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Addressing Tragedy in the Classroom

Edited by Steven Mintz, University of Houston

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Background
  3. Teaching Tragedy
  4. The Concept of Tragedy
  5. Religion
  6. Literature and Terror
  7. Alternatives to Violence
  8. Lesson Plans
  9. Chronologies
  10. Glossary
  11. Web Resources
  12. Essential Readings


Terrorism in Historical Perspective -- Steven Mintz, University of Houston

Terrorism is not an invention of modern times. Our vocabulary makes this abundantly clear. Such words as "zealot," "assassin," and "thug" reveal that the use of terror as a political weapon has a long history. Our word "zealot," for example, comes from the first century Jewish Zealots who assassinated Roman officials in a failed attempt to end Roman rule in Palestine. The Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada in 73 A.D.

Our word "assassin" comes from imaginative accounts of a Muslim sect by such writers as the historian of the Crusades, William of Tyre, and the explorer Marco Polo. According to these accounts, members of the sect engaged in acts of political murder in Persia and the Middle East from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries after using the drug hashish. Our word "thug" comes from the name given to social bandits in India who were followers of the Indian goddess Kali, and were accused of committing murders from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Our word "terrorism" comes from the French Revolution, when terror was used as an instrument of state policy. Terror was employed to eliminate counterrevolutionary elements in the population, save France from anarchy and military defeat, and suppress hoarding and profiteering. Unapologetic about the use of terror to eliminate political enemies, Robespierre said that "Terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible." An estimated 40,000 people were sentenced to death during the Terror in France. (Much earlier in history, the Assyrian Empire (ca. 900 - 600 BC) is reputed to have attempted to hold its empire together through terror).

Modern terrorism arose in Tsarist Russia in the 1870s, and terrorist tactics were subsequently adopted by some dissident groups in the Ottoman and British empire and by some anarchists in the United States and Western Europe. Late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century terrorism typically took the form of assassination attempts on heads of state and bomb attacks on public buildings. Between 1880, the president of France, a Spanish prime minister, an Austrian empress, an Italian king, and two U.S. presidents were assassinated. Attempts were also made on the life of a German chancellor and emperor.

As the military historian Sir Michael Howard has noted, the terrorists' objectives were three-fold:

Terrorism was generally opposed by Marxists, who regarded it as counterproductive and as contrary to the notion that change was best accomplished through revolutionary action by the masses.

One question that scholars have debated is how the nature of terrorism has shifted over time. Scholarly research has demonstrated that terrorism is not linked to a specific ideological orientation. Terrorist violence has had many different motivations.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, terrorism was generally ideologically inspired. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian in 1914 marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of terrorism: a first phase of separatist, anti-colonial terror, which could also be seen in the Ottoman and British empires.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of yet another form of terrorism, right-wing fascist terror, as Hitler's brownshirts and Mussolini's blackshirts used murder and violent intimidation to achieve political power and attack specific elements in the population. Fascist dictatorships and the Soviet Union offer the first modern examples of state-sponsored terrorism during peacetime, as government authorities began to dispatch assassins and saboteurs to dispatch their enemies.

A second wave of nationalist anti-colonial terror emerged after World War II, when societies as diverse as Algeria, Kenya, and Israel achieved independence in part as a result of terrorist tactics employed by nationalist groups. During the early postwar period, terror was not confined to any particular group of people or part of the world. Acts of terror took place in such disparate societies as Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Northern Ireland, Peru, and Sri Lanka.

Struggles against colonial domination led to a romanticization of revolutionary violence, an attitude that found its most influential expression in Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The Martinique-born Fanon, who had participated in the Algerian struggle against France, wrote "violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect." The Algerian struggle underscored the effectiveness of attacks against civilians.

Following the successful use of terrorism by the FLN in Algeria, terrorism was adopted by other nationalist and separatist groups, including some Basques, Irish, Quebecois, and African and Latin American revolutionaries. In the case of Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Latin America, terror tactics were also utilized by the nationalists' and the revolutionaries' militant opponents. This period also saw the growth of government- sanctioned or government-tolerated death squads in Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Spain.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of new forms of revolutionary terror in the affluent West, when groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany, Action Directe in France, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States kidnapped and assassinated people whom they blamed for economic exploitation and political repression. Many members of these groups were radicalized by the Vietnam war and incidents of police brutality, though the actual size of these groups tended to be quite small. It is estimated that the Red Army Faction only had 20 to 30 hard core members and some 200 sympathizers. The worst violence in the West occurred in Italy, where there were 40 deaths in 1973, 27 in 1974, and 120 in 1980. To suppress terrorism, Italy imprisoned some 1,300 leftist and 238 rightwing terrorists by 1983.

Terrorism emerged on the world stage with the 1972 murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, in an effort to end Israeli occupation of their territories and establish a Palestinian homeland. The most feared group, the Abu Nidal organization, which split from the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1974, had approximately 500 hard-core members.

More recently, the Aum sect in Japan, which was responsible for the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack, and the radical wing of the militia movement in the United States, raised public awareness of the threat of domestic terrorism in world's most prosperous countries. In recent years there have been outbursts of public alarm about cyber-terrorists, narco-terrorists and eco-terrorists.

Two questions that have preoccupied scholars of contemporary terrorism is whether the nature of terrorism has undergone a fundamental change in recent years and whether terrorism has been successful as a political tactic. Has terrorism shifted in its roots, methods, and goals? Those who argue that terrorism has changed contend that it has changed in three fundamental ways:

According to the U.S. Department of State, there were 189 state-sponsored acts of terrorism in 1987, compared to no more than 15 in 1998. Four of the countries that regularly appear on the State Department list of terrorist sponsors-Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Syria-have not been accused of involvement in international terrorist attacks in more than ten years.

In contrast to groups such as the Japanese Red Army, Germany's Red Army Faction, the Irish Republican Army, and Italy's Red Brigade, which had a clearly defined leadership structure, the newer groups appear to be more decentralized and loosely knit. The newer groups also appear to be less willing to issue communiqués explaining and taking credit for their attacks. But these groups may be larger than their predecessors. Whereas the Abu Nidal organization reportedly had about 500 members, the Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaida network is reputed to have 4-5,000 supporters.

Loners also appear to be more involved in terrorist acts than in the past. These include violent anti-abortionists and individuals such as the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh, who are not members of established organizations, as well as xenophobes and racists engaged in white supremacist and neo-Nazi violence.

Revolutionary and separatist movements engaging in terroristic acts have declined in recent year, while religious groups make up a growing number of the organizations that have been identified as perpetrators of international terror. In 1980, just two of 64 international terror groups were considered to be religiously motivated. In 1995, the figure was 26 out of 56 organizations. There is concern among many scholars that as religious motivation has increased, the goals of terrorists have become more grandiose and they have grown less selective and discriminate in their targets.

According to the U.S. State Department, the largest number of terrorist acts occurred in 1987, when 666 attacks occurred. In 1998, in contrast, there were 273 terrorist attacks, the smallest number since 1971.

Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the deadliest act of international terrorism was the 1985 bombing of an Air Indian jet by Sikh militants, killing 329 people. In second place was the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 213 people were killed. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Augmenting public concern is the availability of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons.

These generalizations, however, may obscure as much as they reveal. During the days surrounding the September 11th attack, there were at least three other attacks that might be described as acts of terror, none of which were religiously motivated.

Many generalizations about terrorism defy simple stereotypes and generalizations. Profilers typically described terrorists as impoverished, poorly educated and impressionable youths from refugee camps. But in fact many of the accused World Trade Center attackers were mature, often highly educated and well-trained adults, many with families, who had spent years in Western Europe or the United States.

Has terrorism been successful? Terrorism has been most successful when its goal has been to end colonial domination, in part been wearing down a colonial power's will and partly by winning international recognition for the validity of the perpetrators' aims. It has been less successful in toppling existing regimes.

Nevertheless, terrorism has frequently been successful in bringing about fundamental political change. The most notable examples include South Africa, where the African National Congress now governs, and in Quebec, where separatists-who murdered a Quebec cabinet minister in 1970-attained provincial power.

While there can be no doubt that terrorists acts have in certain instances contributed to the victory of a particular cause and even altered the course of history, it is not at all clear that terrorism was the main reason why certain causes succeeded. Nor is it obvious that political violence achieved the specific ends that its perpetrators sought. It may well be that non-violent means would have been more effective.

For additional background information on the history of terrorism, see:

David Greenberg, "The Changing Face of Terrorism," Slate, September 13, 2001

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 1999)

Sir Michael Howard, "Terrorism Has Always Fed Off Its Response," The Times (London), September 14, 2001


Although today formally a state with established borders, for most of its history Afghanistan has been a land between great states, in which most of its population lived lives not much influenced by the preoccupations of settled agriculture or established central state bureaucracy. Loyalty and identity for these people would be likely to come from the particular--locality, family, and tribe--or the universal--faith, most likely Islam.

Located at the intersection of lands today called the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia, Afghanistan was crossed since about the time of Christ by the famous Silk Road, along which trade caravans traveled between China and the Eastern Mediterranean. It was home to many semi-nomadic warrior peoples. When Afghan tribes were strong and united, they were able to threaten, invade, and occasionally rule neighboring settled civiliztions. Examples include Mahmud of Ghazna's late 10th century raids into India and mid-18th century Afghan rule of Persia. At other times parts of tehAfghan lands were ruled or otherwise dominated by neighboring great empires, including the Persians several times and India's great 4th and 3rd century B.C.E. Mauryan empire.

While in early times they were influenced by both Buddhism and then Hinduism, by the 9th century, more and more of Afghanistan's tribes had become Muslim. Today, Afghanistan's 25 million people-who speak 34 different languages--are 84 percent Sunni Muslim, and 15 percent Shi'ite.

Afghanistan was divided in the 16th and 17th centuries between Mughals of India and Safavids of Persia, and in 19th century, it was both disputed area and a buffer zone between British India and the Russian Empire.

The 20th century saw increasing tensions as its last dynasty (begun in 1929 by Mohammad Nadir Shah) instituted modernizing reforms from above similar to those most successfully done in the region by Ataturk's Turkey. These reforms produced resistence and resentment from all sectors of the society, not only from those wishing a return to traditional Islam but also those seeking a modern socialist state and society.

Afghanistan's recent history has been marked by war, drought, and famine. Its politics has been characterized by bitter power struggles and radical shifts in ideology. A 1978 coup by the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan provoked repeated uprisings. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to support the People's Democratic Party and to secure its southern border and trade routes. Support for the mujahedin, the Islamic resistance to the Soviet Union and its Afghan allies, came from Britain, China, France, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

Fighting and disorder followed the Soviet withdrawal. In 1994, the Taliban (a word that means religious students) took the southern city of Kandahar and captured Kabul in 1996, aided by a promise to end corruption, establish a pure Islamic state, and enforce Islamic law. As interpreted by the Taliban, Islamic law required the death penalty for adultery, prostitution, and women who appeared in public with men who were not family members. To purify Afghani society, the Taliban prohibited alcohol, lipstick, television, movies, and music and musical instruments. It also prohibited women from attending school.

In March 2001, in response to an edict calling for the destruction of any pre-Islamic statues, the Taliban demolished two giant Buddhas carved into a mountainside in the fifth century. In May, the Taliban announced a plan to require Hindus wear yellow star badges in public. After a public outcry, this edict was altered to require Hindus to carry special identification cards.


1960s and 1970s

During its Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, the United States funds an extensive system of dams and irrigation canals in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Valley to produce cotton for Asian markets. This region is now the world's largest producer of opium poppies for heroin.


Muhammad Daud, Afghanistan's former prime minister, who had been deposed in 1963, leads a coup that deposes the king and ends the monarchy that had been established in 1747.


Daud is overthrown by the pro-Soviet People's Democratic Party of Afhanistan.


The Soviets attempt to prop up the pro-Soviet government and name Babrak Karmal president.


The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan in an effort to prevent the overthrow of a Soviet-backed Communist regime. Rebel fighters known as the mujahedin launch a guerrilla war against the Soviet Red Army and get support from Britain, China, France, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.


The Soviet Union begins to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Withdrawal is completed in 1989.


Civil war erupts among the mujahedin factions vying for power.


Mujahedin guerrillas defeat the Soviet-backed Afghan army. More than 1 million Afghans (out of a population of roughly 20 million) are estimated to have died in the conflict.


Mujahedin factions agree on the formation of a government with Burhanuddin Rabbani installed as president, but factional infighting continues.


The Taliban, with strong support from the Pashtuns, an ethnic group in the South, wrests control of most of Afghanistan from its opponents.


The Taliban take Kabul. Exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden receives refuge in Afghanistan.


U.S. launches missile attack on bin Laden training bases in retaliation for bombings of American embassies in Africa.


U.S. and subsequently the UN impose trade sanctions against the Taliban for harboring bin Laden.


UN sanctions are tightened.


Ahmed Shah Massood, leader of the opposition Northern Alliance, is fatally injured in a bombing on September 9.

Page 3: Teaching Tragedy

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