Margaret MacMillan: Terrorism almost fully died out in the 20th century. It could burn out again

The guns had scarcely stopped firing in before the media were filled with attempts to understand what had happened. It is an understandable reaction even if it is too soon to make sense of the mass killings on Friday night. Something so shocking, so brutal, cries out for explanation. And that it came as Parisians were relaxing before the weekend, at a football stadium, in ordinary restaurants and bars, and at a nightclub filled with an audience enjoying an American rock group, and not in war-torn Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, has jolted societies across Europe and North America. The very ordinariness of the evening and the place stand out in sharp contrast to what happened. The pools of blood, the overturned chairs, the shattered glass, above all the dead and the wounded: we still are not used to such sights in the developed .

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Although Islamic State has claimed responsibility we do not yet know the how. What does seem clear from the calm and methodical way in which the killers loaded and fired their guns is that they had received military training, presumably somewhere in the areas under IS control. We do not yet know and may never why those young men chose to commit mass murder and die themselves.

In the next few days and weeks there will be many attempts to find explanations just as there have been after previous atrocities. Poverty is often singled out but that does not account for the fact that so often, as with 9/11, the perpetrators have come from the middle classes and had solid professions. Religion is blamed but the connection of many previous terrorists to Islam has frequently been tenuous. When two would-be jihadists left the United Kingdom a couple of years ago for the Middle East they took with them a copy of Islam for Dummies.

What we can say is that we are now seeing the dark side of globalization. The spread of information, ideas and above all images, are powerful tools of radicalization. Young men and women can identify with causes thousands of miles away. Most stop there, but a handful select themselves as warriors with a mission, even if it means they and others will die in its name. Every society has its maladjusted who, for whatever reason, feel themselves neglected, humiliated or marginalized. The cause does not make them radical; rather they are in search of something that will make them feel important and powerful. That could be the radical variants of Islam — or Christianity or Buddhism — today, or, as in the 19th and 20th centuries, revolutionary socialism or fascism.

The reasons for which people are prepared to commit terrorist acts against civilians have varied over time but itself is not new. In the years before the First World War anarchists in Europe and North America threw bombs, blew up railway tracks and assassinated key political figures from President McKinley of the United States to the Tsar of Russia. Their goal, as much as they had one, was to destroy what they saw as a corrupt and decadent capitalist society. One anarchist who calmly finished his meal in a restaurant in Paris and then shot a fellow diner said simply ‘I shall not be striking an innocent if I strike the first bourgeois that I meet.’ And like the terrorists of today those of the past frequently radicalised themselves. The young conspirators who succeeded in killing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo ordered and read the works of the leading anarchists of the time. Gavrilo Princip, who fired the fatal shots, died without showing the slightest remorse for the catastrophe his act had brought on European civilization.

The terrorists of the past, like their counterparts today, were well aware of the disturbing effects of random acts of violence. In Barcelona, a bomb at a performance of an opera which killed 29 innocent people served to terrify the local population. In Paris in the early 1890s a series of attacks on the cafes, business offices, or the French parliament, spread panic and for a time Parisians avoided public spaces. Terrorists then as now knew the value of publicity both to call attention to their cause and to spread fear. Where in the past terrorists used handbills and letters to the newspapers, today they have access to a much greater range of techniques from tweets to professionally made videos such as the ones ISIS makes of its atrocities. And in the past as now there was the copy-cat effect. Terrorists imitated earlier atrocities perhaps to demonstrate their own revolutionary determination. In a chilling recent article in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik explores the ways in which successive students carrying out mass shootings in American high schools have consciously modelled themselves on the Columbine murders right down to getting the same type of weapons and wearing similar clothes.

As we think about the events in Paris and wonder what is to come next, it is not much comfort to think that we have been through such things before. While history cannot offer us clear lessons as to how to respond, it can perhaps help us to avoid making some mistakes. We should remember the importance of good security and policing. Already this year effective surveillance and co-operation among police forces have uncovered and foiled several terrorist plots in Europe. Governments have to be careful not to act hastily in ways that can be counter-productive. An indiscriminate crackdown on, for example, all mosques and Muslim organizations, runs the risk of alienating a significant community.

The aim of terrorists is not just to panic societies but to sow divisions among them. Already in some of the responses in France and across Europe we are hearing demands that immigration from the Middle East be halted. An Egyptian passport found near the stadium was initially said to have belonged to one of the terrorists. It now appears to have belonged to a man who was killed. Whatever the truth people are already jumping to conclusions. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front Party, is suggesting that France needs to drastically tighten its border controls and that French society is under threat from its own Muslims. If such reactions take strong hold in France and elsewhere across Europe, there is a grave danger that moderate and even secular Muslims, which most in Europe are, will feel themselves no longer part of European society.

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Removing the safe havens for terrorists — in parts of Syria, Libya or Iraq for example — might help but there will undoubtedly be other parts of the world where they can take shelter. Unfortunately, I suspect, bringing to an end the many conflicts, in the Middle East, Central Asia or Africa, which currently provide justification for terrorists to carry out their crimes, will not automatically end this current wave of terrorism. If history is any guide it will take time to burn itself out. While terrorism never completely went away in the middle of the 20th century — think of the IRA’s acts or those of the Basque nationalists — it diminished sharply. For some reason, whether the recognition even among would-be terrorists that terror was not achieving its ends or that the public disapproved of its methods, terrorism was unfashionable. A cynical explanation is that small acts of terrorism got overtaken and made irrelevant by the mass violence of two world wars. In the last decades the psychological barriers against indiscriminate violence have again broken down and we are going to have to live with the consequences for some time to come. At best we can mitigate its immediate impact through increased vigilance. In the longer run we can work to understand better what it is that turns disaffected young people into murderers and suicide bombers.

Margaret MacMillan is a historian and author whose books include Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace. She is currently the warden of St Antony’s College and a professor of International History at the University of Oxford

About Margaret MacMillan, Special to National Post