The Etymology of Terror

A police officer standing over a victim of the Sharpeville Massacre

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

A police officer standing over a victim of the Sharpeville Massacre, South Africa, March 21, 1960

The recent controversy over Israel’s declaration as “terrorist” six Palestinian nongovernmental organizations—including Al-Haq, a leading human rights monitoring group that was the first of its kind in the Middle East when cofounded by Raja Shehadeh, who wrote for the Review about all this—reminded me of an essay written some thirty-five years ago by Edward Said. That article, titled “The Essential Terrorist,” appeared in Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, a 1988 collection edited by Said himself and Christopher Hitchens. Said’s essay was originally a book review for The Nation—its subject, in his words, “Terrorism: How the West Can Win, edited and with commentary, weedlike in its proliferation, by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.” Said went on:

Unlike the wimps who have merely condemned terrorism without defining it, Netanyahu bravely ventures a definition: “terrorism” he says, “is the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political purposes.” But this powerful philosophic formulation is as flawed as all the other definitions, not only because it is vague about exceptions and limits but because its application and interpretation in Netanyahu’s book depend a priori on a single axiom: “we” are never terrorists; it’s the Moslems, Arabs and Communists who are.

Oh, that Netanyahu: the one who graduated from being a Beltway influencer on the new pseudo–social science of Terrorism Studies to become the leader of Israel’s Likud Party, a five-term prime minister, and by far the dominant Israeli politician of the past quarter-century. His third book on the topic, Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists, was published (in the US) the year before his first term in government. Since then, the opportunity to put theory into practice and define all resistance to Israel’s settlement and de facto annexation of Palestinian territories as terrorism has served him well. One imagines that, though now out of office and still facing corruption charges, he must draw some satisfaction from seeing his antiterrorism mandate applied by an Israeli politician usually described as a centrist in the country’s politics, the former army chief Benny Gantz.

Never mind that the dossier to back this most recent proscription, reportedly based on intelligence gathered by Israel’s domestic security agency Shin Bet, has been debunked. (The clue is surely in the word “dossier,” which, from supposed evidence of Iraqi WMDs to frolics in Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton, seems the standard receptacle for garbage research and hearsay nonsense.) In this case, the report on the alleged status of the six NGOs as front organizations for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a banned leftist group, relied—according to +972 Magazine, on sight of a leaked copy—on uncorroborated testimony from two accountants who had been fired for embezzlement from a different NGO. Officials for several of the European governments that were shown the material by the Israeli Foreign Ministry in an effort to persuade them to sever ties with, and end funding of, the NGOs have rejected it as worthless.

The problem remains, though, that governments the world over have come to rely on the rhetorical tactic of placing opponents in a special category of irredeemable enemies of the state and declaring them terrorists. But how, not to credit Bibi with too much, did the “powerful philosophic formulation” that Said diagnosed three-plus decades ago come into being?


the 1793–1794 Reign of Terror, France

adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

A colored nineteen-century engraving of prisoners being transported to the guillotine during the 1793–1794 Reign of Terror, France

This history begins, as so much does, with the French Revolution. The etymology seems to show that “terror” (terreur) and “terrorism” (terrorisme) entered modern parlance with the bloody repressions of Maximilien Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety (a prime Orwellianism avant la lettre) that saw thousands executed in the name of revolutionary justice from 1793 to 1794. What is central to this early usage is that it refers very specifically to violence committed by the state against those it sees as guilty of subverting its authority and aims. That definition, of terror as state violence, proved remarkably stable and enduring. It was the same definition that Leon Trotsky applied more than a century later, in 1920, in a denunciation of the more moderate Austrian Marxist thinker Karl Kautsky. In characteristically polemical mode, Trotsky wrote:

The State terror of a revolutionary class can be condemned “morally” only by a man who, as a principle, rejects (in words) every form of violence whatsoever—consequently, every war and every rising. For this one has to be merely and simply a hypocritical Quaker.

“But, in that case, in what do your tactics differ from the tactics of Tsarism?” we are asked, by the high priests of Liberalism and Kautskianism.

You do not understand this, holy men? We shall explain to you. The terror of Tsarism was directed against the proletariat. The gendarmerie of Tsarism throttled the workers who were fighting for the Socialist order. Our Extraordinary Commissions shoot landlords, capitalists, and generals who are striving to restore the capitalist order. Do you grasp this…distinction? Yes? For us Communists it is quite sufficient.

A full-throated defense, in other words, of the Bolsheviks’ right to use all the means at their disposal to hold onto state power by eliminating their enemies through terror. From Trotsky’s lips to Stalin’s ears. The gargantuan horror of the Stalinist Terror, at its height in the late 1930s, may also have been the term’s historical apotheosis—even if it hardly marked the last instance of mass violence committed by the state. But we do not, as a rule, know Nazism’s atrocities by this word; nor has Terror with a capital T been commonly applied to such depredations of the postwar period—though worthy candidates come to mind, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s most immediately (there are plenty of non-Communist examples to choose from, too).


What historical change, then, brought about the end of this ancien usage? The answer seems to lie in the period of decolonization after World War II, in which we see the meanings of terror and terrorism shift from violence inflicted by the state upon its citizenry to violence committed against the state by certain of its citizens. It is a remarkable transition: once the criminal perpetrator, the state now becomes victim of the crime. And by this sleight, the state gains the right to enact drastic measures by claiming self-defense in the name of public safety (that fell phrase, again). What appears unmistakably true is that this reversal of semantic polarities—culminating in the dubious scholarship of Netanyahu and colleagues—could only have taken place through the West’s experience of various postcolonial “emergencies.” The essential terrorist, as Said noted, must be an enemy other who will carry the burden of this new meaning. This has manifested in so-called emergencies all over the world, from Malaya to Kenya to Algeria to Vietnam to Northern Ireland.

Where in the world might we look for this postcolonial realignment of the nature, and agents, of terrorism? My answer—there could be others—would be apartheid South Africa.

Consider this straightforward sequence of events. In 1950, the apartheid regime passed the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1960, South African police made the township of Sharpeville internationally notorious by firing upon a crowd of demonstrators—killing sixty-nine people and injuring another one hundred and eighty; among the casualties were twenty-nine children. The massacre was a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle: the two main Black opposition groups, the Pan African Congress and the African National Congress, both soon decided to begin armed resistance to the regime. Following the 1963 arrests of a dozen or so leading members of the ANC, on suspicion of conspiring to commit acts of sabotage, the Rivonia Trial concluded with the sentencing of eight defendants to life imprisonment; among them Nelson Mandela. In 1967, South Africa passed the Terrorism Act, which sanctioned the detention without trial of anyone suspected to “endanger the maintenance of law and order.”

South Africa is an instructive case, perhaps the pivotal one, because the apartheid state—relatively insulated from the cold war conflicts taking place elsewhere but facing an opposition movement entrenched in a Black majority that lacked any real rights—chose to shift its criminalization of adversaries from charging them as Communists to imprisoning them as terrorists. It was this legal innovation by apartheid lawyers and lawmakers that made terrorism not a crime of the state but a crime against the state. As John Dugard, a law professor then at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, wrote in 1978: “Although designed to combat terrorism, the Terrorism Act has itself become an instrument of terror.”

The law offered a new template soon taken up and imitated around the world. Britain was an early adopter, passing a string of antiterrorism statutes between 1974 and 1989, with another raft enacted from 2000 to 2015; but countries as varied and far apart as Belgium and Bangladesh, Turkey and Canada, China and New Zealand, have followed suit.

The legacy of antiterrorism in the United Kingdom provides particularly rich detail about the mechanism behind terror’s altered meaning. At the beginning of the Troubles, after the British Army had been deployed, ostensibly to quell violent unrest between nationalists and loyalists that followed protests by Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, a brigadier named Frank Kitson was dispatched to direct the military operation. He had learned his craft, counterinsurgency, in the brutal colonial conflicts in Kenya and Malaya, and he now applied those tactics to Belfast and Derry against a resurgent Irish Republican Army (this is a tale Patrick Radden Keefe skillfully recounts in his 2018 book Say Nothing). But while counterinsurgency was the soldiers’ manual, antiterrorism was the Westminster politicians’.


Of no British leader over the course of the Troubles would this be more emphatically so than Margaret Thatcher. For her, it was personal: the IRA had succeeded in assassinating her friend and mentor Airey Neave in 1979, the year she would become prime minister, and the group very nearly succeeded in assassinating her five years later, in a bombing at a hotel hosting participants of the Conservative Party conference in Brighton. Her mantra throughout the 1980s was “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Indeed, after 1988 this ban was extended even to hearing them—that was the year her government enacted a law prohibiting broadcasters from transmitting the voices of Republican leaders like Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, which led to the faintly surreal workaround by TV and radio newsrooms of employing actors to read their words. The hypocrisy of Thatcher’s stance has since been exposed by the release of official papers that make it perfectly clear that on a number of occasions she certainly did negotiate with terrorists.

That little awkwardness also highlights one of the problems that arise when governments attempt to place state opponents beyond the bounds of acceptable political actor and interlocutor: it’s embarrassing to have to reverse. After Ronald Reagan joined Margaret Thatcher in accepting the apartheid regime’s designation of the ANC as a terrorist organization, in 1988 the US Department of Defense added Mandela and the ANC to a list of “key regional terrorist groups.” Mandela was released from Robben Island just two years later, yet he remained on a US terrorism watchlist until 2008—fourteen years after he became South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, a period in which he met with every sitting American president.

The United States has, of course, made its own, typically exceptional contribution to the twenty-first-century definitions of terror and terrorism. The “war on terror” that President George W. Bush declared to Congress shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks took what had previously been the state’s struggle against local armed resistance or anticolonial insurgents to a new, global domain. Formerly, per Said’s schema, governments had used “terrorist” to outlaw particular opponents that resorted to violence, groups such as the PFLP and the Basque ETA that claimed legitimacy on political or nationalist grounds (though sometimes conditioned by ethnic or religious minority status). In contrast, the US after September 11 arrogated to itself the right to use military force anywhere in the world, where alliances or client governments permitted, against non-state actors, who were thus a priori terrorist adversaries. (This “war” also created a pretext, which circumvented international law, for detaining and torturing “enemy combatants” captured, or kidnapped, by the US and its surrogates.)

Mostly, this has been accomplished under the rubric of fighting “radical Islamic [sic]” groups in whatever theater of operations they happen to be. Given that the US’s main weapon in this war has, in practice, become the drone-launched missile, for all intents and purposes there is little oversight or scrutiny—either through Congress or among the wider American public—of whom the US has targeted as terrorists by this means. Only on rare occasions, when, usually for other reasons, there is close media attention, is any light shone on whether lethal violence has been rained down on anyone even vaguely meeting the open-ended US designation. Such a case occurred on August 29, when a US drone attacked killed ten Afghan civilians mistakenly identified by the US military as members of ISIS-K. According to the independent investigative and monitoring group Airwars, in the twenty years of the “war on terror,” at least 22,679 civilians (and possibly more than twice that number) have died as victims of US drone strikes.

It might seem reasonable to adapt and update Dugard’s words: although designed to combat terrorism, the USA Patriot Act and the Authorization for Use of Military Force have themselves become instruments of terror. That argument—attempting to put the Terror back in terror—was precisely what Noam Chomsky tried to accomplish with his essay in Said’s 1988 collection. Despite its rather lugubrious title, “Middle East Terrorism and the American Ideological System,” Chomsky’s was a decent effort but its relative lack of influence—compared with, say, Netanyahu’s—rather suggests that returning terror to its Robespierrean root is a quixotic venture. It has been easier, it turns out, to welcome former terrorists into government and make them state officials (albeit the word “former” has had to do a lot of work there).


We have reached, then, a point in the etymology of terror at which governments have assumed the right to designate any specific person or group, literally anyone they don’t like, as terrorists. By one new standard for terrorism, it can apply to human rights lawyers and researchers who irritate government officials, because to decry state violence has become itself a terrorist crime. By the other new standard, it can apply to anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—the time and place being lethally adjacent to wherever the US is hunting “war on terror” adversaries.

My initial example came from Israel, but it’s worth noting that the US now uses both standards—one for enemies foreign, the other for enemies domestic. The latter has found a new currency in recent controversies over who is a domestic terrorist. For several years after 2001, the definition of domestic terrorism seemed relatively stable and commonsensical to most Americans: it applied to self-radicalized Muslims. (This also led to some very troubling over-surveillance and entrapment plots directed at American Muslim communities.) Now, however, there is a push to redefine domestic terrorism to include, or “mean,” white nationalist and white supremacist groups and antigovernment militia organizations. That is an understandable liberal reflex—to redirect government law enforcement and intelligence agencies from inappropriate targets toward more “deserving” ones—but it leaves intact, even reinforces, the state’s power to define enemies in the name of public safety. (It is not hard to imagine how a simple change of US administration might soon see Antifa, even Black Lives Matter, placed within the framing of domestic terrorism.)

It could be that the entire rhetorical gambit of terror is reaching the limits of its coherence, a reductio ad absurdum, the end of the semantic road. That would be an optimistic reading of this latest turn in the story. Given both their inertia and their aversion to humiliating about-faces, state institutions endow their designations of terrorism with a long half-life. If it took some 150 years to recast the meaning of terror from something malign governments did to their people into violence committed by malign people to outrage governments, how long might it be before the poles reverse again? And by what historical agency?

It may be simpler and easier to banish the tainted term from the lexicon of public discourse. What should be apparent today is a charge so discredited, so empty of real meaning, that the force of moral condemnation it once commanded ought to rebound on those who would use it.

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