Finding Who Is Responsible When No Group Takes Credit

Anna Geifman, an associate professor of history at Boston University, is author of, "Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1893-1917" (Princeton University Press)

Despite all the talk about terrorism in connection with the crash of TWA Flight 800, no credible group has come forward to claim responsibility for the air disaster. This is in marked contrast to all previous patterns of terrorist behavior--when extremist groups rushed to attest their responsibility forpolitical assassinations and bombings, avidly competing for high scores of violent attempts, regardless of their success. Lately, however, terrorists have remained silent after their assaults--a definite shift from familiar paradigms.

No group ever came forward to take responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which went down over Scotland. The Pentagon has never received a credible claim of responsibility for the bombing of U.S. military housing in Saudi Arabia. And no group has taken credit for the recent explosions in the Moscow mass-transit system. So we cannot dismiss the terror-related explanation of the Flight 800 tragedy because we do not have an affidavit from those who might have caused it. Yet, if the air disaster was another episode in a death play repeatedly acted out by terrorists, why don't they come out and say so?

"Terror is to be done, not to be talked about," went a notorious maxim of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party, the largest terrorist organization in the world at the turn of the century. Nonetheless, as soon as the radicals adopted terrorism as a primary tool in their anti-government struggle, they began to violate this maxim. From the outset of their terrorist campaign, the Socialist Revolutionaries, along with zealous colleagues from lesser-known terrorist conspiracies, sought to explain the rationale for their violent tactics to the public.

In April 1902, Stepan Balmashev, dressed as an aide-de-camp, entered the Marinsky Palace in St. Petersburg. He handed Russian Interior Minister Dmitry Sipiagin an envelope containing his death sentence, then shot him twice. Balmashev acted independently, but the Socialist Revolutionary leadership immediately declared the sensational assassination a deed of the party and issued pamphlets glorifying the terrorist's feat.

And so it was with all major acts of political terror, including those the Socialists Revolutionaries considered "a matter of honor for the party:" the 1904 assassination of Sipiagin's successor, Interior Minister Vyacheslav K. Plehve, and the 1905 bomb that blew up Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, governor-general of Moscow and an uncle of Csar Nicholas II.

Similarly, revolutionary and extremist nationalist groups operating outside the major centers of political life frequently disputed responsibility for combat ventures in such regions as the Caucasus, Balkans, Turkey and India. All sought to enhance their reputations, after the fact, by condemning their enemies and deifying selfless martyrs of "the sacred terror." Indeed, the unprecedented escalation of terrorism was unthinkable without the extremists' high-flown language of political and national liberation, public castigation of oppressive regimes and exoneration of violence as a regrettable prerequisite to the imminent dawn of a free era.

Around 1900, there emerged a new breed of terrorist. This new radical was a blend of revolutionary and common bandit, whose psychology revealed marked liberation from all ethical restraints. The archetypal terrorist had "his own code of values by which he judges whom to hurt." Initial signs were already discernible in late-19th century Russia, where extremist socialists were busy laying the groundwork for modern terrorism. Feodor M. Dostoevsky depicted this emerging trend in "The Possessed," with Pyotr Verhovensky and Nikolai Vsyevolodovitch Stavrogin as prototypes of a new terrorist. By the early 1900s, the phenomenon was widespread enough to be evident not only to a literary genius, but also to the public at large. Despite distinctive national and local characteristics, early practitioners of the new type of violence became the forerunners of modern extremists, who in recent decades have caused terrorism to assume "the proportions of a global epidemic."

A defining characteristic of the new terrorism has been the perpetrators' attitude toward their victims, who were eliminated randomly and en masse. So it was in Russia around 1905, when anyone wearing a uniform--even a postal clerk--was considered an enemy of the revolutionaries. When Warsaw anarchists, in November 1905, threw two bombs, packed, for additional effect, with nails and bullets, into a crowded family cafe only "to see how the foul bourgeois will squirm in death agony," it could, in retrospect, be considered a prelude to a long series of worldwide terrorist killings--including the massacre in Oklahoma City. Today, indiscriminate murder is almost to be expected from a successful terrorist act. The 17,000 victims of the new terrorism in the last years of the Russian empire served as a warning to the rest of mankind, forecasting the horrifying statistics of the future--such as the 10,000 terror-related deaths, worldwide, during a single decade, beginning in 1968.

Certain characteristics common among perpetrators of political violence also delineate modern terrorism. The new extremists exhibit less inclination to consider ethical dilemmas intrinsic to their occupation. Many combatants--from the early 1900s to today--demonstrate undisguised cynicism and genuine indifference to dogmatic principles. This is partly why they often show little squeamishness in joining a "united front" with whoever might offer weapons or financial aid. Equally revealing is the proclivity of a wide variety of adventurers, opportunists, hooligans and common criminals to join clandestine militant groups and use lofty slogans to exonerate what, in reality, is unmitigated banditry. Differentiating between terrorists and ordinary criminals can thus be a perplexing matter.

Similarly, throughout the century, members of various terrorist groups have often had nonpolitical incentives--ranging from a desire for recognition to an urge for excitement or simple greed. A tendency of mentally or emotionally unstable individuals to join anti-establishment movements is another characteristic of the new age of terrorism; as is the recruitment of adolescents and children, a factor as widespread in the Middle East today as in the Baltics in 1906.

If contemporary practitioners of terrorism--from the Red Brigades and the Irish Republican Army to obscure militants in Lebanon and Chechnya--owe so much to their revolutionary predecessors, all of whom eagerly took responsibility for their deeds, what has caused the recent change in behavior? An obvious factor is that police authorities, armed with computers and sophisticated investigation techniques, are far more competent in fighting terrorists, who can no longer hope to escape swift reprisal. In addition, coordinated efforts of Interpol, equipped with high-tech communications, allow for more successful multinational anti-terrorist warfare than earlier in the century, when hostile public opinion in certain countries, such as Italy and France, frequently prevented their governments from cooperating.

For public opinion is the crucial factor, and it is more anti-terrorist today than ever before. This is partly because of the extremists' increasingly violent and random tactics. Society, as a whole, no longer regards terrorists as "examples of self-sacrifice and heroism," as individuals "motivated by a deep humanism," whose worst outrages can be vindicated. Gone are the days when photographs of Russian terrorist Mariya Spiridonova were essential items in average Moscow households, hanging in places traditionally reserved for icons. Much has changed since U.S. money financed Grigory Gershuni's terrorist enterprises in the tsarist empire.

For their part, the terrorists still pursue their old goals: to destabilize society with fear, essential for creating semi-rational dissatisfaction and anxiety as potent psychological incentives for radical change. These objectives have not changed. But, responding to the public's new attitude, terrorists have now become anonymous.*

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