What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
For many in the post 9/11 world it may seem as if terrorism is something new – and terrible. We are constantly inundated with news about attacks here and attacks there, sometimes in our own backyard. For instance, Canadians were hit with a double whammy over two days in late October 2014 when two Islamist extremists killed two members of the Armed Forces in Montreal and Ottawa. It may appear at first blush that terrorism is a new scourge, and one that we are having a very hard time eradicating. And it all began with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on that fateful day 18 years ago, right?
Except that terrorism is not new. Not at all.
The term ‘terrorism’ itself is not that old – its first usage dates back to the French Revolution (do you remember reading about the ‘Reign of Terror‘?). As a more widespread phenomenon, however, I imagine most scholars would say that it really took off in the late 19th century. The first broad manifestation of it was the wave of anarchist attacks that plagued the West in the form of assassinations (although assassinations certainly pre-date the acts of anarchists – et tu Brute?) and bombings. Among the victims of terrorist acts were Tsar Alexander II (1881), French President Carnot (1894), Spanish Prime Minister Canovas de Castillo (1897), Italian King Umberto (1900) and US President McKinley (1901).
All this came to me as I watched a recent dramatisation of Joseph Conrad’s classic 1907 novel The Secret Agent. This is the fictionalised story of a group of revolutionaries bent on undermining British complacency to terrorism by blowing up the iconic Greenwich Observatory. The TV version is quite compelling and very true to the original book: I highly recommend you watch it (available on Acorn TV, an American subscription streaming service offering television programming from the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Spain).
The Secret Agent is a riveting masterpiece of literature with all the requisite characters: Verloc, the agent provocateur who owns a seedy shop in Soho and who is paid to infiltrate terrorist cells; the Professor, a madman who makes explosives; Winnie, Verloc’s wife who tolerates her husband’s activities until it is too late; Stevie, Winnie’s simpleton brother who dies tragically for a cause he cannot understand; Vladimir, the First Secretary at the Russian Embassy in London who wants to shake Britain to the core and force it to crack down on the anarchists; and the Chief Inspector trying to keep a lid on all the violence.
What is more important for our purposes today is the fact that while the anarchist ‘wave’ of terrorism (to use David Rapoport’s framework) may have waned in the aftermath of WWI it did not disappear. Anarchist groups – Black Bloc is a good example – are still among us and still capable of carrying out acts of violence. They are still against capitalism, a system they think insulates those in positions of economic power and disenfranchises those of targeted groups. And as economic inequality is still with us, and may be getting worse, it is not too difficult to predict the actions of these terrorists will increase.
All this merely underscores the reality that terrorism is a longstanding problem and remains complicated. Yes, Islamist terrorism still poses the greatest threat and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future but attacks by anarchists, other far right extremists, ethno-nationalist groups and probably eventually far left actors cannot be ignored. We might want to keep this in mind as we continue to deal with terrorism. We also might want to brush up on our history so that we don’t assume that our problems are new ones.
As for me I think I will re-read The Secret Agent this week and I think you should give it a go as well.