September 14th, 2012
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Eleven years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States that saw passenger jets crashing into New York’s twin-tower World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Washington, one has to question whether the global 'war on terror' it triggered is not a contradiction in terms. A look into the origins, history and deeper meaning of the word 'terrorist' and its accompanying 'terrorism' reveals some sad ironies.
The modern word itself is of relatively recent vintage, dating back only to the French Revolution of the late 18th century. As for its roots, they can be traced back to the year 105 BC and the Roman empire. And, as a tactical form of warfare, it can be traced back to the Judean Zealots who resisted Rome’s occupation of their fatherland.
The Zealots, who were called the 'sicarii' or 'dagger-men' by the Romans, launched an underground campaign of assassinations on the Roman occupation forces. When the Zealots changed tactics and moved on to open revolt and could be clearly identified by the Romans their campaign led to the mass suicide at Masada, where they were besieged.
Next to employ what would later become known as terrorism as a military tactic, was a Shia Islamist sect in neighbouring Persia (today’s Iran). The group's name is immortalised in the word “assassin”. The Assassins, who hail from the 11th century, used the tactic of eliminating the leaders of their enemies because they did not command the number of soldiers needed to engage in open combat.
Some sources have it that the Assassins got their name name from the fact that their leader al-Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah would feed male followers as young as 12 years old a brew made from hashish. This would put them into a deep sleep after which they were moved to a beautiful garden. There they would wake-up naked in the company of beautiful naked girls and other boys. While awake in the garden they could indulge in just about every pleasure and wonderful food.
Then they were fed with the potent brew again.
They would then wake up back in the “real world” to be told that they had been shown a glimpse of Paradise. If they follow the orders of al-Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah and died in the execution of those orders, they would again wake up in Paradise.
Many scholars dispute this explanation and argue that the name Assassin is derived from the name of the leader of the sect. What is fact, however, is that lone members of the group were sent on killing missions with the certainty that this would lead to their own deaths as well. The killers would even wait next to the bodies of their victims to be captured or killed themselves.
Terrorists and terrorism
The Latin word terrëre, which means to frighten, is the root of words like terrorist, terrorism and, of course, terror. The Latin word for a terrorist was terreö, meaning “I frighten”.
The Romans were also the first to declare what we today would call a state of emergency in 105 BC.,They called this a terror cimbricus in response to the approach of the warriors of the Cimbri tribe.
Terrorism would enter the modern world as an instrument of control and as a word at the end of the 18th century when, during the French Revolution the revolutionary or Jacobin government in 1792 declared a Reign of Terror. As legal authority for this move, the French state of the day used the Romans' terror cimbricus.
When the Jacobin government collapsed the word terrorism was first used in print in English in an article by the newspaper The Times. The word caught on and three years later it was entered into the official Oxford English Dictionary.
In November 2004 a report by the secretary-general of the United Nations described terrorism as any act “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act”
It is however also a fact that internationally there is no universally agreed and legally binding definition in criminal law for terrorism.
It is probably because of the absence of such a definition that the world, especially since 9/11, has seen a strong resurgence in state terrorism. Under the battle cry of the “War on terror” we have seen the invasion of Afghanistan, the war on Iraq and bombings by unmanned drone attacks in countries across the world, as well as in North Africa.
In the process many “non-combatants”, including women and children, have lost their lives.
This state of affairs, where terrorism is being used to combat terrorism, brings to mind a quote from Shakespeare which has in itself acquired the status of a proverb.
In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare has the officer Marcellus say: “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”. Upset by disturbing events and the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Marcellus exclaims that Denmark is festering with moral and political corruption.
Today’s world leaders would do well to note that Marcellus’s observation came shortly before midnight.