The Narodnik revolutionary Vera Figner once described terrorism as a ‘very sombre form struggle.’ Figner spent twenty years in prison for her part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II – the most high-profile assassination of the nineteenth century and an act that contained many of the essential features of revolutionary terrorism, so she knew how sombre it could be.
For Figner and her idealistic comrades in the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) – a name that owed more to their own definition of what the people’s will ought to be than to their own popularity – small group terrorism was a political tactic that they hoped would be able to produce results far beyond their actual strength or capabilities.
In striking directly at the most important symbol of the Tsarist autocracy, they hoped to provoke their more powerful opponent into a vicious counterreaction that would radicalize a wider peasant constituency that more longterm methods of agitprop had failed to reach as a result of Tsarist repression.
The reaction came, but it did not produce the results they wanted. Their movement was destroyed, the Tsar’s assassins were executed, imprisoned or exiled, and the peasantry and working classes remained largely unmoved and even disgusted by the murder of the ‘little father.’
Figner and the Narodniks would almost certainly have been horrified by last week’s vicious assault in Paris. Though no less willing to die than the druggy dimwitted butchers who struck down so many young lives on Friday, they themselves did not believe in ‘soft targets’ or the deliberate murder of civilians. Nevertheless the essential dynamic of provocation and counter-reaction is not that different between Figner’s era and our own.
What has changed is the lengths that Daesh and other groups like it are prepared to go in order to achieve the reaction they want. Stripped of its pseudo-religious exterminatory justifications, the mass murder perpetrated by the Daesh suicide murder squad last Friday was intended to provoke a more powerful enemy into one of two choices a) either France would withdraw completely from its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, in which case Daesh could claim victory or b) it could become more militarily engaged and bring about the global polarisation between Muslims and ‘Crusaders’ that would bring more recruits for the Islamic State ‘caliphate.’
The second possibility also applies to Muslims in France and the rest of Europe. It is difficult to imagine that Daesh did not hope for a racist backlash that would help destroy Europe as a home for Muslims.
In other words, this is mass slaughter as politico-social engineering, intended to bring about a ‘them and us’ confrontation in which there can be no bystanders. Given such intentions, you might think that the sensible response of a state that wishes to avoid such an outcome would be to resist the temptation to enter into a confrontation on terms chosen by its provocateurs.
But one of the most perennially morbid aspects of terrorism as a form of political struggle is the ease and readiness with which states respond to such provocations in exactly the way that their terrorist enemies would like them to respond. This is partly because terrorism is often as useful to the state as the state is to terrorism, and because even the most powerful states often seem to have an almost instinctive set of responses when they are attacked in this way.
By striking at the population rather than the state itself, terrorism attempts to make the state look weak, and challenge one of the main justifications for its existence – its ability to protect its own population. By carrying out ‘spectacular’ acts of mass slaughter intended to generate maximum media attention, whether flying planes into towers or murdering people at a rock concert or blowing up the King David Hotel, its protagonists deny the state the possibility of any commensurate target that could have a similar effect.
Analysts like the French criminologist Alain Bauer might tell The Daily Beast that “If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa’ – as if an act of mass murder in Paris had suddenly made it morally acceptable to obliterate an entire city – but if France were to do something like this it would lose far more than it could ever gain.
States have the right and the obligation to protect their populations from attacks such as the one we saw last Friday. But such a response, to be effective, needs to be calibrated, well-thought out, longterm and strategic. It should recognize what is achievable and what is not. Even in cases where such a response might require political and military action, states should attempt to weaken their enemies without playing into their hands. They should seek to understand who their enemies are, and what they want and how they are trying to get it, and not invent false or irrelevant narratives about their hatred of our values and our freedoms.
They should concentrate on law enforcement, not ‘war’, because terrorism tends to feed off war and draw a kind of grandiosity and justification from it. States should also avoid engaging in terror and illegal actions themselves. They should take responsibility for their own bad policies, inasmuch as such policies may have contributed to the attacks against them, and seek to replace such policies with good ones. Where there is bitterness, resentment and alienation inside their own societies that they are responsible for, they should seek to reduce it rather than inflame it.
They should avoid the temptation to use terrorist groups as instruments of statecraft, either directly or indirectly, because such groups may well bite them as well as their intended targets.
All this should be obvious, especially if we look back on the disastrous consequences of the various ‘wars on terror’ of the last fifteen years. Yet still Francois Hollande pledges to wage ‘pitiless war’ against ISIS, as if all the wars and pseudo-wars of the last fifteen years have not been pitiless. Still Labour MPs berate Jeremy Corbyn because he won’t approve of shoot-to-kill in any circumstances and seek to bump the country into war without any coherent idea of what such a war is intended to achieve or what its political outcome might be.
Such responses demonstrate once again why terrorism is too important a subject to be left to the state, or in the hands of the tough guy politicians, and why civil society should also become part of the conversation about what to do about it.
Because no one can believe that Daesh/ISIS will be defeated by putting flowers in their rifle barrels, but in the end that struggle must be waged primarily by Syrians and Iraqis who have a viable political alternative they are prepared to fight for and countries they feel they can belong to, and I really doubt whether another ‘pitiless’ but mindless war will bring that outcome any closer – or make Paris any safer.