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Do we need to rethink terrorism?

1 November 2019 –It’s a European export and a story that starts back in the French Revolution, but as it becomes global in the 20th century, terrorism has evolved to encompass all types of political violence.

The word terrorism was first used in the French revolution, recounts Professor Julian Bourg of Boston College, who is exploring a history of terrorism as part of his research fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub, in association with Trinity’s School of Histories and Humanities.

Julian Bourg

According to Professor Bourg, ‘terrorism’ is now used as a catch-all phrase for any type of political violence, rebellion, or insurgency. One of the guiding questions during his time in Trinity is to find out how and why we came to think about terrorism the way we do.

War on Terror

While teaching students on the East coast of America in the early 2000s, Professor Bourg struggled to engage his class in the history of European ideas from the Enlightenment to the present. In a post 9/11 America, the ‘War on Terror’ was at the forefront of the public consciousness and when he asked his class what topic would interest them more, they said terrorism. They didn’t understand it, and they wanted to know where it came from, Professor Bourg said.

“America, as a younger country does not have a huge historical memory, and this generation did not have a lot of historical perspective. So, I put together this course on the history of terrorism from the perspective of ideas”, Professor Bourg explains.

But in researching this topic, he found that scholarly work was largely limited to security studies and political science; where historians had covered terrorism, they often focused on specific cases. “Nobody had written anything that could answer my questions: how and why did we come to think about the word ‘terrorism’ the way we do? And, what’s the story of the idea of terrorism since the word first appeared in the French revolution?”

In the absence of existing scholarship, those fundamental questions became a guiding force with Professor Bourg developing his own materials and resources and continuing this valuable dialogue with changing generations of students over the following 10 years.

“I think the United States learned the wrong lesson from that event in its turn towards the war on terror which continues to this day”, Professor Bourg commented. While the United States to that point had been somewhat “sheltered”, most places in the world have experienced significant political violence in the modern-era.

But the atrocities of 9/11 prompted Professor Bourg to think beyond his interest in French intellectuals and American politics and to start to think more globally about fear and political violence – and how the violence known as terrorism had impacted other societies.


Ireland is integral to telling the story of terrorism as part of Professor Bourg’s research. Exploring the Irish civil war, he is trying to pin point when British officials began referring to Irish nationalists as terrorists. Professor Bourg argues that this is when we witness national self-determination movements begin to be described in political terms as ‘terrorism’.

The events of the troubles in 1970s Northern Ireland will also play an important part in his research around terrorism, but Professor Bourg says that he is currently focusing on the period between the 1860s and into the early 20th century as it pertains to the British Empire. “It’s very clear that the British Empire during this time goes from casually to systematically describing rebellion, insurgency and subversion as terrorism”, he says, continuing “we don’t use words like that anymore today – terrorism is our catch-all word.”

Julian Bourg

To help him explore the story of Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising and through the war of independence, he is looking to the Library of Trinity College Dublin and its archives which contain the personal papers of key figures involved in the war of independence. He is interested in how different groups and agents then mobilise this term and turn the colonial language of “terrorism” against the British themselves. In interviews he gave, Professor Bourg recounts how Michael Collins refers to the Black and Tans as “instituting a reign of terror.”

Professor Bourg’s research around the question of Empire and British colonialism in understanding the evolution of the word ‘terrorism’ also brings him to India. “What’s happening in Ireland aligns with what’s happening in India and also eventually with the Arab Revolt in Palestine in the 1930s.” According to Professor Bourg, by the post-war period the British are using the word ‘terrorism’ over all others to describe anti-colonial violence and by the 1950s, the French and the Americans are looking to the British for counter-insurgency techniques.

What is also crucial as part of the story of terrorism, is how anti-communism and anti-terrorism become connected. “An important shift happens during the Russian revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks, responding to some of their critics who accuse them of using terror, say “yes we are.” Professor Bourg explains that they go on to declare a policy called Red Terror, using whatever means are necessary to win the revolution, including executions, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. However, he argues, that for the rest of the 20th century, terrorism and communism become linked both in the Stalin era of terror as well as the period of decolonisation after the Second World War, from Malaya to Vietnam. “All the way through the American war in Vietnam you find this formula: to be a terrorist is to be a communist.”

Terrorism Today

So why has this “overloaded, very powerful word” come to be used so widely? Professor Bourg argues that “almost all states in the world use counter-terror as a security paradigm – sometimes to supress diverse cultures.” If we look to China, we can see the example of the Uyghurs, and in Turkey’s campaign against the Kurds – these both fit within this “anti-terror rhetoric by states.”

But Professor Bourg argues that the wider impact on a global level is related to a decline of sustained social movements capable of pursing meaningful political and social change. “There are people in the world who are using violence and fear to further their aims but the paradigm of terrorism in also being used to police non-violent forms of social action and dissent.”

Julian Bourg

Professor Bourg also rejects the misleading dichotomy between violence and “not violence”, arguing that even non-violent social movements often engage in forms of conflict. “Social movements take risks. They are not passive.”

While in recent years, many in the West may have come to associate terrorism with religious extremism, Professor Bourg’s research suggests that the concept of terrorism as we understand it today “congealed” in the 1970s with the Troubles in Ireland, the attack on the Munich Olympics, and self-identified revolutionary campaigns of violence from Europe to the Americas to Asia.

Religion has been present at different times when we look at the history of terrorism particularly in Ireland and India, Professor Bourg states, arguing however that it is not the primary driver. In the twentieth century, religious nationalism had played a role in formulating the concept of terrorism. “However, the idea of using violence to create social change in the world, that’s what we call revolutionary violence. Religion is a grafting on top of this story that I’m telling.”

He also says that while the technologies of acts of terror have changed, the concept of terrorism hasn’t changed that much from the 1970s. “The idea that all terrorists are non-state actors becomes fixed in the 1970s and that’s the paradigm we live in today.” Professor Bourg also points out that prior to the 1970s white people in the West could be commonly considered perpetrators of terror, however since the 1970s there has been a shift in focus towards imagining terrorism as emerging from predominantly developing countries.

Ultimately, Professor Bourg is careful to avoid the turf of social scientists, concluding “as a historian, I want to tell the story of how we get to the recent past. The humanities have a lot to offer in rethinking this keyword of our time.”

Julian Bourg is associate professor of history at Boston College. He teaches European intellectual history.


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