Thursday, December 11, 2008

The "War on Terror" and the "Reign of Terror"

A stray comment at Swords Crossed has driven me to read up on the French Reign of Terror. Upon reading quotes by Maximilien Robespierre, I recalled a conversation from earlier today with an Indian friend regarding the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. He asserted that the Indian government had made a mistake in repealing some laws relating to terrorism (apparently,the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act of 1987, which allows prolonged detention without trial and expired in 1995 following accusations that it was being abused; alternatively he may have been referring to the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance passed in 2001, updated in 2002, and repealed in 2004 after assertions of abuse).

Anyway, his basic attitude was "terrorists don't deserve procedural rights"--of course, assuming that the government is rigorous and honest in its identification of "terrorists". I've seen this same attitude in Americans who say that they wouldn't care if the government methodically tapped our phones to gather information about terrorism. Today, I saw the same basic attitude reflected in quotes from Robespierre, the architect of la Terreur. For instance:

The revolutionary government has to summon extraordinary activity to its aid precisely because it is at war. It is subjected to less binding and less uniform regulations, because the circumstances in which it finds itself are tempestuous and shifting, above all because it is compelled to deploy, swiftly and incessantly, new resources to meet new and pressing dangers.

The principle concern  of constitutional government is civil liberty; that of revolutionary government, public liberty. Under a constitutional government little more is required than to protect the individual against abuses by the state, whereas revolutionary government is obliged to defend the state itself against the factions that assail it from every quarter.

To good citizens revolutionary government owes the full protection of the state; to the enemies of the people it owes only death.

These ideas are in themselves sufficient to explain the origin and the nature of the laws that we term revolutionary. Those who call them arbitrary or tyrannical are foolish or perverse sophists who seek to reconcile white with black and black with white: they prescribe the same system for peace and war, for health and sickness; or rather their only object is to resurrect tyranny and destroy the fatherland.

 On Revolutionary Government (1793) in The Human Rights Reader

He goes on with the accusations of treason, and concludes by  calling for the reorganization of a special court, the Revolutionary Tribunal. Replace "revolutionary government" with "wartime government" and I wouldn't be able to distinguish this terrorist's rhetoric from George W. Bush's -- though in modern America there is no such thing as peace (In the 63 years since the end of WWII, we've had only 11 years in which we were not involved in either the Cold War or the War on Terror--and during all but two of those years we were at war with Iraq.)

From Wikiquote:

Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs. 


We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people's enemies by terror. 

I like to think that Americans are less susceptible to these rationalizations of power than the 18th-century French were, but given how far we've gone when faced with a threat that is totally insignificant relative to what they faced (or even what the US faced at that time), I may lose some of that faith.

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