Blaming media, Nobel for rise of modern terrorism

Probably for the same reason I got a second major in history in college, I enjoy when someone takes a step back from events to provide a bit of historical perspective, as Max Boot did this morning in the WSJ on the history of modern terrorism.

And just as Eli Whitney revived the cotton industry and therefore slavery in this country, Boot (I love that guy’s name; sounds like a character Arnold Schwarzenegger would play in  a movie) says three things helped launch a wave of terrorist groups around the world about a century ago: the inventions of dynamite, the telegraph and the high-speed newspaper press:



It is no coincidence that the era of modern terrorism began at almost the same time that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite: 1867. There had been a few isolated terrorist gangs before then—which is to say, groups that murdered civilians in order to further a political or religious agenda. The Sicarri, the Jewish dagger-men who killed Roman collaborators in first-century Judaea, come to mind. So do the Assassins, the Shiite sect that terrorized Middle Eastern leaders in the Middle Ages. But such examples are few and far between, whereas the late 19th century saw the flowering of the first age of international terrorism, featuring such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, the Irish Fenians, the Russian Nihilists and the anarchists who operated in both Europe and the Americas.

Their growth was greatly aided by the invention of portable weapons such as breech-loading revolvers and especially dynamite, which was 20 times more powerful than the gunpowder that Guy Fawkes and his fellow Catholic conspirators had used in an attempt to blow up the British Parliament in 1605.

Just as important was the invention of the telegraph and the high-speed printing press, which made possible the rise of cheap newspapers and magazines—the world’s first mass media. Terrorism is above all an act of communication, insofar as terrorist groups are too small and too weak to fight conventional armies in the open field. Unlike guerrilla groups, most purely terrorist organizations don’t even attempt attacks on security forces; they prefer to strike “soft” targets such as the Boston Marathon, where they know that their actions, the more heinous the better, will attract widespread publicity. (Note, however, that many insurgencies use both guerrilla and terrorist tactics, striking both security forces and civilians, as the Irish Republican Army and the Viet Cong did.)…

There’s one flaw in this explanation, as it applies to the most recent incident: The pressure-cooker bombs used in Boston may have used black powder, rather than dynamite or plastique.

Still, I like a good theory.

6 thoughts on “Blaming media, Nobel for rise of modern terrorism

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    This piece, particularly since it mentions the Sicarri, brings to mind Judas Iscariot’s lyrics from “Superstar:”

    If you’d come today
    You could have reached the whole nation
    Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication

  2. Silence

    Nobel was a P.R. genius, not to mention his genius as an inventor. He was concerned that he’d be remembered as an inventor who made his fortune through military sales. By establishing the Nobel Prizes through his will upon his passing, he ensured that everyone would forever associate his name with philanthrophy, scientific discovery and of course, peace. I’ll bet that 99% of people have heard of the Nobel Prize, but a lot less than that could tell you that he made his fortune mainly through dynamite and improved military explosives and propellents. A masterful stroke of P.R.

  3. Kevin Dietrich

    It seems to me that the rise of nationalism and all-encompassing colonialism that began in the 19th century has something to do with modern terrorism, as well. Individuals or groups that feel aggrieved, whether that feeling is legitimate or not, may believe that they are under the thumb of an “oppressor” so large and overbearing that hitting soft targets represents their only opportunity to strike back. Consider the French in Algeria and Indochina, and the British in Kenya in the 1950s, or the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. All were vastly superior in terms of technology than the native people whose land they occupied, or tried to occupy, in the latter case. There’s no way the native people could have mounted a traditional military campaign to drive the occupiers out. So they resorted to tactics that included terrorism or one sort or another. TNT is just another means to carry out terrorism, albeit in a more effective manner.

    1. Steve Gordy

      Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were prime examples of leaders who used mass terror. I don’t believe either of them had the benefit of high explosives.

Comments are closed.