The Boston Blasts and Terrorism: A Historian’s Take on What It Means

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Dan Lampariello / DobsonAgency / Rex USA

An explosion goes off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013

In the aftermath of the deadly explosions in Boston, one word quickly became attached to the tragedy: terrorism. The major media honed in on the presence of the term in President Barack Obama’s speeches, and as the investigation continues into the motives of its unknown culprit or culprits, so too will speculation into the terrorist pathologies underlying it all. In post–9/11 America, terrorism is the frame through which we now instinctively make sense of seemingly senseless violence.

My colleague Michael Scherer has a good post on the semantic gymnastics terrorism has been put through by the Beltway’s political classes. But, for some scholars, the usage of the term deserves a far deeper historical reckoning. “In the decade that has past, the concept terrorism carries with it an assumption of understanding a danger even before we know what it is, as is the case in Boston,” says Martin A. Miller, a professor of history at Duke University. Miller is the author of The Foundations of Modern Terrorism: State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence, a recent book that charts the evolution of terrorism from the French Revolution into its current incarnation of al-Qaeda’s insurgents and CIA drones.

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Miller, who teaches courses on the history of political violence, says the shadow of 9/11 has limited the way many Americans think about the dynamics at play. “I struggle with my students every semester to try get them to understand that there’s more to it than the package left under the table,” he says. The shock and trauma of terrorist attacks — the seeming arbitrariness of the violence, the tragedy of the innocent lives lost — understandably presents something of an emotional end point: What more should we consider beyond the brutality of the villain responsible?

But while many acts of violence cause widespread terror, Miller wants terrorism to be understood in a specific context. It’s not enough to brand it as an act of evil. “Terrorism is political violence, it is purposeful,” says Miller. “It is done by people who have in mind the achievement of certain goals that they think can’t be achieved by other means.” This, Miller stresses, isn’t just the province of rogue militants and fanatics.

In his work, Miller shows how episodes of terrorism — from the Reign of Terror in Robespierre’s revolutionary-era France to the plots of anarchists in late 19th century Russia to the lynching campaigns of white supremacists in the American South to even the jihad of al-Qaeda — all involve a particular contest over political legitimacy. It’s a relatively modern phenomenon, a symptom of an age where ordinary citizens have come to believe in their rights to express an opinion and govern themselves and where, as a result, governments and insurgents get locked in antagonistic, existential struggles. Ghastly scenes of asymmetric violence follow.

(PHOTOS: The Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Explosions)

The result, says Miller, “is what I call a danse macabre — you need two partners.” Insurgents can’t operate unless there’s a government or existing order to oppose; governments don’t implement certain brutal tactics without a perceived threat. “With the willing help of the media,” says Miller, “all of us become conditioned to either rely on or fear the state forces on one hand, or the insurgents on the other.” Those divided sympathies may seem worlds away from the streets of Boston, but not to a Pashtun villager living with the constant buzz of drones overhead in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.

The thing about terrorism is that it’s ultimately not a winning strategy. “No terrorist group has ever largely succeeded in achieving its goals,” says Miller. That’s because more than just a tactic, terrorism is an entire mode of seeing the world: “There’s a perspective that drives them to commit acts of violence,” says Miller. “People who are agents of terrorism are involved in fantasies. They’ve gone off into a utopia.” Those fantasies inevitably collapse in the face of reality — and often beget more destructive violence. It’s a cycle that all must struggle to break, Miller suggests. Unlike the delusions that spur terrorism, the camaraderie and resilience on display in Boston since Monday’s bomb blasts was ineffably, happily real.

12 comments
capella7
capella7

Did a Duke University professor really use an adjective as a verb in saying, "The decade that has just past...?"  If so, the age of illiteracy is thriving.

BrianApple
BrianApple

The Serb Gavrilo Princip changed the course of history by assassinating the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sofie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  This assassination led to Austria declaring war on  Serbia exactly one month later.  The rest of Europe and, later, the USA joiined in and we had the Great War (World War 1).  The domino effect was massive: the fall of 4 empires, the rise of Communism, the rise of Hitler and World War 2, the Cold War, Vietnam, the deaths of millions of people.  A huge chain reaction of events developed from that assassination.

My point is that a single act of terror can change things immensely.

JustMe
JustMe

Unfortunately, Miller's statement that “No terrorist group has ever largely succeeded in achieving its goals” is simply not true, especially when it comes to state-terrorism, intended to intimidate its citizens from opposing the government. Robespierre and Stalin are perfect exemples of this. Another example of terrorism with a large political impact is that of Gavrilo Princip, the anarquist who assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Áustria in 1914, thereby precipitating WWI, which radically changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe. The real power of terrorism, so it seems, lies in the creation of antagonism by installing fear among people, which is a fertile ground for either political change or for maintaining the status quo (depending on by which side it is used). It certanly worked for the French Revolution.

airdog64
airdog64

@TIME read this? a scenic tour on the koranh and what children had to watch being done to their mothers?! RTK3 rumblefish and GREED! freud?

airdog64
airdog64

@TIME freedom-fighters attack military outposts; a terrorist attacks women & children. chilling when a political standing becomes so extreme

Karthiks286
Karthiks286

I'd like to aks US citizens why USA is pressing charges against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC for defeating the LTTE; one of the most ruthless terrorist groups that killed 1000s with such devices and invented the suicide belt and the only terror airpower in the world.

anamerch
anamerch

@TIME: A historian's take on what the word 'terrorism' means | ti.me/XF4Imw” semantics gymnastics is right

Claudiaforeverr
Claudiaforeverr

@TIME I disagree completely.I really think that economy is moving positivity. Homes in my neighborhood are well in the last 6 months

jof.althaus
jof.althaus

@JustMe The KLA is a good recent example of successful terrorism. Just because the US decided they are the good guys doesn't mean they didn't use terrorist tactics to achieve their goal. Including attacks on moderate Kosovar Albanians, not just Serbs. 

JustMe
JustMe

@jof.althaus@JustMe Examples are myriad. Among other (in)famous cases, I can also cite the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or, going even further back, for that matter, the actions of the Zionists in British Palestina, before the creation of the State of Israel.