The Anatomy of Terror

What is this thing called Terror? What is the point of a group like Hamas that lives for shooting rockets at Israeli civilians and raping and killing Israeli women?

Closer to home, what was Menachem Begin doing with Irgun in the last days of the British mandate in Palestine and the 1948 war that created the state of Israel? After the Israelis won the war, the Irgun got folded into the Israeli army.

It's pretty obvious. A terror organization is a paramilitary political force that is not a state with the requisite bureaucracy, army, and police, and it is usually at war with a state. But it cannot actually go to war; it doesn't have the power and the wealth. Therefore, it is reduced to war as performance, selling the world on the idea that it is the wave of the future and the government it terrorizes a cruel killer of innocents. The eternal question for a terror leader is: what sort of violence can it get away with without triggering an overwhelming counterattack from the state in which it resides?

Generally, the state will respond only modestly to the provocation by the terrorist group, because the act of cracking down suggests a violation of legitimacy. But sometimes the terrorist group crosses a line, as Hamas did on 10/7 and the state responds with overwhelming force. Similarly, the J6 protesters crossed a line and the U.S. government responded with overwhelming pre-trial detention. What was the line that was crossed? Experts agree that more research is needed.

However, back in 2020 the BLM and Antifa protesters did not cross a line -- some people say that the line was mysteriously erased -- and so the U.S. was entertained with a summer of mostly peaceful protests, a few deaths, a bunch of police injuries and billions of dollars of damage: nothing to see here. Clearly, BLM and Antifa are not terrorist groups, because they are regime-adjacent: tolerated by the U.S. government and financed by the ruling class. All the experts agree about that.

Hamas and J6 are non-state actors using terror against a state, although the terror staged by J6 merely involved face paint and exotic costumes. But what about the opposite, when a state wages a Reign of Terror against its own people? What is going on there?

In the case of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, Stalin's Great Purge, and the Maoist Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the state had decided that the people weren't doing their duty and so had to be taught a terrible lesson.

Oh wait, it was because the revolution had utterly failed to transform the world and instead had created economic ruin. So the only thing to do was to clear out any rivals for power in the middle ranks of the revolutionary state -- and wipe out a few million ordinary citizens -- in case anyone got the idea that the revolution needed to be replaced.

It seems to me that non-state terror exists on an arc between the secret paramilitary terror group, among which we may include the not-so-secret U.S. Sixties radicals of the Weather Underground and its goal "to create a revolutionary party to overthrow the United States government," to the average protest group that indulges in "mostly peaceful protest" with a little violence to give their male members the experience of a frisson of danger, to the ordinary campus activist that seems, nowadays, to be an earnest young college girl that has learned her lessons well in the school of intersectionality and just loves to prepare a protest sign before breakfast. Of course, to the experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, bless their hearts, "the most significant threat likely comes from white supremacists, though anarchists and religious extremists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda could present a potential threat as well." Oh yeah, white supremacists: that was in 2020.

State-sponsored terror also exists on an arc, from execution squads and death camps to merely entangling its opposition in the Law. State terror always seems to involve a government that sits uneasily on the seat of power. It is practiced most crudely by revolutionary regimes for whom violence was their road to power, and involves most commonly the assassination of rivals for the top job. But every regime is tempted to inconvenience its loyal opposition, particularly a regime such as ours that cannot believe -- cannot believe -- that the voters might prefer a government more friendly to the ordinary middle class than the current regime of, by, and for the educated class.

And when a regime sits uneasily upon the seat of power and is reduced to using its police forces to suppress the opposition, then the opposition is often reduced to acts of terror in order to broadcast to the world that the regime is unjust.

Christopher Chantrill @chrischantrill runs the go-to site on US government finances, Also get his American Manifesto and his Road to the Middle Class.

Image: Library of Congress

If you experience technical problems, please write to