The Long 20th Century of Terror

Marat-davidRobert Zaretsky at The American Scholar:

Terrorism is as old as recorded history. Plutarch describes how ancient Spartans would ambush and kill a few enslaved helots every year to keep the rest in a state of terror. A few centuries later, according to Josephus, the Jewish Zealots earned the moniker sicarii, or dagger men, thanks to their practice of slitting the throats of Roman officials in crowded marketplaces. The dagger was also the weapon of choice for the Assassins, a medieval Shiite sect dedicated to the destruction of both the Sunnis and the Crusaders. For more than a millennium, a Hindu offshoot known as the Thuggees strangled unsuspected travelers as offerings to the goddess Kali.

Fast forward to the modern age, when the French Revolution ushered in a century and a half of guillotines, gulags, and gas chambers. The defining trait of totalitarian states ever since, from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to Communist Russia and China, has been the systematic and sustained use of terror to maintain power. Whether used by states that capitalize on violence and repression, or by stateless movements that monopolize the attention of our media and governments (and justify wars), terror remains the order of the day.

Historians and sociologists, philosophers and political theorists have interpreted terrorism, adding a great deal to our knowledge, but less to our understanding. For the latter, perhaps we need to turn to novelists.

more here.