They say that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. The “Charlie hebdo” atrocities of last week are many things; frightening, terrifying, atrocious, a horror, an attack on what we stand for. But, as a phenomenon they are not new, or exceptional or uniquely Muslim.
You do not have to be a young Muslim living in the 21 century to be subject to radicalisation. It has always, down the ages been possible to persuade young men (and a few – a very few young women) of all faiths and none to the believe that is noble to kill innocent people in pursuit of what they have been persuaded is a great cause. As far back as the first century, the Jewish Zealots did it against Roman rule. In the 11 century the Shia Muslim Hashashin added another word – assassin – to our vocabulary of terror by their attacks on the Persian Government of the day. In our own time we have had to deal with our own “home grown” so called “Catholic” terrorists of the IRA (who by the way killed and destroyed far more than the current wave of jihadist outrages) – as well as the outrages perpetrated by the anti-imperialist urban terrorism of young middle class white Germans in the Bader-Meinhof Gang and its successor the Rot Armee Fraktion.
Perhaps the closest parallel to what we are seeing now is the Anarchist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. All entirely “home grown” and without any kind of formal command structures, they too were a collection of “lone wolves” inspired by texts and prepared to kill and maim to abolish states and replace them with borderless self-governed entities which, leaving aside that they were based on a political idea rather than a religious one, bear a striking similarity to the caliphate model of today.
In pursuit of what they called “the propaganda of the deed”, they too killed and maimed by bomb and gun, large numbers of innocents – as well as an extraordinary number of the most powerful and prominent. On June 2 1919 simultaneous bombs attacks in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Patterson in New Jersey killed a mayor, a state legislator, three judges, two businessmen a policeman and a catholic priest. A year later perhaps the earliest “car bomb” blew up outside Wall Street killing 39 and injuring hundreds more. These were no more than the last lethal splutterings of a spate of anarchist attacks which had been going on for more than 30 years. In 1893 an anarchist bomb in Barcelona’s opera house killed or injured 72. That same year, a hungry, vagabond, socially outcast Frenchman threw a bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies. A year later another Frenchman threw a bomb hidden in a lunch box into a café killing or wounding more than 20 perfectly innocent diners. He died shouting “We who hand out death know how to take it”.
Among the very ordinary casualties of the “anarchist years”, were also some very prominent ones, too. Those assassinated included a US President, a Russian Tsar, the empress of Austria, the President of France, the King of Spain on his wedding day, the heir to the Austrian empire on the corner of a Sarajevo street, the King of Italy and countless European Ministers of the Interior.
Then, too as now the security forces complained they needed more powers to tackle the threat. After a bomb in the city, the Chicago police, even went so far as to recycle the same piece of gas piping as evidence to support the fact that they had “foiled” three subsequent bomb outrages.
None of this of course is to say that recent events are not serious. Or that we are not under threat. Or that we do not now have to respond in a serious and thoughtful manner.
But if we are to react as we should, then it is as well to remember that what we face is NOT new. And it is not unique and it is not just Islamic and we have been through this before and we should not panic or over-react. Almost every recent generation has had to respond to these kind of phenomenon.
And almost every recent generation has managed to do so without fundamentally undermining our freedoms or setting our societies at war with themselves.
It is worth recalling that throughout those same bloody anarchist years around the end of the nineteenth century, the long march towards the European ideal of states founded on individual liberty, tolerance and human rights, continued unchecked. Defending the Charlie Hebdo principle means refusing to allow either terrorism or our fear of it to deflect us from that path.
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