It can be argued that there are two separate ways of using terror as a weapon; one is to maintain the status quo and the other is to change something, usually in terms of a political and/or economic regime.
The question is, does the use of terror achieve these ends in either case?
The answer, surprisingly, seems to be ‘yes’ in the case of one and ‘no’ in the case of the other, while the two are nevertheless conjoined. Let’s look at each case separately.
The use of terror as a weapon is by no means exclusive to the underground movements associated with it in modern times. It has been used throughout history by governments and occupying powers to keep populations in check and maintain the rule of law, regardless of how harsh those laws may have been.
The extraordinary brutality of many of these attempts at control have been well documented since Roman times, although it’s interesting to note that few, if any, authorities have ever applied the epithet ‘terrorism’ to these activities. It is reserved almost exclusively for those who have opposed the status quo through violence and who continue to do so. However the purpose here is to examine whether violent measures actually achieved anything other than a temporary respite from the will of the people prevailing. History suggests the answer is ‘no’.
For example, when, in 1819, magistrates in Manchester, England, ordered cavalry to charge a peaceful gathering of 60,000 men, women and children at Peterloo Fields, resulting in 11 deaths and over 400 injured, did this prevent the repeal of the Corn Laws? History gives us the answer.
Similarly, did the largest standing army the world had ever seen, deployed concurrently with summary executions and concentration camps, prevent the dissolution of the British Empire and the establishment of independent and self-governing states? Again, clearly it did not.
Nor did the use of napalm and agent orange bring about a result in Asia that satisfied American interests, and the hanging of men and women in 18th century Ireland for wearing the color green also failed to achieve the desired result for the occupying power.
There is nothing benign about empires. They are, by their very nature, dictatorships whose will must be first imposed and later enforced as those who seek to break free from them hit back. The sheer cost of maintaining a military presence, coupled with a reluctance on the part of the occupying country’s own population to continue its support for the government involved, is usually sufficient to eventually bring about the regime’s downfall.
A Force For Change
The corollary of this argument, if acceptable, must therefore be that terrorism by elements of the local population does, in many cases, bring about change largely because it can turn the tide of popular opinion against the status quo, thereby bringing about its downfall at the ballot box. For as long as there is democracy in the home country of the occupying force, this is always likely to be the case.
To visit Ireland once again, an examination of the history of that land reveals atrocities on both sides, and for a long time successive British governments were able to maintain control using both regular forces and mercenaries in the form of the “Black and Tans”. They also enjoyed popular support at home and the political machinations that resulted in partition in 1922 were seen by the majority of the British people as an economic and political triumph.
It was not until the Provisional IRA brought the struggle for home rule to the British mainland that the electorate began to sit up and take serious note of what had been, up until then, something that was happening in another country. As the body count rose, so too did the clamour for change, a cry taken up by the media who, up until that point, had remained faithful to the government’s position of being in the ‘right’, while the rebelling forces were in the ‘wrong’.
It is arguable that the Conservative government’s hard line on Northern Ireland played a considerable part in their downfall, ushering in the more liberal regime of Tony Blair who sought and gained a settlement with the Irish interests involved in the struggle. The bombers stopped bombing, the political prisons opened their doors and the troops went home, back to the arms of their loved ones who had fought long and hard for their return.
Was this a triumph of democracy or terrorism? Surely, if anything, it indicates that change is brought about by the will of the people, but that the people’s will can in itself be changed by events that threaten the wellbeing and safety of the population. If terrorism changes anything, it changes attitudes and popular opinion. That change, regardless of political or economic interests, is ultimately the force that will determine the maintenance or otherwise of the status quo.