day” just in 1793–1794. In making these calls, he writes, the revolutionaries “were honoring a set of dangerous innovations with a venerable and reassuring name.” Indeed, he suggests that calls for terror functioned as a form of “therapy” for them. The image of their enemies trembling, or struck dead by terror, helped relieve their own anxieties at a moment when, with civil war raging and foreign adversaries on the attack, the success of the radical revolution hung in the balance. The appeal of terror as a concept, he insists, was crucial in allowing the radicals to implement terror as a practice, and to undertake the repression that ended up sending tens of thousands to the guillotine after trials that grew more and more perfunctory during the winter and spring of 1794.


But finally the repression spun out of control entirely, leading fearful deputies to the National Convention to stage their coup against Robespierre and his allies on what the French revolutionary calendar called the Ninth of Thermidor. It was then, in Schechter’s account, that a major shift took place as the “Thermidorians,” including Jean-Lambert Tallien, tried to position themselves as the heroes who had brought the Terror to an end—as the great opponents of “terrorism.” “Thus in an astonishingly short period of time,” he writes, “terror came to stand for injustice, tyranny, and the discredited Robespierre.” From then on, a “post-Thermidorian sensibility” would come to predominate in the Western world as a whole: “The word lost its connotations of justice, legitimacy, majesty, and salvation and came instead to indicate unjust and pointless violence.”

Despite the richness of Schechter’s research, these arguments about the French Revolution itself fail to convince, for two reasons. First, it is not at all clear that the meaning of “terror” changed so completely in 1794—especially outside the borders of France. This date hardly marked the end of sermons in which Christian clergy tried to put the “fear of God” into their audiences. Romantic artists and poets continued to speak of nature as terror-inducing in a sense entirely consistent with the earlier sources Schechter cites. Lord Byron, for instance, wrote of summer clouds displaying “terror to earth, and tempest to the air,” and claimed that while the power of the sea induced terror in children, “’twas a pleasing fear.” The British novelist Ann Radcliffe asserted that terror “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.”

Library of Congress

‘The Patriotic Accountant’; French political cartoon

Throughout the years since the fall of Robespierre, terror as a political tactic has hardly lacked for advocates in the West. During the Russian civil war, Leon Trotsky wrote a lengthy pamphlet entitled Terrorism and Communism, which first appeared in English under the title The Defense of Terrorism and praised the use of terror against class enemies. Much popular film and fiction attempts to induce terror in audiences as a form of entertainment, and the old notion that terror can be an acceptable means of behavior modification in certain circumstances is still honored in the expression “scaring a person straight.”

Secondly, if the “terror speech” of the French revolutionaries grew so naturally and continuously out of a long tradition of such speech, why did the Terror itself excite such horror across the Western world? Horror, as Schechter himself notes, is an emotion distinct from terror, designating the revulsion and fear felt once a terrifying event has taken place (Ann Radcliffe wrote that it “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates” the faculties that terror awakens). Schechter’s research prompts this question, but he himself fails to pose it.

Yet his book—particularly the material on religion—does suggest an answer, and a way of looking at changes in the meaning of “terror” and “terrorism” that does not assign so much importance to the discursive choices made by French politicians in the mid-1790s. If one believes in a power infinitely greater than any individual person, and so high above humanity as to be utterly mysterious and inexplicable, then terror is an appropriate emotion to feel toward it. Indeed, it is a salutary emotion, reminding poor, lowly humans of their true place in the order of things. A transcendent power of this sort does not have to be divine to induce terror. It can be a God-like sovereign or that sovereign’s laws. It can be nature, or the nation, or history. It can be a revolution.

The Jacobins routinely compared the French Revolution to massive, irresistible forces of nature: volcanoes, storms, torrents. Doing so, the historian Mary Ashburn Miller has argued, allowed them to present revolutionary atrocities as unavoidable natural phenomena for which no individual participant could bear responsibility.4 At the same time, people who believe in a transcendent, infinitely great power find it easier to justify deploying terror against others—even against innocents—as long as it serves the cause of that power. They do so with the same certainty in obedience that led Abraham to bind his own son for sacrifice.

But well before the French Revolution, the great movement of European thought that we call the Enlightenment devoted itself, in large part, to a defense of human power and dignity, and to challenging the idea that any higher power should hold absolute dominion over us. Immanuel Kant proclaimed that Enlightenment is “man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage”—i.e., his subjection to forces that he himself invents.

Significantly, Schechter has no chapter on terror and the Enlightenment, and indeed the great works of the Enlightenment often spoke of terror in a way very different from the more traditional eighteenth-century sources that he quotes. The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert criticized laws that “inspired nothing but terror,” while damning as despotic societies “which know no other principle of government than terror.” Schechter himself admits that many Enlightenment writers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sharply criticized the association of the law with terror. He also notes that King Louis XVI, who came to the throne in 1774, during the Enlightenment’s peak of influence, was never, unlike his predecessors, praised as a “terror.” And he admits that arguments in favor of terror appeared far more rarely in the first years of the Revolution than they did in 1793–1794.

In short, Schechter’s own evidence strongly suggests that the calls for terror in France in 1793–1794 did not arise out of a political culture in which the word still had entirely positive connotations. To the contrary, they arose in a world that had begun to turn against terror, to see it as a relic of humankind’s primitive, violent past. And this is precisely why the Terror of the Revolution horrified the Western world so deeply—not because of the death toll alone, dismaying as it was, but because the explicit embrace of terror seemed such a shocking rejection of what were coming to be seen as civilized norms. Robespierre’s praise of terror as “an emanation of virtue” might not have horrified anyone if he had written the line in 1700, but it evoked far-reaching horror in 1794.

This turn back to the past fits a larger pattern. The most radical of the French revolutionaries certainly thought of themselves as ultra-modern. Robespierre in the spring of 1794 claimed that the French had leapt two thousand years ahead of the rest of the human race. But in fact, the most radical phase of the Revolution represented a striking rejection of the modern liberalism nourished by the Enlightenment, and its guiding credo that the public good is compatible with the fervent pursuit of individual self-interest. The largely bourgeois Jacobins may have defended private property, but they denounced the period’s nascent commercial capitalism and consumer society. Their social ideal was austere, self-sufficient, and agricultural. They angrily rejected the idea that politics should serve as an arena in which different social and geographical interests competed and compromised. The body politic should be a harmonious, indivisible whole, and there could be no such thing as a “loyal opposition.”

These dreams were understandable. At the beginning of the Revolution in 1789, a national consensus had favored the transformation of France into a moderate, liberal constitutional monarchy, but the attempt to accomplish this foundered on bitter internal divisions and the pressures of an initially disastrous foreign war. By the summer of 1793 the Revolution was besieged and desperate, and the radicals who had come to power believed that only extreme emergency measures could save it. Small wonder that these men, deeply educated in the Roman and Greek classics, with their paeans to stern republican virtue and unity, should reject liberal ideas that, in their view, could only encourage selfishness, corruption, division, and national weakness. Small wonder that they should resort to the increasingly anachronistic but still powerful language of terror, and everything it implied about the need to suppress one’s self-interest in the name of something beyond the individual.

And here we find another connection between the French revolutionary “terrorists” and the modern combatants who go by this name. For one thing that most modern terrorists have in common is a willful anachronism, a fervent embrace of fantasies about a glorious past. They dream of reestablishing an ethnically pure nation that never existed, or a Caliphate. They think of politics and society in mythical terms, according to which significant change does not depend on complex, difficult processes involving large populations, institutional structures, and resources, but can be enacted by heroic, self-sacrificing individuals striking a single grand blow against evil.

These fantasies may seem absurd to most of us, but it is easy to see why they remain so enormously appealing to men and women who feel frustrated, helpless, vulnerable, and unable to bring about change through the ordinary channels of modern political life. And it is easy to see why they adopt tactics that so successfully transfer those feelings of helplessness and vulnerability to millions of potential victims: tactics of terror.