Military history



Sinners or Saints?

WE HAVE SURVEYED a wide variety of terror groups, ranging chronologically from the Assassins of the Middle Ages to the IRA of the early twentieth century and in size from the Ku Klux Klan with its hundreds of thousands of members to John Brown and his band of twenty-one—coincidentally about the same size as the executive committee of the People’s Will. Some have been successful (the Assassins, KKK, and IRA); others, notably the anarchists, not so much. The Russian revolutionaries ultimately prevailed but their terrorism hardly overthrew the tsar by itself. At most it helped to undermine a regime whose collapse was brought about by military defeat in 1917.

Nevertheless the example of the Russian terrorists proved influential as far away as Bengal, where there were outbursts of anti-British terrorism from 1906 to 1917 and again from 1930 to 1934.114 The Russian extremists also had many imitators in the Balkans, which after Russia itself emerged as the main theater of terrorist operations.

The longest-lived of the Balkan groups was the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO). Formed in 1893 to seek Macedonian independence or autonomy, it fought for nearly half a century, first against the Ottoman Empire, then against Yugoslavia and Greece. It assassinated the king of Yugoslavia, the prime minister of Bulgaria, and the foreign minister of France—without, however, achieving its goals.115 Equally frustrated was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (the Dashnak Party), which took on both the Russian and the Ottoman empires in the hope of carving out an independent Armenian state. Its members staged the spectacular seizure of the Ottoman Central Bank in Istanbul in 1896 but only succeeded in triggering pogroms in the capital that killed thousands of Armenians, prefiguring the genocidal violence inflicted on Armenians between 1915 and 1923.116 Armenia did not achieve independence until 1991 and then not because of terrorism but simply because of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Serbian Black Hand group was, as we shall see, more successful in achieving a union of the South Slavs in a Yugoslav state but only very indirectly and in ways that it did not intend through its tenuous relationship with the Young Bosnians who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, thereby triggering a war that ultimately brought down the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Meanwhile, the Ustaša, a terrorist group with Italian sponsorship, managed to achieve its goal—an independent Croatian state—only because of a German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941. As soon as the German armies rolled out, Croatia was swallowed up by Yugoslavia again, where it would remain for the next four decades.

The terrorists of yesteryear pioneered most of the techniques employed by present-day extremists, from car bombings to suicide bombings. There were even a few instances of mass hostage taking, notably John Brown’s seizure of Harpers Ferry, which prefigured the airline hijackings and embassy takeovers of the 1970s.

MOST OF THE academic literature stresses that there is no such thing as a “terrorist mentality” or a “typical terrorist.” Walter Laqueur writes, “That their members have been young is the only feature common to all terrorist movements.”117 But that has not stopped analysts, participants, and, above all, artists from trying to depict the terrorist mindset. The “golden age” of terrorism produced striking portraits of its practitioners, both pro and con.

The most rapturous case in favor of terrorism was made by Sergei Kravchinski (a.k.a. Stepniak), a Russian Nihilist who killed the chief of the tsar’s secret police in 1878 and then fled to Switzerland and England. He published a memoir, Underground Russia, in which he attributed superhuman attributes to “the Terrorist,” a label that, unlike later practitioners, he embraced: “He is noble, terrible, irresistibly fascinating, for he combines in himself the two sublimities of human grandeur: the martyr and the hero. . . . He has no other object than to overthrow this abhorred despotism, and to give to his country, what all civilized nations possess, political liberty.”118

Contrast this idealized portrait with the villainous depictions drawn by two conservative novelists—Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad. Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872) features a Nihilist known as Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, based on Sergei Nachaev. He is a “monster,” “a crook,” “a vile human louse” who murders one of his own followers and goads another to commit suicide. His goal, he tells a fellow revolutionary, is “getting everything destroyed: both the state and its morality. We alone will remain, having destined ourselves beforehand to assume power: we shall rally the smart ones to ourselves, and ride on the backs of the fools.”119

In The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad offers an equally unflattering portrayal of “The Professor,” an anarchist who stalks the streets of London with a bomb in his pocket, ready to blow “to pieces” everything within sixty yards should a policeman try to arrest him. The Professor dreams of a world “where the weak would be taken in hand for utter extermination. . . . Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of progress. . . . First the blind, then the deaf and the dumb, then the halt and the lame—and so on.”120

Which of these depictions is the more accurate—the terrorist as saint or as sinner? Both are, of course, caricatures; actual human beings are seldom as virtuous or as vile. But Conrad and Dostoevsky were probably closer to the mark than Stepniak was.

Terrorists are outcasts who are hunted by the authorities. They are far more likely to wind up dead or in a dungeon than to succeed in achieving their goals. It stands to reason that most who are drawn to such a life would have an ideological compulsion verging on fanaticism. This is less true of large, nationalist organizations such as the KKK or IRA, which draw in a diverse membership and, for better or worse, enjoy broad societal sanction. Their members often have a mental makeup similar to soldiers’—which many Ku Kluxers had been and which many Shinners would become. Truly marginal enterprises like the anarchist movement or the wilder fringes of the Russian revolutionary underground had fewer participants, and a larger proportion of them were criminal or cracked.

These were men like Simon Ter-Petrossian (a.k.a. Kamo), Stalin’s chief henchman during his reign of terror in the Caucasus. He was finally caught in Germany and to prevent his extradition to Russia, writes Stalin’s biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Kamo started to act like a madman in a way that only someone who had truly cracked could. . . . He pulled the hairs out of his head; tried to hang himself but was cut down; slit his wrists but was resuscitated. . . . The doctors were still skeptical and decided to put him through a series of torments that would have broken anyone else. He was burned by a red-hot iron and needles were driven under his nails, but he withstood it all.121

Or there was François-Claudius Koenigstein, alias Ravachol, a French anarchist who killed an elderly hermit to steal his money and broke into a recently deceased countess’s grave in search of more loot before setting off several bombs around Paris in 1892. His name would become a byword for senseless political violence.122

No doubt disreputable characters can be found in all human enterprises. Security forces fighting terrorism have included quite a few sadists who have happily tortured and executed prisoners. In the Irish War of Independence, Captain Jocelyn Hardy acquired a gruesome reputation. He was an Auxiliary known as “Hoppy” Hardy because he had lost a leg on the Western Front and walked with a limp. One IRA officer recalled that during his interrogation Hardy beat him to a bloody pulp, nearly strangled him, held a red-hot poker in front of his eyes, and then placed a pistol next to his head and threatened to execute him.

But while relatively liberal armed forces like the British army may countenance some brutality, they will court-martial or dismiss the worst offenders—as happened with hundreds of Auxies and Tans in Ireland. (“Hoppy” Hardy was tried for murder but acquitted in a “verdict that,” writes one historian, “seemed seriously at variance with the disclosed facts.” He also escaped assassination by Mick Collins’s Squad, which made a “very special effort” to “eliminate” him.)123 By contrast, most terrorist organizations have been willing to make excuses for the Ravachols and Kamos, to justify any misdeed in the name of the larger struggle.

It is hazardous to generalize about terrorists or any other diverse group, but striking is the extent to which the extremists of a century ago conform to the observations made by observers of modern terrorism. The economist Alan Krueger, for instance, concludes that “terrorists tend to be drawn from well-educated, middle-class or high-income families.” So if poverty does not cause terrorism what does? He points to “the suppression of civil liberties and political rights,” explaining, “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.”124 That certainly accounts for the prevalence of terrorism in tsarist Russia and even in colonial Ireland. Although Great Britain was a democracy, the Irish people, historically subjugated by the “Protestant Ascendancy,” had sharply curtailed choices at the ballot box—they could not vote for independence. Krueger’s findings suggest that in any war against terrorism—or, for that matter, against any insurgency—political reform can sometimes be the most important weapon. Indeed progressive welfare and labor legislation helped to quell terrorism in democracies such as France and the United States, while its absence fueled further revolt in Russia.

The observations of the psychiatrist Jerrold Post also ring true. Although he writes that “terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology,” he does posit that many “individuals are drawn to the path of terrorism in order to commit acts of violence.” He believes that for many “the cause” is only an excuse to pursue a lifestyle that allows a frustrated, unsuccessful youth to become a glamorous celebrity—a terrorist who is “engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the establishment, his picture on the ‘most wanted’ posters,” who in certain circles “is lionized as a hero,” and thereby acquires “a role and position not easily relinquished.”125 Those generalizations, made about late twentieth-century terrorists, apply equally well to their nineteenth-century forebears—and even to the Assassins of the Middle Ages.

But, and this must be kept in mind, there are always exceptions, often prominent ones. Michael Collins was no fanatic or outcast. He was a shrewd, popular, supremely sane leader who was admired even by his foes, notwithstanding his ruthless streak. (Lloyd George said he was “full of fascination and charm—but also of dangerous fire.”)126 In many ways he bore a greater resemblance to the most skilled and respected generals of history than to those “wild beasts,” the disreputable anarchist or socialist terrorists of his day whose actions often bespoke a psychological compulsion rather than a well-developed strategy. If there has ever been a heroic and likable terrorist, the Big Fellow was it.

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