Most people think terrorism is a new phenomenon since the term terrorism was only recently used a lot in the media. But actually it's much older than that. The term was first used in 1795 during the French Revolution, but that's not a good way to figure out how old the phenomenon is. I mean, just because a word is 200 years old doesn't mean that the idea the word refers to is 200 years old.

What is terrorism?

To figure out how old terrorism is, we need to know what it is, in other words, how to recognize it. According to a few dictionaries I checked, terrorism is the systematic use of violence in order to bring about political change.

So there are three parts to this. The act is violence, the goal is political change, and there is a coordinated effort among a lot of people to commit the acts of violence. One thing that is missing here is why these people would think that political change would occur. Well, it's because they know that with fear comes capitulation. In other words, if I fear that my actions will bring about punishment, then I may change my actions in order to avoid the pain of the punishment. So really the goal is two fold – there is a means, and an end. The end is political change. The means is fear.

So terrorism is a systematic effort of a population to commit violence against another population with the goal of instilling fear so that they change their political actions.

How old is terrorism?

Now back to the question of how old terrorism is, let's go back in history to look for cases that meet this definition. One case that comes to mind, and I'm sure this isn't the oldest case, is Islam during Muhammad's life. Most Muslims who don't know the history think that Islam spread by voluntary conversion but actually it spread by the sword. Kingdoms were given a choice, convert to Islam and come under the rule of Muhammad, or die by the swords of Muslims. And most kings did not capitulate to Muhammad's demands, so what resulted was Islamic invasions of those kingdoms. So Muhammad instituted a systematic approach of using violence in order to make these kingdoms into provinces of his own kingdom, which is political change. So Muhammad was a terrorist. Not the first terrorist, but definitely one of the worst in history -- if we're counting most deaths as the worst.

To be clear, had those kingdoms provoked the Islamic nation, then we could say that Muhammad retaliated in self-defense. But that's not what happened. Muhammad sent envoys with his letters to these kingdoms unprovoked.[1]

So terrorism is at least 1,400 years old, but really the fundamental idea underlying terrorism is much much older than that, and it pervades our societies a lot more than most people realize. Terrorism, at its most fundamental level, is an involuntary act with the goal of changing the mind of the victim (involuntarily). To help clarify this issue, let's consider the alternative way of "helping" someone to change their mind. The only other way is voluntarily. Which raises the question: How do people change their minds voluntarily? The answer is simple, by discussion.

Why do people resort to terrorism?

In any given disagreement between two or more people, in order for agreement to be reached, all parties involved must find an idea that everybody involved agrees to. Otherwise, they are still in disagreement. Now, in a society where dissent is considered ok, if a disagreement does not end with agreement, then nobody involved retaliates against another with violence, and so they "agree to disagree". That means that they still disagree about the issue they were discussing, but they agree on the narrow matter of leaving that disagreement alone. But, in a society where dissent is not ok, if a disagreement does not end with agreement, then one or more of the individuals involved may commit violence in order to force the dissenters to "change" their minds. Note that I put "change" in quotes because they don't actually change their minds, and instead what they do is change their behavior in an effort to prevent retaliation from the terrorist.

Now that we've established the fundamental difference between terrorism and non-terrorism, let's consider how pervasive this idea is in our societies. Who do you know that tries to "change" other people's minds involuntarily? Parents. Parents often will punish their kids for disagreeing with them, as a means of causing them to "change" their minds. But as I said earlier, they don't actually change their minds, and what actually happens is that they change their behavior in an effort to avoid the pain of punishment. Parents will also raise their voices, as a means of reminding the child of the punishment that will be delivered if the child doesn't "change" his mind. Now, whether or not the parent intends to raise his voice as a means of instilling fear doesn't matter. The act of raising one's voice when somebody disagrees with you was designed to cause someone to involuntarily "change" their mind. So just because the parent doesn't see it that way, doesn't mean that the child is not fearful of his parent. My point is that what matters is whether or not the child is scared from the parent's voice being raised, rather than whether or not the parent intends to instill fear.

I suspect that terrorism, defined as the act of instilling fear in order to "change" someone's mind, is older than human civilization.

What's the solution to terrorism?

So what's the solution to terrorism? Well, as I said before, some societies embrace dissent, while other's don't. So what's the critical difference between them? The difference is the tradition of criticism.[2] If the people in a disagreement have a good attitude towards criticism, then they will enjoy their discussion. And if they don't, then they won't. More importantly, having a good attitude towards criticism means understanding that disagreement between people is common and ok. Dissent is good. Criticism is good. But to understand this, one must understand what criticism is, and what is its purpose.

A criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea. If the criticism is true, then the idea it targets is rendered false. Now I've made this sound pretty simple, but it's a lot more complicated than this. For one thing, people are fallible, which means that we can be wrong about any of our ideas. So this means that we can be wrong about our criticisms too, since criticisms are themselves ideas. For this reason, it's important to keep even our criticisms open to criticism.

So how does criticism work? In other words, what does criticism do to ideas? Well, when we have an idea, and if we find a flaw in it, then that idea is rendered false. But that doesn't mean that everything about that idea is wrong. As far as we know, some parts of the idea are right, everything except the flaw. So one way to move forward is to create a variation of the original idea, by changing the flawed part such that the new variation doesn't have the known flaw. So in this way, the criticism, together with the brainstormed variation, acts as a means of evolving the idea from flawed to less flawed.

So criticism is necessary for our ideas to evolve. Criticism is necessary for the evolution of our knowledge. With each criticism and the correction that follows it, we are evolving our knowledge. This is an important and fundamental feature of how evolution works. And it's the same feature that genetic evolution has.

Genetic evolution works by variation and selection. Genes are created by mutation, which results in variations of the precursor genes, and then the fit genes are selected for when the hosts of the unfit genes die due to having unfit genes. Analogously, ideas are created by variation, and then the good ideas are selected for when the bad ideas are criticized.

Human knowledge is created by guesses and criticism, analogous to how genetic knowledge is created by variation and selection. So criticism is a good thing. It is required in order for our knowledge to improve. Without criticism, our knowledge stays static. Without criticism, our knowledge can't evolve.

Now the tradition of criticism is not a new thing. The ancient Greeks had it, though they lost it later. The tradition of criticism sprang up again in the 1500's or so, resulting in what we now call The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was many things, and science was one of them. Science has a strong tradition of criticism. Scientists expect to have their ideas criticized by other scientists, and they try their best to make their theories more criticizable, so that flaws can be more easily found.

The Enlightenment resulted in a boom of knowledge growth, one that we are still experiencing today. It started in Italy, but many other cultures have adopted this tradition of criticism since then, and so they too have joined The Enlightenment era.

For terrorism to stop, people must adopt the tradition of criticism. For a society to stop forcing it's will on other societies, that society must adopt the tradition of criticism. Analogously, for a parent to stop terrorizing his children, he must adopt the tradition of criticism.[3]


[1] _Embrace Islam or Else: Prophet Mohammad's Ultimatums to Foreign Kings_, M. A. Khan. [link:]

[2] _The Beginning of Infinity_, David Deustch. [link:]

[3] _Parenting_, by Rami Rustom. [link:]

Comments powered by CComment

Joomla templates by a4joomla