There’s always shopping to be done

R.W. Johnson

  • The Age of Terrorism by Walter Laqueur
    Weidenfeld, 385 pp, £17.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 297 79115 X
  • The Baader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon by Stefan Aust, translated by Anthea Bell
    Bodley Head, 552 pp, £12.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 370 31031 4

In the first few pages of Walter Laqueur’s The Age of Terrorism (largely a reworking and updating of his 1977 work, Terrorism), the author attempts to confront the old adage that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ Laqueur will have none of it:

Of all the observations on terrorism this is surely one of the tritest. There is no unanimity on any subject under the sun, and it is perfectly true that terrorists have well-wishers. But such support does not tell us anything about the justice of their cause; in 1941 Hitler and Mussolini had many fanatical followers. Does it follow that they fought for a just cause?

A moment’s reflection suggests that this is a most unsatisfactory dismissal: as anyone with even high-school debating experience knows, the sudden, irrelevant jump within a few sentences from ‘freedom fighters’ to ‘Hitler and Mussolini’ is simply an attempt to foreclose an argument before it gets started. After all, even the supporters of the Axis leaders did not regard them as ‘freedom fighters’, and few regimes have been louder in their condemnation of terrorism – i.e. the Resistance movements – than the Nazis and other Fascists. The fact is that neither Hitler nor Mussolini belongs in the argument at all.

There are two points about this. One is that Laqueur’s work, for all its thoroughness and the largely justified praise that has been heaped on it, is undeniably biased. He suggests, for example, that the USSR is somehow responsible for Abu Nidal, Carlos, the Red Brigades and the RAF – although evidence for such a proposition is lacking, even in his own work. The ANC is several times mentioned as a terrorist organisation, but there is no mention of the numerous terrorist incidents and assassinations to which ANC exiles have been subjected over the years. The murder of several members of the South Korean Government in Burma in 1983 is flatly attributed to North Korea, but there is, as far as I know, no evidence for this. Of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II Laqueur can only comment that ‘the extent of Bulgarian involvement cannot be proven in a court of law,’ as if only an excess of legal fastidiousness – rather than a complete lack of evidence – stands in the way of our believing this story. Similarly, Laqueur has far more to say about left-wing terrorists in the US than about the historically far more important right-wing variety; we hear about the Vietcong as terrorists but nothing about the parallel US programmes for the assassination of ‘hostiles’ in the Vietnamese countryside; we are told that the Cubans now sponsor terrorism but not that the CIA repeatedly attempted to assassinate Castro. All of which is a pity, for terrorism is a murky subject, on which it is difficult to get an adequate moral or intellectual purchase. If, in addition to that, one begins to distrust what an author writes about it, the murkiness can become impenetrable. This is regrettable, for Laqueur writes well and intelligently and knows a good deal about his subject.

The second, more important point is that we do all carry around with us some version of the freedom fighter/terrorism dichotomy: that is precisely why it is difficult to get a proper moral purchase on the subject; why so many morally sensitive people have been thrown into varying states of confusion about whether they should support the FLN/ NLF/ Tupamaros/Afghan guerrillas/ Unita/ ANC/ PLO etc; and it is the very difficulty of that dichotomy that terrorists trade on, not only in their attempt to enlist external support but in the way they rationalise their own activity to themselves.

The reason for this dichotomy is also quite simple: historically, we can see movements which undeniably used terrorist means; which seemed to have little option but to do so; which succeeded in the end; and the reversal of whose success now seems unimaginable and, perhaps, undesirable. With only minor variations such a case could be made for Irgun, the Stern Gang, the Vietnamese NLF, the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe, the FLN in Algeria, and so on.

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