The Oct. 7 event left little room for reflection. Urgency, anxiety and automatic language dominated the discourse. Amidst this rush of pre-formed thoughts, one word persisted: "terrorism."
What are the ideological implications of this term, which is a product of modern politics? In the current context, few individuals take the time to scrutinize its foundations.
Gilles Ferragu, professor of contemporary history at the University of Nanterre and author of "Histoire du Terrorisme" (History of Terrorism) delves into this "catchword" that has been used "against those we want to deprive of all legitimacy."
Q- What do we mean when we talk about "terrorism?”
A- Terrorism is the use of an emotion, terror, for political ends. Terror is understood here as a fear that freezes, prevents reaction and causes astonishment. Yet direct victims are not the main target of terrorism. The target is not the dead who remain on the ground, but the population, public opinion and the state.
This "blend word" has also become a legal term. Most Western jurisdictions now have anti-terrorism laws. In France, a whole legislative apparatus has been in place, with an anti-terrorist prosecutor's office since 1986.
Terrorism is defined by the nature of the acts: methods of combat with political intent. Yet it is a "normal" crime, not a "political" one, as treason is.
For to give terrorists a political status is already to recognize their cause. The term is therefore obviously a political object. It raises the question of the "right" to resistance: "terrorists" are those we wish to deprive of legitimacy. This is a rhetorical, ideological weapon to combat a political adversary.
Q- When and how did the term emerge?
A- The word first appeared in revolutionary France in 1793. It officially entered the Académie française dictionary in 1798, before being used by Napoleon Bonaparte to describe those responsible for the assassination attempt on him on Dec. 24, 1800. The expression stuck, although it was hardly used at all throughout the 19th century when the term "attentateur" (attacker) was preferred.
The term was coined by a young Russian revolutionary, Sergei Netchayev. Unusually in the history of the phenomenon, he openly claimed to be a "terrorist" during his trial in Moscow in 1873. From the outset, then, there was an organic link between terrorism and the revolutionary idea: most of those who claimed to be terrorists believed that an attack should bring about a radical political transformation, leading to revolution.
The second stage was the widespread use of the term in Europe throughout the 20th century. It was here that the word came to be used to describe a certain form of political violence exercised through assassination - be it the assassination of opponents by Fascist Italy, or the actions of Resistance fighters during the war. It is used in every sense - but systematically to deprive the opponent of all legitimacy.
It was at this point that the confusion between resistance and terrorism crystallized, when Hitler referred to resistance fighters as terrorists, a confusion that raised the problem of an international definition.
Q- Why is it so important to define terrorism? Where does the international community stand on this issue?
A- Since the 1970s and 80s — marked by a series of hijackings and the rise of Palestinian terrorism — the states directly affected by this violence have been calling on the international community to settle the issue.
Defining the law on an international scale also makes it possible to impose rules on certain States - in particular by acting on countries that unwillingly harbor terrorist groups (such as Jordan with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the 1960s).
However, while national jurisdictions were quick to adopt "anti-terrorist" legislation, no consensus emerged at the international level, despite numerous attempts to do so.
In Europe, the first attempt to sketch out a common definition took place in 1898 at the Rome Conference. It concerned only anarchism: most European states, targeted by anarchist attacks, met to criminalize these acts and define measures to combat them.
But the word "terrorism" was not yet in use. The first real attempt was made in 1937, within the League of Nations, a few years after the assassination of Alexander I, King of Yugoslavia, by a Croatian terrorist. It was a failure, as the League of Nations was unable to transcend conflicts between states.
From 1996 onwards, it was up to the United Nations to address the issue by setting up an ad-hoc commission. Yet another failure: the commission was eventually dissolved, unable to reach a definition due to the same political obstacles.
Q- It's hard to talk about terrorism without mentioning Sept. 11, 2001. What did this event change in the history of this notion?
A- It's often referred to as the biggest airplane hijacking in history. But it wasn't. The PFLP's biggest-ever hijacking operation took place in the Jordanian desert on Sept. 6, 1970: Dawson's Field hijacking led to the destruction of four airliners.
The real novelty of Sept. 11, however, lies in its image: it's the first time an attack has benefited from the media power of the early 21st century.
The second novelty, and the most important in my opinion, is that this is the first time that a country like the United States was hit in this way at the heart of its national territory. There have been previous attacks, but the scale of the strike is out of all proportion to its predecessors.
The contrast between the power of the symbol targeted, the World Trade Center, and the staging of Osama bin Laden claiming responsibility for the attack from an Afghan cave, is also impressive. The combination of these two elements meant that the Sept. 11 attack was quickly used to impose extremely severe laws. The security-freedom dilemma was born.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.