After the death of 15 British soldiers in 10 days in Afghanistan, Gordon Brown and his Labour colleagues have again been banging the “War on Terror” drum. How instructive last night, then, to watch the thought-provoking Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution on BBC-2.
It was the Reign of Terror of Robespierre and his henchmen that gave us the word “terrorism” – “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
However, governments of all colours have managed to obscure an important fact. The most dreadful acts of “terrorism” are almost invariably perpetrated by them, rather than the rebel groups to whom the term is normally applied. Hardly surprising as governments usually command far more powerful weapons.
So we are constantly told that 9/11 was the world’s worst terrorist outrage – killing nearly 3,000 people, but, of course, it does not compare with, say, the USAF’s bombing of Tokyo in 1945 that killed perhaps 140,000, nor with Hitler’s mass murder campaign that accounted for perhaps 20 million, or Stalin’s cruelties that killed up to 30m, or Mao’s – maybe 70 million. Robespierre’s terror, incidentally, saw off about 55,000.
As a few of those around him raised the odd timorous voice to express half-hearted misgivings about the ever-more intrusive and paranoid regime he had created, Robespierre retorted: “innocence never fears public scrutiny.” Or as Labour tends to put it when critics object to its National Identity Register or its project to snoop on all our emails etc, etc – “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”