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FOR most of us terrorism means the Birmingham pub bombings, the Lockerbie disaster and now al-Qaida's murderous attack on the World Trade Center. But terror as a weapon in the hands of ruthless men has been with us for much longer than that.

It has been used by governments and by gangs, religious fanatics and political revolutionaries, by guerrillas, the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan.

As Andrew Sinclair demonstrates in his brisk and chilling history of terrorism, An Anatomy of Terror (Macmillan pounds 18.99), it is not just about the 22 airliners blown out of the sky between 1969 and 1996.

It goes back to ancient Greeks and Romans, to the Zealots of the Holy Land and the Crusaders who wreaked havoc in the Middle Ages.

The weapons of terror include assassination, ambush, massacre, rape and torture, and the only thing that ever seems to change is that the horrors get worse and the numbers of victims grow to obscene new levels.

Tempting as it is to dismiss them all as fanatics and madmen, the picture is far more complicated. After all, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Hereward the Wake may have been a heroic resistance leader in the eyes of the Saxons but he was a terrorist to the Normans, while a terrorist leader can be transformed into a statesman if his movement triumphs and seizes power.

Jews were the victims of unspeakable state terror in the Holocaust but that does not prevent Israel from using similar tactics.

They condemn Palestinian suicide bombers but Israel's own past includes key players like the Irgun and the Stern gang - terrorist organisations by any definition.

In 1946 they were responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. A year later they executed 10 British soldiers. Or, from our perspective, they murdered our men in cold blood.

The Israeli terrorists also carried out the terrible massacre of the entire Arab village of Deir Yassin.

But two terrorist leaders - Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir - would later become prime ministers, taking their places on the world stage.

Our own record is hardly blameless.

The Pilgrim Fathers and the waves of settlers who followed them to America used terror tactics to subdue native Indian tribes and there was even talk of deliberately infecting them with smallpox in an early example of bio-terror.

The modern era of terror owes much to the bloodstained French Revolution.

Robespierre and his gang justified their ruthless reign of terror as necessary to sustain the revolution but it also claimed their lives in the end.

Indeed, one of the recurring themes in this grim book is the frequency with which terror destroys both friend and foe and regularly blows up in the face of its practitioners.

The huge sweep of Sinclair's book takes in the Assassins of the Middle East and the strangling Thuggees of India, anarchists and Bolsheviks, German Nazis and Italian fascists.

It is sometimes difficult to know where to draw the line on what is and is not terrorism, though.

Armies, for instance, once routinely used the threat of flogging and death to maintain discipline and obedience in their own ranks. Could that be construed as terrorism of a certain kind?

Sometimes the consequences of one terrorist act can be incalculable.

When an unknown nonentity called Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914 he provoked a world war that cost millions of lives.

The IRA and its republican predecessors have been responsible for 150 years of bombings, shootings and outright insurrection.

In the 19th century there was even a group plotting to blow up Parliament with nitro-glycerine manufactured in a secret factory near Birmingham.

But, as Sinclair points out, there have been atrocities on both sides over the years.

Chairman Mao, Stalin and Hitler all used terror to maintain their empires - just as Saddam Hussein does today, using poison gas against his own people.

Hitler did not just terrorise his enemies with his acts of unspeakable brutality but even used the weapon against his own supporters. In 1934 he sent the Blackshirts to destroy his one-time accomplice, Ernst Rohm, and 700 Brownshirts.

But such atrocities did not die with Hitler.

You only have to look at the massacres committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian killing fields.

The Vietnam war reminded us of how thin the line between right and wrong was. Remember when US troops savagely massacred men, women and children in the village of My Lai?

Things become even more confused when we consider nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Are ours any less weapons of terror than those held by other countries?

Now, as Sinclair points out, we are seeing the return of religious fanaticism of the kind that once wrenched the world apart centuries ago.

Perhaps the most dispiriting thing in this book is the revelation of our apparently unbreakable addiction to violence.

The bleak bottom line is that terrorism is always going to be with us no matter how many wars Blair and Bush declare on the gunmen.


TIMETABLE OF TERROR... the horror of Auschwitz, British soldiers go over the top in the First World War, the Mayflower which brought the Pilgrim Fathers to America, religious fanatics armed and dangerous and American soldiers during the Vietnam War
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Mar 2, 2003
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