“The régime of which St. Just presents the plan, is that by which every oligarchy of invaders installs and maintains itself over a subject nation . . . . It is a very simple one and consists in maintaining the subject population in a state of extreme helplessness and of extreme terror. To this end, it is disarmed; it is kept under surveillance . . . its eyes are always directed at the uplifted axe and to the prison doors always open.” (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution , V, xi)
“And we won’t ignore what our intelligence agents have determined to be the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland today: White supremacy is terrorism.” (President Joe Biden, Speech to Congress [April 29, 2021])
Terror is, properly speaking, a government policy, so a true terrorist is a government official who advocates and executes a policy of terror. This policy may or may not involve violent killing. The essence of political terrorism is that members of a subject nation are intimidated by a fear that they might be arbitrarily denounced, prosecuted and punished for a vague and enigmatic crime. A vague and enigmatic crime such as “white supremacy,” for instance.
What is a “white supremacist,” after all, but what used to be known as an “enemy of the Revolution.”
The essence of political terrorism is arbitrary enforcement of vague and enigmatic rules. Because the rules are vague and enigmatic, no man can be certain that he is in compliance with the rules. Thus he can never be sure that he will not be denounced, prosecuted and punished. Because enforcement of the rules is arbitrary, every man seeks to avoid denunciation, prosecution and punishment by a general obedience and timidity. Every man believes, perhaps rightly, that he is less likely to be identified as an “enemy of the revolution” (or as a “white supremacist”) if he does not provoke the authorities by calling attention to himself and making trouble in some other way.
As the great historian of the French Revolution Taine says,
“The Committee of Public Safety keeps every head under the cleaver and each head, to avoid being struck off, bows down.”*
* * * * *
There are those who would have us understand terror in a different way. They tell us that a terrorist is a violent renegade who slaughters innocents out of political hatred, or to draw attention to his renegade cause. The atrocities they point to are often very atrocious, but they do not spread terror because they do not engender general obedience and timidity. In fact, the atrocities of a renegade most often engender a horror of the renegade and his cause.
Terror engenders submission; horror engenders revulsion.
Much of what is nowadays call terrorism is, in fact, what renegade anarchists a hundred years ago called “propaganda of the deed.” It consists of atrocities committed in the expectation of free publicity from media that is in the business of publishing horror stories. As the sociologist Werner Sombart explained:
“You throw a bomb into a café where a hundred harmless people are sitting at their ease. Or you murder the Empress Elizabeth . . . . The more senseless the ‘deed’ the better, for then it will receive all the more consideration in every newspaper, and in every place where men forgather.”**
You will notice that Sombart assumes that a bloody horror in one café does not dissuade men from foregathering in other cafés to debate and denounce that horror. If it did, it would fail as a horror.
The point of a horror story is to make people start talking about politics; the point of terror is to make people stop.
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Terrorism has been defended as a moral instrument of wise statecraft. It is argued that nothing sobers an agitated, tumultuous and angry people so quickly as summary executions or exemplary massacres. It is furthermore argued that injustice to the slain is a small cost to deter further disturbance of public order. Thus the German general Julius von Hartmann wrote that brutal terrorism is often the humane course of action.
“Terror seems relatively the milder method of holding in subjection masses of people who have been thrown out of the normal and regular conditions of peace . . . If individuals suffer for the sake of a warning example, their fate is deeply to be lamented; but for the whole body of people the severity exercised against these individuals operates wholesomely and is a benefit.”***
State terrorism is, in other words, an effective means to accelerate pacification and return an agitated people to general obedience and timidity. Its moral justification is that a small quantity of innocent blood is spilled today so that a large quantity of innocent blood need not be spilled tomorrow.
As another German writer explained in 1915, the sobering shock of terrorism deters future renegades and therefore saves lives in the long run.
“This punishment is not inflicted because a crime has been committed, but in order that crimes may not be committed.”†
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Horror is an instrument of a group that aims to take power, and that announces this intention with the “propaganda of the deed.” Terror is an instrument of a group that has but recently taken power, and that accelerates pacification of the subject nation by treating members of that nation with chastening severity. This is why Taine called terror an instrument of “an oligarchy of invaders.” This is why terror is typically used by a newly arrived army of occupation, or a newly installed, but not yet legitimate, regime.
As I said earlier, the key to political terrorism is arbitrary enforcement of vague and enigmatic rules. An oligarchy of invaders cannot force general obedience and timidity by acting with chastening severity only against a well-defined class of criminals and a well-defined list of crimes. Political terrorism is only effective when most members of the subject population fear they may be charged with a vague and enigmatic crime, and therefore strive to not provoke the new rulers, to not call attention to themselves, to not make trouble in some other way.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are living under a regime similar to “the régime of which St. Just presents the plan.” Our rulers do not enjoy undisputed legitimacy and a fair portion of the subject nation sees them as tantamount to “an oligarchy of invaders.” Millions have been reduced to “helplessness” by a ruinous natural disaster. Millions more are terrorized by the threat that they might be charged with a vague and enigmatic crime like “white supremacy.” Our rulers make no secret of their desire that we be speedily “disarmed,” or of the accomplished fact that they now keep all of us “under surveillance.” The eyes of wage slaves and salarymen are nowadays “always directed at the uplifted axe” of a political firing, while celebrated show trials periodically remind us that “the prison doors [are] always open.”
Each head is under the cleaver, and to avoid being struck off, each head naturally bows down.
*) The French Revolution (1878), V, i
**) Socialism and the Social Movement (1909)
***) quoted in Munroe Smith, Militarism and Statecraft (1918)
†) quoted i Henry, Comte Carton de Wiart, The Way of Honor (1918)