Segment from Fear Tactics

Listener Calls

Peter, Ed, and Brian take calls from listeners.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

**This is a transcription of an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in language in this rebroadcast.**

BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory, where today’s debates find a little context in American history. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century History Guy. Today on our show, a history of domestic terrorism. Each week, we invite listeners to ask us their questions about our topic online via Facebook, Twitter, and our website. Today, we’re calling up some of the folks who left us a note.

Our first call is from Jameel in Atlanta, Georgia. Jameel, welcome to BackStory.

JAMEEL: Thank you. I have a question about the subject of terrorism. Some people suggest that the word itself is being thrown around or used by some people against other people, And that those positions can also be reversed. And I was wondering if this whole notion of saying that something is terroristic, is this a fairly modern development, or has it always been with us?

PETER: When have we started using it as a term of opprobrium, to identify enemies?

BRIAN: Did the French government use it positively in the French Revolution, Peter? Did they say, ah, now it’s time for some terror.

PETER: Now we’re terrorizing. No–

BRIAN: I suppose the question is, was there ever a time that it was used in a positive sense?

PETER: In a positive sense, I think only among the anarchists. There was some idea that if you’re in a global struggle or war against the evil regimes of capitalism, then you might say, yes, I’m happy to take that term, which has always been pejorative, and turn it around on you because you have been the perpetrators of real terror.

BRIAN: Jameel, are we getting warm here? Are we answering your question?

JAMEEL: Well, you’re getting warm. Let me push a little more.


JAMEEL: We remember shock and awe. And we were the shock and awe. We were using that to describe the impact of our rapid military advance into Iraq. Was that a terrorist strategy, or is it OK if we do it?

ED: Well, it strikes me if you talk about shock and awe, that was designed, kind of like mutually assured destruction, to actually stop further violence. The point of shock and awe is to end the war before it really begins. I think terrorists think that they are beginning a cycle of violence necessary to destroy big structures. And I think that since the revolution, terror has been appropriated by non-state actors. And states, therefore, cannot use the word terror because–

PETER: And of course, the terror that a state wreaks on its population is sublimated into institutions. So it takes the form of being lawful. Because we make the laws that we need to make so that we can incarcerate two million people. Or that we can identify people as enemy aliens, or that we can take various measures against them.

And that asymmetry is fundamental to our understanding of terrorism. That is, the individual or the non-state actor doesn’t have those institutional structures. They gotta improvise, and they have to go straight for the jugular. They have to take advantage of surprise, of the unexpected, of the terrible.

BRIAN: So Jameel, we’re not denying that there is terror implicit in war and in state-conducted wars. But we are trying to explore this phenomenon of the war of the few against large structures of power.

JAMEEL: Well, let me ask you this question. Then if large structures intimidate few, is that not terror then?

BRIAN: I would say that we insist that quote, “terrorists” play by the rules. What you’re saying is that the rules often create a great deal of terror. And I’m not going to deny that.

PETER: Well there’s a symmetry there, isn’t there?

BRIAN: I mean, we could talk about an African-American citizen, perhaps in the South after Reconstruction, not being certain that they could be safe walking down the street. That must’ve been a pretty terrifying feeling. Yet we don’t call that terrorism, frankly, I think, because it is sanctioned and reinforced by the customs and the laws of a large segment of the population. We are not saying that’s right, nor are we saying that that wasn’t terrifying for a large number of Americans.

JAMEEL: But how do you know, when you say “for a large segment of the population,” you’re not really talking about we. Because that’s a very good example, but for an African-American on the receiving end who may have been, in many of these cases if it’s a county or a city, half the population.

PETER: Sure.

BRIAN: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.

ED: See, I think the answer is in your question, Jameel, which is that the word is loaded. To speak of terror is to bring a whole cluster of assumptions with it that actually prevent us from talking about all the things that it is.

PETER: I mean, we know what terror is when it’s exercised by non-state actors against us, and we’re terrified. But it’s also true, and I think this is the other theme, that states manipulate feelings of terror in order t–

BRIAN: There’s no question.

PETER: –strengthen their authority and give them legitimacy. And that’s why we have to be on guard with the promiscuous use of these terms.

ED: We have to be on code orange all the time.

PETER: That’s right. Hey, Jameel, wonderful call. Thank you so much.

JAMEEL: Great, thank you very much. I love you guys. Keep it up.

BRIAN: Thanks, Jameel.

PETER: We’ve got time for one more call, and it’s going to be from Mary, right here in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mary, welcome to BackStory.

MARY: Hi, thank you.

PETER: What’s your question?

MARY: Well, I was just curious how the term “terrorist” in the American context has sort of evolved. I mean, both a foreign threat and sort of domestic subversives. And how that’s influenced the different types of counterterrorism measures.

PETER: Great question. And that introduces the foreign/domestic angle. Yeah, so where should we start? How about the 20th century?

BRIAN: Well, you asked, Mary, about how is terrorism defined. And one thing we can look to is when do terrorists begin calling themselves terrorists. And we know that they– or we think we know that the first terrorist to take credit for being a terrorist, call himself a terrorist, was this guy, Alexander Berkman, who attempted to assassinate an American industrialist, Henry Clay Frick, in 1892. And he was from central casting in terms of what terrorism would come to look like in that–

ED: Is that in Eastern Europe?

BRIAN: That’s right. That’s The eastern bureau of central casting. He was an anarchist. He was deeply secular.

You mentioned foreign terrorism, domestic terrorism. I think they come together in the period that Ed and I share from the 1880s to the 1920s, in that these people are literally coming from afar, but they are introducing these ideas to workers in the United States. Now, for you, Mary, I’d just be curious to know why are you interested in this?

ED: And is that a bomb I hear ticking in the background?

MARY: Haha, no. So I’m a graduate student studying history. And in my work, I’m looking at the Immigration Act of 1903, which was targeted at excluding immigrants who held anarchist beliefs from entering the United States. So this legislation was enacted in 1903 and then expanded in 1918 so we’re allowed to deport anyone who holds anarchist beliefs.

PETER: So we’ve been screening people for a long time. Or you might even say profiling them. And what you just said keyed off a thought with me. And that is, that’s the prelude, if you will, to the intense public religiosity in American culture, where “In God we trust” and all that stuff.

Because the anarchists had a false god. They had an idea of– that secular humanist idea– of a better world. And then we needed to assert our Christianity, or at least our belief in a god who believed in America. “In God we trust.” Yeah? Seem plausible to you, Brian?

BRIAN: I don’t know that it’s just in response to terrorism. It is, I will agree–

PETER: That was simple-minded.

BRIAN: No, no, Peter– Peter, I will agree that it’s in response to being terrified. Because we–

PETER: I agree with that.

BRIAN: We add “God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in the middle of the 1950s. And we are terrified–

PETER: Yeah, yeah, we need all the help we can get.

BRIAN: About that arsenal in the Soviet Union. And of course, what distinguishes us from both the Soviet Union and these godless anarchists? It is God. So I agree with you in general. Your point, and I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, Peter. Your point was even broader than you know.


BRIAN: Isn’t that a first, Ed?

ED: That’s a backhanded compliment if I ever heard one.

PETER: That’s the idiot savant, right?

ED: Yeah, right.

PETER: OK. Hey, Mary, wonderful call. You really got us going. And we now have a whole new view of terrorism. Thank you.

MARY: Thank you so much.

BRIAN: Thank you very much, Mary. Bye-bye.

MARY: Bye-bye.