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.

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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.