Thinking about Anarchism

State Terrorism


Terrorism is one of the favourite pejoratives of our society. I don't wish to dwell on the old cliché that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" which seems pretty self-evident. Lets just accept the term for now and use the most inclusive and most obvious definition- that terrorism is the use of violence with the object of striking fear and horror into a population to achieve political objectives. So it seems reasonable to classify the murderous attack on ordinary people in Madrid on March 10th as an act of terrorism and that is precisely what we should call it.

We are all familiar with this form of terrorism-the nihilistic and desperate act of the suicide bomber, arsonist or assassin. We are rarely asked to consider the actions of various governments as terrorism. But if we examine history and look at current events in the world we are confronted by a multitude of examples of state terrorism.

If the past century teaches us anything at all it that the various competing states and empires of the world do not recognise any limit to the amount of torture, cruelty, fear and destruction they are willing to inflict on their own or other state's populations. The history of the modern state is bound up with the history of the calculated use of terror through political repression and war. The most obvious and extreme examples of this are the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulags but what should we call the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the bombing of Dresden, Coventry, Hiroshima and Nagasaki except terrorism? The pointless slaughter of millions of conscripts and civilians in wars from Flanders field to Vietnam has always involved state terrorism by whatever means the state deems necessary and at whatever cost they think ordinary people should pay.

Contemporary events in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more recently and specifically in Falluja show that the phenomenon of the systematic use of state terror against civilian populations by "civilised" states is flourishing. Through the blizzard of falsification and lies we can just about discern the true state of things in Iraq-the electricity and sewage systems have been bombed and the civilian population is terrorised and kept in bondage.

If we accept the definition of terrorism as being use of large-scale violence on a population, we can go one step further and include the whole bloody history of colonisation, slavery and empire as state terrorism. For example in 1876 and 1899 in India the country was swept by massive famines. The immediate cause was natural but it was the reaction of the British State, which led to the real harvest of death. As in Ireland in 1845 their reaction was to extol the virtues of Laisez-faire capital-ism. This lead to spiralling prices and increasing grain exports while millions died.

The whole modern "Third World" has its origins in the massive famines that swept Africa at the turn of the century. Far from do-ing any thing to help, the British, Portuguese, German, Belgian and French governments saw an opportunity. They calmly stood back while two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, namely starvation and disease, struck down millions.

As anarchists we believe that state terrorism is a direct consequence of the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. One of the primary functions of the state is to defend the status quo and that is why powerful states spend so much on the machinery of war and death. Any state will resort to terrorising its own people or other nations if it feels the interests of the elite are threatened. As we have seen with the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay a powerful state like the US will even dress up brutality as their moral right if needs be. It is not enough that such elites can determine the way we live and even the way we should die- they have also asserted their right to a monopoly over vio-lence and a monopoly on the right to moralise about violence.

So terrorism can come in many forms but the question remains, which is more vicious -a small group with masks or bombs or an armed, wealthy state bent on the destruction and colonisation of another?

by Conor McLoughlin

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This edition is No81 published in May 2004

Cover of WS81