The Terrorism Endgame: Lessons from the War on Anarchy (Part II)
Will the threat of terrorism fade away, much as the threat of radical anarchy did over a century ago?
October 13, 2011
Throughout the 1890s, it seemed that no sooner would the French or Spanish or Italian authorities arrest, try and execute one would-be assassin, than another desperate man from some other quarter would toss a bomb to avenge him.
But the radical anarchist movement petered out in the early years of the new century. Why and how did that happen? A variety of explanations can be given, some more compelling than others. The effectiveness of action by the authorities is probably the least compelling.
One would like to think that the manifest hypocrisy of the movement — killing people in the name of human liberation — eventually caught up to it. Certainly public sympathy turned against anarchism when in France, for example, anarchists started throwing bombs in crowded restaurants rather than targeting politicians.
But one can’t expect that true believers would be derailed by scruples. The example of the Communists’ successes in the early 20th century shows that it is quite possible for a utopian revolutionary movement to remain unfazed by the inhumanity of its means.
Perhaps rising living standards took some of the wind out of the anarchists’ sails. The 1890s was a rough economic period in both Europe and the Americas. Following the financial panic of 1893, unemployment in the United States, for example, was in the double digits for six years. The return of economic stability at the turn of the century might well have slackened radical recruiting.
Conversely, the anarchist drama provided a spur to reforms in the emerging progressive era that were aimed at reduced the misery of the working poor. These reforms might also have depressed anarchist recruiting. But such developments as these would also have failed to deter the true believers.
The fact is, revolutionary anarchism died out because it didn’t work. It failed abjectly on the terms it set for itself. The doctrine of “propaganda of the deed” was proved wrong time and time again. No individual assassination catalyzed a mass uprising.
All the assassinations and other violent episodes taken together did not create a new and better world, only an ongoing low-level war. For authorities, that low-level war was a nuisance of the highest order. For ordinary citizens, it was an intolerable psychological terror — theater-going bourgeois would trample each other in panic at any unexpected loud noise. But for the anarchists themselves, it represented failure.
By the early 20th century, most anarchists had switched their allegiance to other radical programs that appeared to promise better results — trade unionism, or syndicalism (calling for a general strike to bring industry and government to a total halt) or full-fledged revolutionary movements (or possibly even — horror of horrors! — everyday social democratic political parties and progressive reform movements).
Thought leaders like Johann Most and Alexander Berkman in the United States, Kropotkin in his English retreat, the Italian Enrico Malatesta and the Frenchman Elisée Reclus were ready to acknowledge, in Tuchman’s words, “the sterility of deeds of terror,” and try something new.
However, because the movement was decentralized, the ideology lingered. After the idealists and the practical men and women abandoned it, it was carried on by the dregs and thugs (much as, decades later, after the Irish Republican Army had lost its raison d’etre thanks to the successes of its political wing, the armed wing devolved into thuggery).
The last of the memorable anarchist bomb-throwers and knife-wielders included some of the dimmest and dullest — e.g., the social misfit Luigi Lucheni, assassin of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and the probably mentally ill Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President McKinley.
These were men who, having passively imbibed anarchist propaganda, thought they could redeem their pathetic lives by bending their weak intellects and wills to a single worthwhile deed.
Then came the flourishing of the so-called ego-anarchists — cold-blooded criminals, like the Bonnot Gang (1911-12), who made no pretense of idealism but merely used anarchist philosophy to justify robbery, murder, counterfeiting and any other crime or vice. When these were eradicated, the revolutionary anarchist “meme” had run its course. (Anarchism still exists today as a philosophy, of course, and anarchism is still one flavor of political-left activism — but today, non-violence is usually a core tenet.)
Does this hold a lesson for the so-called war on terror? I believe it does.
Today’s American public finds the insecurity associated with terrorism intolerable. We go to war, we subject ourselves to intrusive searches, we approve costly security measures, we restrict our own civil liberties — and we know that the threat persists.
Given the level of anxiety and the sacrifices we make, we are quick to assert that “the terrorists have won.” But in fact, Islamist radicals are far from having achieved their objectives.
The professed aims of Al-Qaeda (and the late bin Laden) are to crush the United States and its Western allies, to overthrow secular and hereditary Arab governments and to establish a theocratic Islamist superstate. Those aims are grandiose, even millennial. That they belong to the realm of utopian fantasy rather than realpolitik is made evident by the gross mismatch between means and ends. Even the most audaciously planned and well-executed terrorist attacks Al-Qaeda or its allies have been able to muster have not brought them one step closer to the stated goals.
bin Laden was evidently counting on the task being an easy one. Show the Islamic citizens of the world the way with a brilliant first salvo, and watch as they spontaneously rise up and leap into the breach to join the struggle and carry it to completion. Terrorists expect divine intervention on their behalf because they perceive their cause as just. Could God will any outcome other than the one the pious have planned?
In other words, Al-Qaeda’s ideology is a lazy one. In spite of the many differences between revolutionary anarchism and radical Islamism, here the analogy is quite apt. Both ideologies viewed their triumph as imminent and inevitable, requiring almost no effort — no planning for transition, no organizing of the masses, no diplomatic initiative. All history needed was a little violent shove over a tipping point.
When a brilliant shove (or two, or three) fails to accomplish the task, the ideology is already obsolete. Certainly the attacks may continue, even in a grand style. (The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s morbid reference to the 9/11 attacks as “the greatest work of art” echoes the comment of poet Laurent Tailhade after an anarchist tossed a homemade bomb into the midst of the French Parliament in 1893: “What matter the victims if the gesture is beautiful?” Later, this aesthete was himself the incidental victim of another anarchist bomb, and lost his eyesight.)
But given the futility of the attacks vis-à-vis their aims, we should expect that gradually the dynamic elements of fundamentalist Islam will turn to other avenues.
Terrorist acts will be left to rogues and opportunists, misfits and dull copycats. And then, if history is any guide, at some point that is difficult to identify with precision, they will cease.
Some evidence of this trend is visible in the fact that Al-Qaeda has begun conducting or authorizing actions that include the targeting of Muslim civilians. Like the frustrated anarchists who turned from political assassination to throwing bombs in cafés, such terrorists poignantly betray by their actions that the game is up.
So too, the marginality of Al-Qaeda is revealed in its conspicuous absence (as the anarchists had been left behind in Russia in 1905) in the quick-moving events of the Arab Spring.
The example of Egypt is particularly poignant. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, a fundamentalist group that used to conduct assassinations and kidnappings in the name of Islam, was converted to non-violence in 1997. Since then, it has apologized for and sought atonement for its former atrocities, and has polemicized against Al-Qaeda. Now that Mubarak’s dictatorship is at an end, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya is actively participating in the democratic reforms and is organizing as a political party, one that is pledged to represent the conservative religious viewpoint in national life with civility and respect for the rule of law.
Al-Qaeda’s own ideology owes a lot to Egyptian thinkers of an earlier generation, especially Sayyid Qutb. In an interview with an American journalist, a senior leader of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya agreed with the suggestion that Al-Qaeda is “following ideas that came from Egypt 50 years ago, and Egypt itself has moved on.” He elaborated, “I think you’re absolutely right. These are the ideas of the 50s and the 60s and the 70s. Egypt has overcome that, has gone through other phases.”
In other words, the millennial-fantasy-based terrorism of the anarchists and Al-Qaeda might be considered an adolescent phase. Eventually one might expect it to give way to more focused, rational and effective forms of protest or action, whether violent or non-violent — forms we know how to deal with.
Vigilance will continue to be necessary in the meantime. Military, intelligence and police action are needed to counter the criminal designs of both the visionary Islamist terrorist masterminds and their copycat followers.
But even as we know such countermeasures will never be completely effective against such a slippery, decentralized ideology as Al-Qaeda represents, we can at least have some confidence that the ideology will run its course.
Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.
The millennial-fantasy-based terrorism of the anarchists and Al-Qaeda might be considered an adolescent phase.
Terrorist acts will be left to rogues and opportunists, misfits and dull copycats. And then, if history is any guide, at some point, they will cease.
Both revolutionary anarchism and radical Islamism viewed their triumph as imminent and inevitable.
The so-called ego-anarchists made no pretense of idealism but merely used anarchist philosophy to justify robbery, murder, counterfeiting and any other crime or vice.
By the early 20th century, most anarchists had switched their allegiance to other radical programs that appeared to promise better results.