Authoritarian governments keen on attacking the opposition have found a new favorite swear word: terrorists! Egypt’s military rulers recently used the term to describe largely peaceful protesters, following in the linguistic footsteps of Gaddafi, Putin and many others. This trend shows how much our understanding of “terrorism” has changed over the centuries.
There is no universal definition of terrorism, but the U.N. General Assembly has repeatedly used the following: “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.” This definition leaves open the possibility that terrorism can be perpetrated by an army or government. Indeed, terrorism has historically had little to do with bearded outlaws.
Terror entered political language in the aftermath of the French Revolution as a state-led political program: Robespierre’s revolutionary dictatorship used excessive violence to strike fear in opponents and fight the counterrevolutionary movement. “The attribute of popular government in a revolution is at one and the same time virtue and terror”, Robespierre famously said in 1794. “Terror without virtue is fatal; virtue without terror is impotent.”
The Bolsheviks adopted this thinking during the so-called Red Terror of the Russian civil war, 1917-1921, that saw thousands of counterrevolutionaries murdered. When Austrian socialist Karl Kautsky criticized the “bloody terrorism carried out by Socialist governments”, Leon Trotsky, at the time head of the Red Army, responded: “terror can be very efficient against a reactionary class which does not want to leave the scene of operations. Intimidation is a powerful weapon of policy, both internationally and internally.” The concept of Red Terror was resurrected under Haile Mengistu Mariam in Ethiopia – whose regime murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the 1970s and 1980s.
To be sure, terrorism wasn’t always just a state affair. Left-wing radicals used bombs and assassinations to fight democratic governments and monarchies from the 19th century onwards. But the term terror always referred to a practice rather than a group of people.
Then came 9/11 and the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, a slogan that really referred to a certain group of Islamist radicals. Soon the term terror in common usage no longer described the practice of intimidating through violence, and instead became a name for an organized group of non-state actors attacking states by killing civilians.
This gradual change in meaning has given repressive regimes a publicity advantage. The Egyptian government’s massacre of protesters, clearly intended to sow panic among oppositionists and discourage further demonstrations, fits the classical definition of terrorism. The same goes for Assad’s use of poison gas against civilians, which has limited military value but creates terror among opponents. And yet hardly anyone brands them “bloody terrorists”, as Kautsky would have done in his time. On the contrary: they are the ones who can accuse the opposition of terrorism. Ever since “terrorists” became a term for non-state actors, repressive governments no longer have to worry about being branded as such.
In global politics, wording matters. The Egyptian government’s description of oppositionists as terrorists seems to work very well as a propaganda tool, winning over Egyptians fearful of chaos and violence. In the same vein, our unwillingness to call the military rulers terrorists arguably weakens the opposition’s case. Saying a regime uses violence or repression will never have the same impact as saying it employs systematic terror.
Winning over the hearts and minds of media consumers is crucial for the repressive regimes in Egypt and Syria. Our misuse of the term terror makes it easier for them.