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Terrorism as the cult of the negative

Frederick Lauritzen

3rd November 2023


Terrorism is a European concept. While violent action has existed as long as humanity, the philosophy which elevated such a moral version of annihilation to a philosophy first occurs in the thought of Robespierre during the period of the Terror (1793-1794) of the French Revolution. The Irishman, Edmund Burke, author of Considerations on the French Revolution (1791), is considered the most accurate contemporary critic of the events in France. He predicted the reign of Terror. He later wrote his consideration about Terrorists: “Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists, whom they had shut up in Prison on their last Revolution, as the Satellites of Tyranny, are let loose on the people” (To The Earl Fitzwilliam, Christmas, 1795).

Terrorism is elevated to a virtue by terrorists. Robespierre thought terror was a virtue: “If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the homeland.”

The connection between Terror and Virtue places terrorism within the realm of moral philosophy. It is reminiscent of Stoic ideas, such as those of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius,  which were popular in the eighteenth century, and which reflect Enlightened considerations. Abstract concepts applied to concrete reality. The shock felt by onlookers at what occurred in France was that such ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity were employed to the detriment and destruction of opponents. Robespierre identified the radical application of these concepts as Terror. His political party would even refer to themselves as terrorists.

These revolutionaries would consider Terror as a form of absolute freedom from previous laws, customs, and traditions. Over three hundred thousand persons were arrested and more than fifteen thousand persons were condemned to be publicly executed by beheading with the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Hegel pointed out it was an empty concept. In his Phenomenology of Spirit (1806) he says: “Universal freedom can thus produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction.” Hegel continues and points out that this universal principle has the aim to destroy the individual: “The sole and only work and deed accomplished by universal freedom is therefore death — a death that achieves nothing, embraces nothing within its grasp; for what is negated is the unachieved, unfulfilled punctual entity of the absolutely free self. It is thus the most cold-blooded and meaningless death of all, with no more significance than cleaving a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water.” Such revolutionary terrorism consists in the destruction of individual opponents for no reason other than as a vacuous cult of the negative.

Burke, Robespierre, and Hegel provide much of the conceptual framework which makes of terrorism specifically a European concept. The term 'Terrorist' no longer refers to the principal actors during the Reign of Terror in France but all those who, even today, believe that terror is a virtue.

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