Before the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, the subject of terrorism did not loom large in philosophical discussion.
Philosophical literature in English amounted to a few monographs and a single collection of papers devoted solely, or largely, to questions to do with terrorism.
In the second half of the 19th century, there was a shift in both descriptive and evaluative meaning of the term.
Disillusioned with other methods of political struggle, some anarchist and other revolutionary organizations, and subsequently some nationalist groups too, took to political violence.
Accordingly, the Jacobins applied the term to their own actions and policies quite unabashedly, without any negative connotations.
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Yet the term “terrorism” and its cognates soon took on very strong negative connotations.
This necessity provided both the rationale of the reign of terror and its moral justification.
As Robespierre put it, terror was but “an emanation of virtue”; without it, virtue remained impotent.
A central role in attaining these objectives was accorded to revolutionary tribunals which had wide authority, were constrained by very few rules of procedure, and saw their task as carrying out revolutionary policy rather than meting out legal justice of the more conventional sort.
They went after “enemies of the people”, actual or potential, proven or suspected; the law on the basis of which they were operating “enumerated just who the enemies of the people might be in terms so ambiguous as to exclude no one” (Carter 1989: 142). Trials and executions were meant to strike terror in the hearts of all who lacked civic virtue; the Jacobins believed that was a necessary means of consolidating the new regime.