The Public Humanist

What is a Terrorist?: Modern War

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of three articles in which Patrick Vitalone explores the term terrorist though lenses of jurisprudence, history, and other humanities disciplines. Part one can be found here.

Perhaps the reason terrorism is difficult to define today lies in the nature of modern warfare. Great battles waged between blue and red armies no longer exist. Nations declaring open war and launching invasions wane while small assaults against civilian populations wax. But our modern epoch is merely one chapter in a macabre evolution. World War I had changed warfare in its own way; armies operated under anachronistic strategies while weapons technology in the fin de siècle advanced. Millions marched to their graves as howitzers, automatic machine guns and chemical weapons assaulted soldiers across open fields in Europe. By the time World War II erupted about twenty years later, the League of Nations had implemented rules meant to civilize warfare but armies were better educated. Allied and Axis forces brought new brutality to mankind as civilian cities became battlefields; armies marched throughout alley-ways and other places where soldiers could not be killed en masse, and nations now had air-forces to wreak new levels of destruction from above. The Cold War had changed our planet once more. The East and West no longer wanted violence erupting within their borders; and so the respective nations waged proxy wars in places that were far away and mattered little. Espionage and intelligence developed in earnest.

Guy Fawkes, caught in an attempted bombing, proclaimed that declared that “a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy,” evincing the asymmetry of power and terrorism.

Guy Fawkes, caught in an attempted bombing, proclaimed that declared that “a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy,” evincing the asymmetry of power and terrorism.

Terrorism may be modern warfare’s brutal apotheosis; a simple strategy in an asymmetrical environment. Gone are the chivalric days of battles between respected equals, a decline that includes the economic. In the Medieval era, the cult of Knighthood dominated warfare and with it came esteemed rules establishing honorable engagement. Expert in medieval warfare Tobias Capwell says that in this period, “Knights are fighting other Knights; other equals of the same social class. And within the brotherhood of chivalry, you don’t necessarily want to have to kill your social equals all the time. You have the process of ransoming; you can force them to yield to you, they become your prisoner and then you can sell them back to their families for an extraordinary profit. But [knights] are not going to yield easily.” Weapons historian Mike Loades elaborates: “Chivalry [only] works with people of the same class. Of course [if my opponent] does not perceive that I am of the same social class, then chivalry does not work and he [utilizes more lethal means].” The writers at Terrorism RESEARCH provide interesting insight into this trajectory; beginning with the early subversive violence from Guy Fawkes, a Catholic sympathizer who attempted to blow up the Anglian Parliament and King in England. After placing gunpowder barrels in the Parliament basement, officials caught Fawkes in the act, armed with a watch, slow matches, and touchwood. When questioned by the King about his treason, Fawkes declared that “a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy.” And that, if Fawkes had known here were about to be caught, he would have “blown him up, house, himself and all.”

Terrorism may be modern warfare’s brutal apotheosis; a simple strategy in an asymmetrical environment.

Today, it is important to become more conscious when labeling terrorism and its actors. However complicated the charges are to pursue, coming to a consensus is important for both civil rights and State security. If a nation were to exercise caution when using terrorism to label political violence, that nation would be able to wage war more legitimately. States harboring radical groups would become enemies, publicly responsible for their non-aberrational actors. In contrast, applying terrorist labels in a more wanton manner gives States power to deny individual civil rights; no opposing power is held responsible as motives become complex and subversive. Regardless as to whether those waging it are well-funded States or terrorist cells, violence is a complicated means to achieve objectives. Violent action often earns the same in return. Such debates have a long history in Western civilization, and it is a conversation that should continue to include terrorism.

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