When did terrorism start 1
terrorismThe attack and its history
A rainy October night in the United States in 1859: the Express of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad meanders through the cloud-shrouded Blue Ridge Mountains. Scheduled at half past one at night, the steam locomotive pounds into the fog-shrouded and only dimly lit station of Harpers Ferry, a small town in northern Virginia. Harpers Ferry is the only city in the southern United States that has weapons operations and a large arsenal of the US military.
The October night of 1859
There is unusual excitement in the station. A night watchman comes to the conductor: A riot has broken out in Harpers Ferry, and he himself has been attacked and wounded. The insurgents would have occupied the railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac River from Virginia to Maryland behind the city.
Worried faces peer out of the illuminated cars into the damp night; Rumors and speculations are making the rounds. A little later the leader of the insurgents lets the conductor come to him. He informs him politely but firmly that the route is closed and that the train and its passengers are not allowed to leave the city. But when morning comes, he comes to the express train himself and personally guides the locomotive and its wagons across the bridge.
This action on that October night in 1859 is a central event for the invention of terrorism.
The leader of the insurgents is John Brown. With only 21 volunteers, he entered Harpers Ferry on the evening of October 16. In the blink of an eye, they cut the city's telegraph lines and take over the barely guarded workshops and arsenal of the US military. Whoever stands in their way will be taken prisoner, there is one dead. Local slaveholders are taken hostage and their slaves are freed. The insurgents hope that word of this will get around among the slaves, so that they can come to Harpers Ferry from the farms and arm themselves in the arsenal.
Targeted attacks and a mission
Then the group wants to retreat to the mountains with the slaves, from there start a guerrilla war against slavery and its advocates and form a state of its own. In it, the founding ideals of the United States - Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness, freedom and the pursuit of happiness - really apply to all people.
In the course of the night some slaves join John Brown and his volunteers. However, there are too few to start guerrilla warfare in the Appalachians. So John Brown changes his tactics: by letting the train pass, the news of the uprising should spread at the speed of electrical signals, at the latest as soon as the express train reaches Baltimore.
On the one hand, this would immediately bring regular troops into the city from nearby Washington. A guerrilla war in the mountains would be as hopeless as the establishment of your own state. On the other hand, spreading the news of the Harpers Ferry uprising would secure his group the attention of the entire nation. With a little luck and skill, Brown would be able to transform the imminent military defeat into a media victory.
Symbolic power: Guerrilla war becomes terrorism
By letting the train pass, John Brown buried any option of still being able to use direct, instrumental violence against the slave owners, and instead relied entirely on the symbolic power of violence: guerrilla warfare became terrorism.
That did not stop the regular soldiers of the Northern States in the American Civil War from celebrating John Brown as their hero and martyr. The song "John Brown’s Body" was one of the most popular songs among the Union troops.
The question of whether John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry was an act of terrorism has been controversial in the United States from the start. Until a few years ago, advocates of slavery and southerners mostly used the term "terrorism" - with denunciating intent. They wanted to discredit John Brown and his volunteers, as well as their anti-slavery supporters.
Terrorism as a "special case of provocation"
To this day, the word "terrorism" is used in everyday political life to defame political opponents. In scientific contexts, however, terrorism initially only names a very specific tactic of political action. Social scientists have called this tactic a special case of provocation.
The Augsburg sociologist Peter Waldmann defined terrorism as politically motivated, "systematically prepared, shocking acts of violence against a political order from the underground", which are "primarily intended to spread insecurity and horror, but also generate sympathy and a willingness to support".
Therefore, terrorism is not so much instrumental violence, which is directed against its goals as such, but primarily symbolic violence, with the help of which messages are to be conveyed to an audience.
Media as a transmitter of the terror message
A provocation that doesn't upset anyone is not. Therefore, the response of the public is crucial to the political impact of terrorism. But if the success of a terrorist act depends on the audience being provoked by the symbolic act of violence, communicating news about this act of violence becomes a necessary prerequisite for a terrorist act.
This brings media to the fore. Because it is above all the media in modern societies that convey the news of the spectacular violent event to the audience.
In the eyes of its perpetrators, a terrorist act of violence is successful when it becomes the starting point for a media event that in turn triggers the desired political reactions. The exact relationship between terrorists, acts of violence, media, public reaction and political events is complex and can only be examined historically in a specific case.
However, with a few exceptions, representatives of the historical sciences have until recently left this field to political science.
From religious to political-secular terrorism
It is two American political scientists, Walter Laqueur and David Rapoport, who have shaped the previous standard narrative in the history of terrorism. The main features of this standard narrative originated in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.
According to him, there was a premodern terrorism that was religiously inspired and was observed among the Jewish Sicarii, the Islamic sect of the Assassins and the so-called Thugs in India. According to Laqueur and Rapoport, the beginnings of modern, political-secular terrorism lie in the terror of the French Revolution.
However, the two political scientists describe the anarchist and nihilistic "propaganda of the deed" as the actual development phase of terrorist violence, first in Russia and then also in the rest of Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. This narrative, which Laqueur, Rapoport and other authors have continued since the 1980s, is considered valid by most terrorism researchers to this day. At the end of the 1990s, postmodern religious terrorism was only added as a new type.
Origins of Terrorism in Russia in the 1880s
Within this standard Cold War narrative, the focus was on Russia. Even if, according to Laqueur and Rapoport, there were various beginnings and forms of terrorism, they took the view that the actually powerful terrorism had originated in Russia: after all, it was the Nar'odnaja V'olja group there after repeated, spectacular attacks on the Tsar succeeded in assassinating Alexander II on March 1, 1881.
From the perspective of the Cold War, this series of attacks had a significance for world history that could hardly be overestimated. Because the self-declared terrorists' hunt for the so-called "crowned game" destabilized the tsarist empire, and this destabilization was considered a prerequisite for the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Through the Russian Revolution and through the politics of the Soviet Union, these forms of terrorism and terrorism have become phenomena in general world history.
After 9/11: Search for the source of violence in Persia
With the end of the Cold War, the historical significance of the Russian Revolution was put into perspective. In addition, terrorist groups renounced the violence that had long held Europe in suspense. The era of what is called modern, political-secular terrorism in standard narrative seemed over. However, that did not make the tactic of terrorism obsolete.
This was shown by the attacks of September 11, 2001 at the latest. The attacks were immediately interpreted in historical categories. However, this happened in a contradicting manner: On the one hand, people all over the world emphasized the new and unprecedented nature of this violence.
On the other hand, these attacks have now brought what is called postmodern religious terrorism in the standard narrative into the focus of public attention. Another line of tradition now came to the fore, which was also laid out in the standard narrative: the line to the Islamic sect of the Assassins.
As during the Cold War, when the origin of terrorism was sought in a specifically Russian history of violence, many authors and commentators tried after 9/11 to find the origins of a specifically Islamic history of violence in medieval Persia.
Evidence from long lines of tradition does not hold up
However, the approaches to derive the origins of terrorism in long lines of tradition from medieval Persian or Russian history cannot withstand a historical analysis. Because both approaches suggest extensive genealogies based on current phenomena, which, however, only follow the appearance.
Large-scale political or religious connections, as well as conspicuous forms of war and violence, serve as points of reference for establishing connections over seven or eight centuries, regardless of any differences in detail and the changes that have taken place in all areas of life since then.
It cannot be overlooked that terrorism as a phenomenon is always ascribed to the culture and history of the current global political opponent. One could just as easily refer to cruel wars and conspicuous forms of violence for other societies: think of the Thirty Years War or the wars between the settlers and the native peoples of America.
Social psychological effects
Indeed, the origins of terrorism lie in the history of European-American modernity. The decisive factor was the profound upheaval that began around the 1770s in Europe and the USA, initially the communications, media and traffic revolutions.
A necessary prerequisite for the emergence of terrorism was therefore the emergence of railways, steamships, news agencies and telegraph networks, as well as the emergence of the mass media and the mass public.
Because only these means of transport, communication and transmission of news ensured that the general population learned of a symbolic act of violence, and through reporting in such close succession that the social-psychological effects of insecurity and horror desired by the violent offenders were felt in the audience among the political opponents as well as sympathy and willingness to support among the political sympathizers.
Indeed, the study of the history of communication, media and traffic shows that the conditions in this area on an international level were there just around the middle of the 19th century, when the history of terrorism began.
Enlightenment and religious reform movements
Second, the Enlightenment and religious reform movements were decisive prerequisites for the emergence of terrorism, because from them the ideas of political and personal freedom - nation and emancipation - emerged in their modern form.
The supporters of the idea of emancipation fought for the abolition of serfdom and slavery as well as for the granting of civil rights to the former slaves and serfs. The American and French Revolutions as well as the Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars led to the spread and implementation of these ideas. In doing so, they contributed to the politicization and political participation of broad and completely new sections of the population.
Worldwide impact of social movements
The first social movements emerged. They represent a third prerequisite for the emergence of terrorism. The members of the first social movements worked to make the ideas of personal and political freedom a reality even where they had not yet been implemented.
The abolitionist movement fought for the abolition of slavery, and the various national movements, for example in the Italian and German countries, for the formation of a separate nation and often for democracy.
In some places this political commitment was successful. After long and tough political disputes in Parliament, the abolitionist movement in Great Britain was able to impose a ban on the slave trade from Africa and later also on slavery in the British colonies.
Elsewhere, however, the social movements had to experience that political conditions were increasingly turning against the ideas they represented: The Congress of Vienna, for example, took no account of national ideas in the German and Italian regions, but created the territorial states anew and set the princes there back on.
Political blockades against the struggle of the idealists
In the USA the political fronts between North and South hardened: unlike the parliament in Great Britain, the Congress in Washington refused to even discuss the numerous petitions of the anti-slavery movement Reporting on these debates might lead the slaves to think that their liberation is possible. In this way, there were always political blockades here.
The first terrorists reacted to these blockades. They emerged from the social movements and saw themselves expressly in the tradition of the American or French Revolution. They had internalized the revolutionary ideals and stood up for the implementation of these ideals throughout their lives where their implementation had not been completed, or they tried to defend the implementation of these ideals where they appeared to be threatened.
However, this happened in a social situation in which the signs of the times were not pointing to revolution and the mass revolutionary moment was missing: Terrorism emerged as post-revolutionary violence in a non-revolutionary situation.
Dense phase of politically motivated attacks
Since the radicalization of the French Revolution, during the Napoleonic Wars and after the Congress of Vienna, there has been a dense phase of politically motivated attacks and assassinations that spread fear and terror among the princes and their governments.
A detailed historical study of most of these acts of violence is still pending. But the overwhelming number of the assassins wanted to murder their victims directly and instrumentally and wasted little thought on the symbolic-communicative dimension of the violence they exercised.
The Italian Orsini tries the revolution
The decisive phase in the emergence and invention of terrorism therefore begins with Felice Orsini. Orsini was born in the Papal States in 1819 and fought for a unified democratic Italy throughout his life. In the revolution of 1848/49 he was a member of the Italian constituent assembly in Rome.
But the revolution was put down, and of all things by troops of the Second French Republic and at the instigation of their newly elected President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who after his coup of Emperor Napoleon III. called. Orsini managed to escape from Rome. While in exile, he continued to try to instigate uprisings in Italy, but that proved to be hopeless.
So he thought of a new tactic. He planned an assassination attempt on Napoleon III. He hoped that a revolution would break out in France, and assumed that this revolution - just like the revolutions of 1831 and 1848 - would then spill over to Europe, including Italy.
For him, the attack on Napoleon was therefore a means to an end, sending out a beacon to mobilize the people of the countries of Europe. It was their reactions that mattered.
Politically, the action initially failed across the board. Orsini succeeded in carrying out an extremely spectacular bomb attack on Napoleon III. to stage, but the emperor survived, Orsini was arrested that same night, everything remained calm in France and the French and the rest of the European press reported consistently negative.
Napoleon uses the terrorist's sense of mission
If Orsini had now been brought to justice and executed after a short trial, this attack would have been forgotten, as would all the others who were involved in Napoleon III. perpetrated.
In Orsini's case, however, things turned out differently, namely because Napoleon III. wanted to use the assassination for himself politically: The French emperor, who had partly grown up in Italy and had sympathy for the idea of an Italian republic, decided with the spectacular attack Orsini to justify a turn in his Italian policy and the French and European public at one to prepare military intervention for the liberation and unification of Italy.
The French emperor therefore allowed his assassin and his defender - one of the best lawyers in France - to explain Orsini's political intentions and goals in the public court hearing.
Both Orsini and his defender referred to the goals of the French Revolution and Napoleon I. To the astonishment of all of Europe, the semi-official press in France reported extensively on Orsini's motives. Just a few weeks later, when Orsini went to the guillotine, he was celebrated in France, Italy and beyond as a hero and martyr for Italian unity and freedom.
And indeed, Napoleon III came across. about a year later with the so-called "Second War of Independence" started the process that led to the unification of Italy in 1861.
In the United States, the newspapers reported extensively and enthusiastically on Orsini's assassination attempt and the events that followed. John Brown was able to understand from this reporting the functioning and effectiveness of the terrorist tactics and was inspired by it.
Political and symbolic success counts
After John Brown led the train across the Potomac Bridge on the morning of October 17, the defeat began, as expected. The conductor immediately wired his superiors from the next station and they informed the American President James Buchanan and the Governor of Virginia Henry A. Wise. Buchanan immediately dispatched a unit of his elite force, the Marines, to Harpers Ferry.
Militarily, they had an easy game with the insurgents. Surrounded by onlookers, within a few minutes they captured the building into which John Brown had retired with his hostages and the last of his fellow combatants. But as Brown had learned from Orsini, his real struggle was only now beginning: the struggle for political and symbolic success. And that fight was won by John Brown.
He and his group had achieved the necessary and intended "temporary success", that is: he had defended himself against the local militias and the Marines in Harpers Ferry long enough to attract a number of prominent politicians, journalists and illustrators to Harpers Ferry. And no sooner had he been laid on a blanket, seriously injured, than he began to politely and courteously explain the purpose of his action.
The conversation, one of the first interviews in history, appeared in full in the major East Coast newspapers and was reprinted more or less extensively in many newspapers in the United States. Brown continued this public relations work in the following weeks in prison, in court and on the day of his execution.
In this way, the new form of violence, terrorism, proved successful. John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a crucial provocation on the road to the American Civil War. This war, which he wished and prophesied, actually led to the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Assassinations of crowned heads and presidents
Orsini's and Brown's acts of violence found imitators. For example, the Leipzig law student Oskar Becker attempted an assassination attempt on the Prussian King Wilhelm I in Baden-Baden in 1861 in order to promote German unity, following the example of Felice Orsini.
The actor John Wilkes Booth shot and killed the American President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's theater in Washington in 1865 to prevent some of the newly freed slaves from being given the right to vote. Paradoxically, his role model was John Brown, whom he could still speak to in prison. And in Saint Petersburg, Dmitrij Vladim'irovič Karak'ozov committed an assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II in 1866 in order to trigger a social revolution in Russia based on the direct example of Felice Orsini and the indirect example of John Brown.
Functional logic of terrorism
All three imitators wrote letters of confession and developed the terrorist tactics in this way. With the ethnic-nationalist, counter-revolutionary or social-revolutionary orientation of their acts, all of the essential motives of terrorism appeared for the first time.
It is true that the first imitators of terrorist tactics soon got to know their limits. Nevertheless, the knowledge of the functional logic of terrorism was now in the world. It was soon taken up by nihilists and anarchists as well as by ethnic-nationalist, anti-colonial and other movements, first within and then outside of Europe.
Even if their ideas, goals, victim groups, weapons and the media reporting on them changed over time, the logic of the acts of violence they committed still corresponds to the tactics that John Brown switched to when he decided to take the express train to escort across the bridge.
Three reasons for the origins of terrorism
So what can we learn from the real origins of terrorism? First: Religiously motivated terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Also not the willingness to sacrifice yourself. Nor is it an exclusivity of Islam. The devout Calvinist John Brown consciously stylized himself as Moses leading the enslaved children of Israel out of Egypt; he interpreted his self-sacrifice as an imitatio Christi. His contemporaries in the northern states of the United States understood his self-interpretations and many enthusiastically agreed.
Second, terrorism as a tactic is not doomed to failure. Felice Orsini and John Brown were politically successful with their acts of violence. So one should not underestimate the political impact of terrorism and not leave its fight to the police and the protection of the Constitution alone, but face this phenomenon as a civil society.
Third, terrorists are not psychopaths. If you look at terrorists as persons in order to understand their reasons, goals and decision-making processes, you quickly come to similar results as research on Nazi violent criminals. Terrorists react in a reflective manner to political problems. This realization does not mean that one has to approve or justify their thoughts and actions.
Social goal: to make terrorism unattractive as a means
In this way, the history of terrorism can neither provide prognoses in the strict sense nor recipes or instructions for dealing with terrorism.
What a knowledge of the actual origins of terrorism can teach us, however, is - fourthly - a well-founded assessment of which socio-political situations promote terrorist attacks. And how such situations can be defused through political solutions in such a way that terrorism becomes an unattractive tactic for political action.
Thinking about the real origins of terrorism is irritating. The first terrorists used this tactic to fight for goals that we still consider honorable: They fought for political and personal freedom, for nation and human rights.
Reflecting on the role of violence in the history of Europe
But unlike many of their contemporaries, we cannot simply identify with them and celebrate them as heroes and martyrs because of their deeds, because they have crossed the line to violence and developed tactics that are directed against us and our social order today.
Reflecting on the real origins of terrorism turns our attention to the role and legitimation of violence in the history of Europe and the United States; for example the violence that was connected with the enforcement of the nation state, or the state legitimized and sanctioned by positive law, which the law in the southern states granted the master against his slaves.
In relation to the legitimacy of a relatively limited act of terrorist violence such as that committed by John Brown in Harpers Ferry, in order to achieve the liberation of the slaves in the USA.
Provocation for self-reflection
In this respect, the history of terrorism, as a special case of provocation, is itself a provocation. Because the story of the actual origins of terrorism offers neither clear distinctions between good and bad, nor simple answers and solutions.
Thinking about the real causes of terrorism therefore challenges us as politically thinking people; it provokes us to rethink our images of ourselves, our society and our history.
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