When is a terrorist not a terrorist: when he is a patriot?

Defining what is and what is not terrorism is not easy and we should stop pretending that it is.

While walking through the Kansallismuseo in Helsinki – Finland’s national museum – I came across a lot I didn’t know. Oh there were a few things I kinda knew, like that Finland used to be under Swedish and then Russian sovereignty. But I did not know that the Finns engaged in a civil war egged on by the Soviet Union after the 1917 October Revolution ushered in that state.

The war pitted the reds (supported by, surprise surprise, the Soviets) and the whites, who were looking to establish a monarchy. The latter won and the war ended in May 1918, but not before 30,000 Finns had died.

Another thing I did not know was that the long struggle for independence also saw an act of terrorism committed by a Finnish nationalist.

The flag of independent Finland
Or was it?

On June 16, 1904 a junior accountant named Eugen Schauman shot and killed Russian Governor General Nikolay Bobrikov on the staircase of the Finnish Senate. The 29-year old, who had shown no signs of violence and who was not ‘marginalised’, also shot himself afterwards and died immediately (the GG died later in hospital). Finnish film director Juho Kuosmanen even mused whether Schauman would have done what he did if his ‘lover’ had not left him (!).

According to a book I bought at the museum shop,

“Desperate times called for desperate measures and the heart under Schauman’s shirt (on display at the museum by the way) had been broken well before the bullets hit.”

His act apparently spurred many others to follow suit as schoolboys “cried out with pride and identified with” the shooter.

Schauman shoots Bobrikov
Terrorist or Patriot?

So, what was Eugen Schauman: a patriotic Finn whose act and sacrifice helped lead eventually to national independence in 1917 or a terrorist? Some have compared him to Gavrilo Principal, the Serb who shot ArchDuke Ferdinand in June 1914, an event cited by many as the spark that led to WWI.

What I think this illustrates is that is sometimes really tough to make that call. Perspective is everything. Finland was essentially occupied by Russia when Schauman ‘did the deed’ (hmm, I wonder whether David Rapoport would have included him in his first ‘wave’ of terrorism?).

For that he was seen as a hero.

Princip shoots Ferdinand

And yet his act was clearly political in nature and constituted serious violence (you can’t get much more serious than to kill someone). Ergo it was an act of terrorism under most definitions I am aware of.

Should the fact that Finland was not in control of its own destiny count? Under these circumstances is killing ok? What if he had shot a Finnish toady, the equivalent of a Quisling (the Norwegian who collaborated with Nazi occupiers during WWII), instead of a foreign occupier? Would that have been ok?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter

Not easy, is it? I don’t want to go as far as to quote former US President Ronald Reagan (“one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”) but I do want to put the question out there. Does calling something a terrorist act, or someone a terrorist, depend crucially on where you stand? Is an objective meaning even possible?

I tend to resort to what the law says when I use the terrorism label. I do recognise, however, that laws are meant to be interpreted, usually in a court of law.

When it comes to terrorism, however, I think the court of public opinion may matter more sometimes.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

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Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.