Courtesy Reuters

Guns and Gray Matter: Terrorism in Italy

The terrorism that is now endemic in Italy evolved gradually, from the ideological extremism of the revolutionary generation of 1968, through the "hot autumn" of labor unrest in the Turin-Milan-Genoa industrial triangle, through the first guerrilla skirmishes in the "piazzas," to the ambushes that, beginning in the middle of the 1970s, marked the birth of a new category of citizens who walk on crutches.

The year 1976 saw the start of a sensational series of "executions," and by 1977 there were twice as many cases of terrorism and lesser guerrilla warfare as there had been the previous year. Finally, in March of 1978 came the Black Thursday Massacre which ended in the sinister imprisonment and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro.

A political terrorist is someone who systematically makes use of killing, wounding, destruction and other means of coercive intimidation in pursuit of political objectives. This is the definition given by Walter Laqueur in his history of terrorism.1 He traces terrorism back to the ancient Palestinian sect of the sicarii (from sica, a short sword hidden under the coat). In Jacobin France, the word "terror" was used to refer to an emergency regime called into being by historical necessity. After the ninth of Thermidor, however, it became a term of abuse with criminal implications. It then crossed the Channel to England where the neologism was used by Burke in a celebrated passage: "Thousands of those hell hounds called terrorists. . . ."

Although retaining its criminal connotations, revolutionary or nationalistic terrorism was nevertheless employed in the last century as an ultima ratio against local or foreign tyranny in czarist Russia, Ireland, South America and the colonial world. Now, in the aftermath of the youth revolts of 1968, revolutionary terrorism has for the first time in history broken out in several Western liberal democracies.

Whenever, in societies governed by a lawfully constituted state, non-identification with the state becomes rejection and rejection becomes terrorist revolt, then a more thorough examination of the theories underlying the phenomenon must be made.


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