“From heartless cold blood,
and wells of flamed passions,
the horrors from terror,
bring shudders of hell.”
~Samuel L. Clemens
I started to write this when another terrorist bomber killed 10 and injured 40 in the heart of Jerusalem. Yesterday, 150 killed and 1500 injured in Madrid. No, this is not another essay about the abomination of the modern theocratic kamikazes of the Middle East. Enough has been written about that. Legitimacy or condemnation, applause or denunciation, they seem to all assume a single phenomenon at issue : killing for a cause, strategic murder. However, they sadly miss the point. These are very different activities indeed.
This present-day terror of Islamic fundamentalism is not the modernist version of the mid-20th century politics of assassination. This is not about the killing of particular people thought to be guilty of particular acts. This terror is random murder and thuggery. A radical transformation of the practice of political violence characterized by unknown victims innocent of any act.
The deep moral and political significance of this change has been consciously ignored by those in the West pandering to the Arabs. And this will have great consequences. This change, and this cowardice of response, is of deep significance.
Let me relate a few stories. Not bedtime reading or fairy tales. But in this depraved world where, as Malraux wrote, “…one must be a hero just to be a man…”, they have an almost perversely transformational comforting remembrance of times past.
*In the 1870’s, a group of Russian revolutionaries decided to kill a Czarist official, the head of a police agency, a man personally involved in the repression of radical activity. They planned to blow him up in his carriage, and on the appointed day one of their number was in place along his usual route. As the carriage drew near, the young revolutionary, a bomb hidden under his coat, noticed that the official was not alone. On his lap he held two small children. The revolutionary looked, hesitated, and decided not to throw his bomb. He would wait for another occasion. As Camus wrote in “The Just Assassins”, “Even in destruction, there is a right way and a wrong way---and there are limits.”
*During the years 1938-1939 the Irish Republican Army waged a bombing campaign in Britain. In the course of this campaign, a republican militant was ordered to carry a pre-set time bomb at a London power station. He traveled by bicycle, the bomb in his basket, took a wrong turn and got lost in the maze of the city. As the time for the explosion drew near, he panicked, dropped his bike and ran off. The bomb exploded killing five passers-by. No one in the IRA thought this was a victory for the cause. The campaign had been carefully planned to avoid the killing of innocent bystanders.
*In November 1944, Lord Moyne, British Minister of State in the Middle East, was assassinated in Cairo by two members of the Stern Gang. The two assassins were caught minutes later by an Egyptian policeman. One of them described the capture at his trial : “We were being followed by the constable on his motorcycle. My comrade was behind me. I saw the constable approach…I would have been able to kill the constable easily, but I contented myself with shooting several times into the air. I saw my comrade fall off his bicycle. The constable was upon him. Again I could have eliminated the constable with a single bullet, but I did not. Then I was caught.”
It is clear what is common in these cases. A line drawn between people who can and people who cannot be killed. The political equivalent of the line between combatants and non-combatants. The very word, terrorist, was inapplicable. A triumph, however minor, for some notional values of civilization.
From New York to New Delhi the obliteration of this line is the critical feature of contemporary terrorism and a symptom of our civilization’s cowardice and decay. Today’s terrorists have emptied the category of the innocent. They claim butchery as their right, slaughter as their legacy.
Assassination is often futile as a means and vile as an end. But we do judge assassins ,to some degree, by their victims. When the targets are Hitler-like agents of oppression and cruelty we may even praise the assassin’s work. It is at least conceivable, though difficult, to be a “ just assassin”. The assassin fights a limited war; he aims at known individuals and seeks specific political and social changes. Just terrorism, in today’s manifestation, is a contradiction in terms.
Today’s terrorist has only one unmistakable message regardless of their public claims. Random murder to indulge an uncontrollable bloodlust. And the West had better start to understand this. There is no official program to deal with. The line that marks off agents of the state from civilians, officials from ordinary citizens, is critically important. Once it has been crossed, there is no further line to draw, no stopping place beyond which people can feel safe. Today we are witnessing the ultimate lawlessness with no compromise possible. That very message of no compromise is a key component in the psychological armament of terror that accompanies, and helps assure the success of, the physical destructive act itself. It is a paralysis of the rational. Kill the spirit, then kill the body.
Yet these animals operate today in a permissive atmosphere. Despite the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, we still see statesmen rush about to make bargains. Journalists and academics construct elaborative apologias on their behalf. The undeniable is denied and the indefensible is defended.
It is said in some quarters that today’s butchery is nothing new. They are acting as revolutionaries and nationalists have always acted. This is demonstrably false. It is said that these terrorists are the inevitable product of hardship and oppression, which is also false since so many are of backgrounds of preference; as many of the 9-11 killers and the suicide bombers of Israel; if not outright privilege as is the case of Osama bin-Laden.
We are losing our sense of the historical past. We are falling into an age of ignorance that erases all institutional memory and moral distinctions. Many say that random murder is an effective political strategy---the terrorist will win the day. This is most frightening of all for it is less a recognition of reality ( witness Churchill and Britain in WWII) than an indictment of the cowardice and complacency of current culture.
Trotsky once said that “The revolution has its code of honour.” Maybe it once had. Previous revolutionaries were not necessarily good or gentle people but they realized there were limits on political action. Everything was not permissible for a very practical reason. To quote Trotsky again, the revolution should not be “ …loathed by the whole human race.”
In our world today, radical movements have been taken over by autocratic and theocratic thugs and fanatics. To deal with them, all the aspects of an advanced security apparatus is necessary. Obviously balanced against the need to protect individual liberties. We cannot become the reflection of that which we are trying to destroy.
But none of this will be enough unless we can also restore a collective sense of outrage at the vileness of the perpetrators. Just as they utterly disregard the sanctity of the lives of children and innocents, so we must utterly refuse to afford them the normal considerations granted to card-carrying members of the human race.
We must stop being confused, frightened, defensive, and merely weakly indignant. It is these new barbarians who have completely and consciously rejected the old codes. To be sure, those codes were nothing more than the most meagre and minimal standards of political decency. But reasserting minimal standards would, at this time in history, already be a great advance for civilization. The least we must do is to marshal our resolve to revive the courage of our loathing. It is only the first step to victory, but victory there will be, so let us begin.
Beryl P. Wajsman