As something to be talked and written about, as a phenomenon with nearly hysterical descriptions and pronouncements routinely added to its name as a mobilizing theme for politicians, armies, navies and air forces, ‘terrorism’ has now lost a good deal of its power. A mere matter of months ago thousands of Americans cancelled trips to Europe because they feared the terrorist threat; in April 1986 the United States raided Libya during the prime time tv news in order, it was said, to deal with the terrorist threat posed by Libya (on a pretext—the bombing of a West Berlin disco—which has since proved not to be Libya’s doing). All during the period from 1983 through 1985 and 1986, ‘terrorism’ claimed public attention on a scale hitherto unknown. At the behest of the us administration—amplified by dutiful, unreflecting media—numerous governments made pronouncements about, and any number of moves against, terrorism, so much so that during this period the Secretary of State elevated terrorism to the status of ‘number one’ foreign policy problem for the United States and, he went on to suggest imprudently, for the world.

As a result, even though attention to terrorism has quite noticeably diminished, the word still comes easily, trippingly to the tongue. Now, it would be disingenuous at this point for me not to connect terrorism as a word and concept with perhaps one reason for my examining of the subject in these reflections. The reason, of course, is that mainly in the United States, but also generally speaking in the West, terrorism is by now permanently, and subliminally associated in the first instance with Islam, a notion no less overused and vague than terrorism itself. In the minds of the unprepared or the unalert, Islam calls up images of bearded clerics and mad suicidal bombers, of unrelenting Iranian mullahs, fanatical fundamentalists, and kidnappers, remorseless turbaned crowds who chant hatred of the us, ‘the great devil’, and all its ways. And behind the wave of ‘Islamic’ images battering the us’s unprotected shores stand the string of Palestinian terrorists—hijackers, masked killers of airport crowds, athletes, schoolchildren, handicapped and elderly innocents—who in the unexamined popular mythology of our day are presumed to have begun the whole shameful and frightful thing. Since I am known as having associations both ethnic and national with Palestine and with Islam, I am therefore presentable before audiences as someone who, when it comes to terrorism, really knows (in the invidious sense of the word) what he’s talking about.

I will not waste the reader’s time by saying more about this deplorable concatenation of assumptions, other than quickly to allude to that combination of discomfort and resentment which remains with me from the moment I begin to take on the subject. Nevertheless, it has seemed to be also true that despite the tremendous damage caused by ‘terrorism’ itself and representations or reactions to it, there are some reflections that can be made about both, reflections whose articulation is made possible by the abatement in organized public hysteria I spoke of a moment ago. Precisely that abatement will, I think, enable us to reconnect representations of ‘terrorism’ to contexts, structures, histories and narratives from which, during the word’s period of greatest prominence, its representations appeared to be severed.

For the most striking thing about ‘terrorism’, as a phenomenon of the public sphere of communication and representation in the West, is its isolation from any explanation or mitigating circumstances, and its isolation as well from representations of most other dysfunctions, symptoms and maladies of the contemporary world. Indeed, in many discussions there is often a ritual of dismissing as irrelevant, soft-headed or in other ways suspicious, anything that might explain the actions of terrorism: ‘Let’s not hear anything about root causes,’ runs the righteous litany, ‘or deprivation, or poverty and political frustration, since all terrorists can be explained away if one has a mind to it. What we should be after is an understanding of terrorism that helps us defeat it, not an explanation that might make us feel sorry for the terrorist.’ Thus terrorism was stripped of any right to be considered as other historical and social phenomena are considered, as something created by human beings in the world of human history. Instead the isolation of terrorism from history and from other things in Vico’s world of the nations has had the effect of magnifying its ravages, even as terrorism itself has been shrunk from the public world into a small private world reserved tautologically for the terrorists who commit terrorism, and for the experts who study them.

No less strange was the common agreement in expert literature and rhetoric that no real definition of terrorism was actually possible. It is true, of course, that writers like Clare Sterling and Benjamin Netanyahu felt no compunction about defining terrorism as whatever seemed inimical to the West, Israel, the Judeo—Christian tradition and Goodness, but it would be wrong and misleading to accuse all writers on terrorism of such robust self-confidence. Many are like Walter Laqueur, one of the most respectable academic specialists who began work on the subject well before the recent vogue. Laqueur frankly admits that ‘no definition of terrorism can possibly cover all the varieties of terrorism that have appeared throughout history; peasant wars and labour disputes and brigandage have been accompanied by systematic terror, and the same is true with regard to general wars, wars of national liberation and resistance movements against foreign occupiers.’ Later he tries somehow to rescue his topic from this welter of ubiquity, valiantly suggesting that even though terrorism resists definition it can be discussed in the context of movements that have used ‘systematic terrorism as their main weapon’. But when he asserts that that practice begins in the second half of the nineteenth century (Terrorism, New York 1977, p. 11) we will, I think, have lost faith not only in his philosophical acuity for trying to describe something that he says cannot adequately be described, but also in his historical sense for studiously ignoring the revolutionary Terror of France some seventy-five years earlier.

It is less on Laqueur’s own failings than on terrorism as an apparently isolated but identifiable disturbance that I wish to concentrate. In fact the appearance of isolation has almost always been misleading. For terrorism has regularly appeared in contemporary conjunction with, among other stigmatized groups, Islam, Palestinians, Iran and Shiism—that is, objects, concepts, peoples and cultures poorly and antithetically known, and therefore more liable to technical, metaphysical, and ultimately ideological constructions. There is first the powerful aura of the exotic, and even the literary, that surrounds terrorism. Its literary roots are Eastern, and if one thinks of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed or Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the Assassins and Thuggees, there is in addition the louche, the gratuitous, the senselessly cruel that adheres to it. Moreover, the terror of terrorism appears indiscriminate and generalized: no one is safe from it, none insulated, none immune. Facts and figures are not easy to get hold of, although the hint of vast numbers of casualties is always there, from the random explosive set off in a market place to the nuclear device that just might kill uncounted thousands. Rarely does one hear the tonic reminders of the disparity in violence between individual terrorists and conventional armies, given by Gillo Pontecorvo to Larbi Ben M’Hidi in The Battle of Algiers, ‘Give us your bombs and you can have our women’s baskets.’

These techniques of decontextualization and dehistoricization are not new and have occurred elsewhere in colonial or post-colonial situations. Irish resistance to British rule, for instance, was routinely classed as terrorist by British writers who then built on the classification a theory of retributive response that quite ignored historical specificity, proportion or concrete analysis. Thus Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in ‘Confessions of a Unionist’ (1888) that so unsuccessful had British policy been in Ireland (‘Through sentimentality, through the craven vagaries of a popular assembly, we have suffered the law to tumble in the muck’) that ‘Irish lawlessness’ had triumphed, along with the ‘Irish appeal to violence’. Therefore he advocated no change in British colonial abuses ‘until the whole machinery of terrorism is destroyed’, and this by a wholesale brutality meted out by ‘vigilance committees’. Any other policy would be succumbing to ‘maudlin sentimentality’. Curiously enough Stevenson’s editor in 1988, Jeremy Treglown, does not flinch from Stevenson’s ‘call for an end to terrorism in Ireland’, only from his inability to say ‘how the extirpation of violence is to be brought about in practice’. Thus does the inebriately self-justifying revulsion provoked by the word leap across the years with little regard for context or power. Similar rhetorical flights were routinely in evidence when Cypriot or Mau Mau ‘terrorists’ were discussed in the post-war years.