(Author’s note, May 23, 2017: since I first wrote and published this post, U.S. President Donald Trump has fired now-former FBI director James Comey. He has offered several reasons for doing so, including to relieve the pressure he felt he was under on account of the FBI investigation into Russia’s meddling into last fall’s U.S. election to allegedly help his campaign. It’s been widely reported Trump told high-ranking Russian officials in the Oval Office the day after the firing that he felt relieved the pressure was off. Turns out it wasn’t, as subsequent events clearly showed. His firing of Comey may yet prove to have been a huge blunder for him, setting in motion fateful consequences. We’ll see. Anything, and I mean anything, can still happen. Trump will not let the investigations, finish, including the one now in the hands of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.)
The definition of the word “terror” is easy enough: The Oxford dictionary defines it as “extreme fear.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a state of intense fear.”
Some examples of how the word is used include, “a regime that rules by terror; bombings and other acts of terror; a campaign of terror against ethnic minority groups.”
But a suitable definition for the word “terrorism” is harder to come by. “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims,” says Oxford. “The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion,” says Merriam-Webster.
I think Merriam-Webster has it right. Several examples of state-sanctioned terrorism come easily to mind, going as far back as the 1793-94 period in the midst of the French Revolution known as “The Terror,” when the guillotine was kept officially busy killing thousands of people.
In response to perceived threats from within and outside France, the Commitee of Public Safety, led by the ruthless Maximilien de Robespierre, exercised virtual dictatorial control over the French government. In the spring of 1794, Robespierre and the Commitee, eliminated their enemies among other revolutionaries on the political left, and conservatives on the right. Still insecure about its position, the committee suspended many legal rights, leaving the disempowered courts a choice only of acquittal or death.
“During the Reign of Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were arrested; 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial,” says the on-line Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The 1920s and 30s saw the rise of ruthless authoritarian dictatorships – fascist on the extreme right, and Communist on the extreme left – of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
The terrible consequences of the rise and fall of those terror-based regimes are now part of the historical record. There are to this day numerous other examples, big and small, of state terrorism sanctioned by unjust laws to further the aims of political power gone mad.
In the emerging age of post-truth in which we now live, it becomes even more important to remind ourselves of the lessons of history. And in the midst of the ongoing struggle against terrorism it is especially important to seek a clear understanding in the public mind of what “terrorism” is, and conversely, what it is not.
It is not, as some ruthless dictators would have the world believe, anyone who rises up in opposition to their terror-based regime.
The attack in the U.K. on Westminster Bridge and moments later near the doors of Parliament where a police officer was stabbed to death was an act of terrorism, targeting the “mother of all Parliaments,” the virtual cradle of modern democracy. The attacker was also largely indiscriminate in his choice of victims: the dead and injured on Westminster Bridge were members of 11 different nationalities, including tourists from all over the world. It was an attack on ethnic diversity and inclusiveness.
The attack on innocent people in such a venerated location is a personal and national tragedy in the U.K.
But there is something about it as well that betrays a weakening of the overall terrorist threat, either because of effective security, or the declining power of terrorist organizations, or both. This was not a well-organized, well-armed group of people following a complex plan of attack.
All the more reason to caution now is not the time to let terrorism get the best of us, to let the fear that terrorism engenders turn us into something that begins to resemble terrorism itself, in the form of systemic hatred, intolerance and exclusion. That just means terrorism wins.
Worst of all are so-called populist demagogues who hypocritically and shamelessly exploit terrorism for their own personal and political will-to-power purposes.
Terrorism is not a free people with a more than 200-year-old Constitution that guarantees their fundamental human rights, and, implicitly, the fundamental rights of all people irregardless of their nationality and religion, or none.
That is the point after all: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights . . .”
Or have I got that wrong?
Surely not, surely some truths are indeed “self-evident,” as the American Declaration of Independence also says.
And yet I confess I am confused, and terribly disappointed: How is it possible that a great people – who were instrumental in winning a war against terror-based fascism – have allowed themselves to come to this, to Muslim bans and heartless mass deportations of illegal immigrants, a growing climate of ethnic hatred, and a dangerous drift toward tyranny.
I watched most of the recent U.S. House Intelligence Oversight Committee’s public session, with FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency director, Admiral Mike Rogers, answering many, but not all, questions.
Comey confirmed the FBI is investigating alleged Russian interference with last year’s U.S. election. And “that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” he said.
It hardly seems fair to the natural world to describe any possible cooperative relationship between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin as a form of symbiosis. After all, I think it’s fair to say the word speaks to a positive outcome. Trust me, it won’t be – not for the U.S. or Russia, and the wider world that apparently can only stand by and bear witness as the Faustian tragedy unfolds.
After the Intel committee hearing was over I was left with a thought above all that filled me with dread, based on Comey’s admission that he could not say how long the investigation, which began last July, might take to finish. Some commentators later said it could take many more months, even years.
Rep. Devin Nunes, chair of the committee, told Comey the obvious truth, that so long as the investigation continues there will be a “cloud hanging over” President Donald Trump and his administration. Yes, Comey said, he knew that.
I would say that cloud hangs over the fate of the entire world, on a daily basis; and a lot of things can happen between now and then, whenever then is.
That’s still the thought that terrifies the father and the grandfather in me. That “cloud” hangs over my children and my grandchildren; and your’s too, you fools who voted for a crazy man. Some of you, so I read, now even think it’s funny the way he’s playing with Washington.
There’s nothing funny about it any more, nothing at all. It’s a dangerous game he’s playing. And sooner or later, it’s quite possibly going to be deadly serious for everyone on Earth.
Still, after all that – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – I cling to hope that it will pass, and that a better future for the world and especially our children must come.
So bear witness indeed, as best you can, however you can.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in March, 2017