[Some edits and additions in response to Robert’s comments, 26/6 and 27/6]
In 1997 Francesco Cossiga was interviewed for a book called Una sparatoria tranquilla (mentioned back here). Cossiga was one of the leading figures of Italy’s old establishment – a former President of the Republic, a former Minister of the Interior, an unapologetic defender of the covert anti-Communist Gladio network. The interesting thing about this interview was the identity of the interviewer: Francesco Piccioni, a former member of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades).
The BR were a left-wing ‘armed struggle’ group – one of 40 or 50 groups which flourished in Italy in the 1970s. The BR were the largest and longest-lived of all the groups. Between 1970 and the mid-eighties, over 900 people were arrested and charged with BR membership; more conservative estimates suggest that around 400 people were members of the group at some point, half of them joining in the group’s peak years of 1978 and 1979. The armed struggle ‘scene’ as a whole was much bigger than the BR – groups other than the BR carried out around 3,000 actions in total, as compared with the BR’s total of 500. But the BR were much bigger than any other single group: few of the others lasted as long as five years, or had as many as a hundred members. Discounting a penumbra of sympathisers and supporters, the people directly responsible for the Italian left-wing ‘terrorism’ of the 1970s numbered, in all probability, no more than 2,000. And that was a huge scene by contemporary standards: far beyond anything dreamed of by the RAF in West Germany, the Weather Underground in the USA or our very own Angries.
Bearing in mind the actions carried out by the BR over the years – notably 58 murders, including the ‘execution’ of the kidnapped Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro and the slaughter of his bodyguards – it’s interesting to read what Francesco (Cossiga) said to Francesco (Piccioni).
“The great semantic trick which we all carried out was calling you ‘terrorists’ – I thought about this later – because calling you ‘terrorists’ kept us from realising what you were. I understood this later, because I was trying to understand Moro’s attitude. What led me to think of you, historically and ideologically, as a subversive phenomenon rather than as terrorist, was the interest and curiosity which Moro demonstrated in his letters [from captivity] – a curiosity which he wouldn’t have shown for a gang of people who planted bombs and that was that. And, in fact, you didn’t plant bombs.”
“Terrorists plant bombs in cinemas. This was something else. Your operating methods were precisely those of partisan warfare. If I’d said something like this at the time… Who taught you those things?”
[Piccioni: “Books, and a few veterans.”]
Cossiga’s argument suggests that ‘terrorism’ has – or at least can have – a specific meaning. We can start by defining ‘terror’ tactics as the use of personal violence against non-specific targets, with the immediate goal of causing panic and alarm. If one person mounts a ‘terror’ attack, they’re going on a rampage, going berserk or wendigo. If a mob uses terror, it’s a pogrom. If armed forces use terror, it’s either warfare or a war crime, depending on who the targets are. Finally, if an organised group of non-state actors uses terror, it’s terrorism. Whether a group, rather than its individual actions, can be described as ‘terrorist’ depends on how consistently it uses terror. Neo-fascist groups in Italy and Spain can reasonably be described as ‘terrorist’; the record of the IRA, for example, is more mixed.
On the other hand, if an armed struggle group targets buildings rather than people, or if personal violence targets selected individual enemies, linguistic precision alone suggests that something other than ‘terrorism’ is going on. This is where I part company with Robert’s proposed definition of terrorism as “the extension of the rules of battle beyond what is normally thought to be a battlefield … expanding the spaces of violence, so that we are combatants in places we had never thought we would be, something which would obviously be terrifying”. Irregular and guerrilla warfare has precisely these characteristics; indeed, Robert’s formulation recalls the words of Senza Tregua (“No Quarter”), a hagiographic history of an early Partisan group which was very popular in certain circles in the early 1970s:
[these were] groups of patriots who never gave quarter to the enemy: they struck him at all times, in all circumstances, day and night, in the streets of the city and in the heart of his fortresses
But I’d argue that these attacks (unlike the German reprisals which often followed) were too precisely focused to qualify as terror.
Having said all of which, the invocation of ‘terrorism’ is also a value judgment and hence a rhetorical move: ‘guerrillas’ may be people engaged in politics by other means, but ‘terrorists’ are evil people dedicated to causing destruction. An ‘armed struggle’ militant can, in theory, be negotiated with; a ‘terrorist’ must be defeated. Treating the BR as terrorists made it easier for the Italian state to crush them, but – Cossiga suggests – at the cost of failing to understand them. What was obscured by the ‘terrorist’ labelling is suggested by Cossiga’s reference to partisan warfare – a live reference point in Italy in the 1970s, as we have seen. Cossiga’s contrast between the BR and a mere ‘gang of people who planted bombs’ also suggests a question of scale: a nihilist gang of terrorist bombers could not have had the roots the BR drew on, or drawn in so many people, or lasted so long. This isn’t to say that the BR was engaged in Partisan warfare in any real sense – although a large part of the appeal which enabled the group to enlist so many people and survive so long did derive from its orchestration of Partisan themes and memories. But Cossiga, in 1997, was right: the term ‘terrorist’ alone wasn’t adequate. Something was going on there, and he didn’t know what it was.
Contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq. In 2004, our military fought fierce battles in Najaf, Fallujah, and Sadr City. Many thousands of terrorists were killed, with comparatively little collateral damage. As examples of the very hardest sorts of urban combat, these will go down in history as smashing U.S. victories.
Yes, that is what he said:
Many thousands of terrorists were killed
I don’t know what it does to the enemy, but by God the American Enterprise frightens me. My first thought, on reading that passage, was that something had gone very, very wrong for those words to be put together at all: I’m not sure there have ever been “many thousands” of non-state political actors devoted to creating panic through indiscriminate killing. Then I wondered if ‘terrorist’ was becoming a working public synonym for Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer (discussed recently by Slavoj Zizek in the LRB). On this reading the definition of ‘terrorist’ would be functional: the point is not that a ‘terrorist’ is someone who carries out certain acts, but that anyone who is a ‘terrorist’ is excluded from society and can be killed with impunity. But many thousands of them…
Something is going on there, and they don’t know what it is. But they’re prepared to go on killing people until it stops.