We have good reason to be taken up just now with terrorism and its challenge. But before setting out on a hundred-year war to eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth, let us consider the following. Terrorists are nothing new. Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century.
There have been anarchist terrorists, Russian terrorists, Indian terrorists, Arab terrorists, Basque terrorists, Malay terrorists, Tamil terrorists, and dozens of others besides. There have been and still are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, and Muslim terrorists. There were Yugoslav ("partisan") terrorists settling scores in World War II; Zionist terrorists blowing up Arab marketplaces in Palestine before 1948; American-financed Irish terrorists in Margaret Thatcher's London; US-armed mujahideen terrorists in 1980s Afghanistan; and so on.
No one who has lived in Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, the UK, or France, not to speak of more habitually violent lands, could have failed to notice the omnipresence of terrorists— using guns, bombs, chemicals, cars, trains, planes, and much else—over the course of the twentieth century and beyond. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the unleashing in September 2001 of homicidal terrorism within the United States.
But the most serious mistake consists of taking the form for the content: defining all the various terrorists and terrorisms of our time, with their contrasting and sometimes conflicting objectives, by their actions alone. It would be rather as though one were to lump together the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof gang, the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, Switzerland's Jura Separatists, and the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica; dismiss their differences as insignificant; label the resulting amalgam of ideological kneecappers, bomb throwers, and political murderers "European Extremism" (or "Christo-fascism," perhaps?)…and then declare uncompromising, open-ended armed warfare against it.
This abstracting of foes and threats from their context—this ease with which we have talked ourselves into believing that we are at war with "Islamofascists," "extremists" from a strange culture, who dwell in some distant "Islamistan," who hate us for who we are and seek to destroy "our way of life"—is a sure sign that we have forgotten the lesson of the twentieth century: the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them.