State terror existed long before the French Revolution. In the 20th and 21st Centuries, it was associated most strongly with Marxist regimes. But it is in theocracies, secular dictatorships, from the left and from the right.


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Join the conversation! There are now 29 comments on “What is Terrorism? pg 8 – State Terror in History
  1. Scott McNay says

    Typo: “from the from the ideology of Communism.”

      • Well, you have the new typo notification, which notifies me immediately.

        Well, you don’t do typos THAT often, so for you, it’s just the new page notification. 🙂

        Do you prefer typo notification via email?

  2. Temeraire says

    If I may ask, why did you choose “communist” regimes as your example for state terror? I’m just curious as to the choices you made.

    • I wouldn’t equate either “French Revolution” or “Marxist dictatorship”, both of which are mentioned on this page, to “Communism”.

      • He says no word is so associated with the “Communist experiment” as terror. I guess if you want to distinguish between communism in theory and communism in practice l, sure, but that distinction can be applied to nearly every ideology.

            • No, only that all governmental implementations of Communism evoke terror, a valid position given the history. I cannot think of a single Communist government which did not require secret police and disappearings to remain in power.

              On the other hand, voluntary non-governmental implementations of Communism have worked reasonably well without any need for terror.

              • I’m not sure about your first point.

                The CPI(M) in India has done fairly well within a representative democratic framework. They form the government in Tripura and Kerala, and don’t seem to have created secret police forces or forced disappearances while in power.

                Communist Party of India (Marxist)

                As to the second, I’m in full agreement.

                • Do either of those states operate as communist economies? I didn’t get the impression that they did. In any case, they operate under the restrictions of a higher level of government that is not communist, so I don’t think they count as counter examples.

                  In any case, it seems to me that the prevalence of oppression in communist has more to do with with them not being democracies than with them being communist. The irony being that democracy seems like the best fit for communist ideals. Hardly surprising that retaining power ends up being more important than living up to ideals.

                  p.s. I absolutely hate the new CAPTCHA thingy.

                  • I believe that they’re mixed economies (see the link below), although, to be fair, it’s not like any of the regimes mentioned above had communist economies (where the workers own the means of production) either, yet they’re still called communist.


                    I’m not sure that your logic on your second point here works. I would not say, for instance, that California is conservative because the federal government is.

                    Fair enough. Indeed, most of the good examples of communism in practice tend to be voluntary societies, such as Kerala (disputable) or Marinaleda.


                    Sad, but true in far too many cases.

                    Yeah, I didn’t see any comments previously that looked like bots, although I’m sure Nathan has his reasons.

                    • Maybe it’s the Democratic oversight and/or framework which helps make it successful. It’s unusual for a pure structure of any kind to work as desired.

                      The kind of political / economic system which the US has isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to come you with an improved alternative without suffering from greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. I suspect a hybrid of some kind is what you really need. Perhaps multiple hybrids, with freedom to move from one to another.

                      What’s wrong with the CAPTCHA? It’s considerably less annoying than some. I did see a bot posting the other day on the law side, which has since been deleted.

                    • The CAPTCHA had me click on all of the pictures of x until there were no more pictures of x. Am I proving I am not a robot (is it that hard to prove already?) or teaching a robot how to recognize x?

    • Two reasons:

      First, when people refer to state terror these days, they usually aren’t talking about violent repression merely to maintain power. It’s usually in the context of terror in service of a state ideology (which, yes, is the basis of power, but you know what I mean). And for the past hundred years, it’s primarily been the ostensibly Marxist regimes that have been doing it. They’re what most people are talking about when they mention state terror.

      Second, it’s not terribly controversial to observe that these regimes did conduct terror as a matter of policy in service of a state ideology. So they’re an easy way to introduce this concept of violence in service of an orthodoxy, which is very alien to many Western readers, but which we’ll be seeing much more of later, as it plays out in different ways in the NON-state terrorism context. Hopefully, when we get there, those readers can now nod their heads and think “oh yes, I remember that concept,” as opposed to “wtf, that’s not something people do!”

      (This historical bit is also a natural segue from “this is what terrorism ISN’T” to “this is what terrorism “IS”, but to be honest that hadn’t occurred to me until after it was already written.)

  3. Sean Work says

    Does it have to be done by state actors to be considered state terror? I’m thinking of situations like states and local governments turning a blind eye toward the Klan during Jim Crow, or the acceptance of the gay panic defense. Of course the major current example in America is the continuing failure to hold police accountable for homicide. It isn’t really a case of the government explicitly ordering its agents to harm blacks and gays, but rather the government making it clear that there will be no consequences for anyone who does so.

    • Later in this chapter we’ll go into the Ku Klux Klan and its relationship to government during its various permutations, so I’ll hold off on that for now.

      As for police violence in America, there is absolutely an element of authoritarian tyranny there. But is it the same as state terror? Excellent question.

      Police violence is rarely a systemic phenomenon, for one thing. It’s not an official policy. It’s something that individual cops do on their own or in small groups. They do it for their own reasons, not because they’re told to go out there and beat people up and kill them. Not even because they’re told it’s okay to do it. It’s usually rotten apples being evil, malicious, or just plain stupid. Sometimes it infects the entire culture of a precinct or county, at which point we’re getting closer to actual state terror, but even then I’m not so sure it’s the same thing.

      That’s because we also have to look at the motive. In state terror, the purpose is to frighten the populace into compliance. To make people terrified — not just of breaking the rules, but of disagreeing with them. It’s about holding on to power by suppressing dissent and oppressing opposition. There are lots of motivations behind police brutality, but that’s not one of them.

      Most police violence is a personal overreaction to being scared. To start with, we train cops to be scared these days. “Every time you pull over a car, you could get shot. Every encounter with a citizen could end your life. Whatever you do, get home alive.” But on top of that, there are cultural and experiential reasons why a given cop may just be scared in an encounter with someone from a different community.

      Experiential: Our brains build connections based on what we actually experience in life. A cop who has mainly experienced black people in dangerous situations is going to be hardwired to react to encounters with black people as threatening. We can give him as much sensitivity training as we please, and even if it doesn’t backfire by creating resentment where none previously existed, it’s still not going to override a lifetime of experiences. In his next encounter with a black person, he’s going to experience it at a heightened threat level. It won’t be a conscious decision, but an autonomic response. Adrenaline will be pumping. His heart rate will go up, his breathing will get more rapid and shallow. He’s going to FEEL threatened, even when he isn’t. (You solve this, by the way, by having cops live in the same community they police, by getting them out of the squad cars and onto the sidewalks. They get more representative experience, are less likely to over-react, build relationships with the people they serve, and connections to the community they protect.)

      Cultural: There are plenty of cultural signals to be misinterpreted. A white suburban cop may see a wild angry fight about to break out, but it’s really just a Middle Eastern family having a spirited conversation. Doesn’t matter, in his world, the volume and tone and gestures and body language and the number of bodies in general all add up to fucking danger. And he’s there all by his lonesome.

      So in a situation that is not truly threatening, you have someone who is nonetheless extremely nervous, if not frightened out of his wits. And whether he’s thinking clearly or not at all, he’s got a gun. Which he’s going to use more as a shield than an offensive weapon. The motivation isn’t to terrorize a population, but to stay alive. Sometimes it’s justified. Sometimes it isn’t.

      But none of that is state terror. It’s a terrified state actor.

      Then there’s the “bust some heads” flavor of police brutality. That’s where, to preserve or restore peace, the police go in and knock people around until they stop fighting. It’s rare nowadays, but back before SWAT teams it was good old-fashioned policework. But it wasn’t state terror. It was a crude method of stopping a threat to public safety, not a tool for protecting a regime.

      More common these days is the “Us vs. Them” mentality. It’s tribal. And many cops see it as a war. Literally. (The fact that they’re now armed and equipped like the military only enhances this mindset.) And if you are on the other side from them in an encounter, you’re not a fellow citizen but an enemy combatant. Limited life experiences come into play here as well, in making that judgment call as to who’s a likely enemy. That’s a little closer to state terror, in that they’re preserving their own against the civilian population. Forgetting that they too are civilians. (The founders of our country were very concerned that this NOT happen, because using the military against one’s subjects was a powerful tool of tyrants. And now we’re in a situation where Mayor Bloomberg happily referred to the NYPD as “the seventh largest army in the world.”) But it’s still not protecting the regime. It’s protecting themselves.

      Similar to that is the “respect mah authoritah” violence, where police get it in their heads that “rule of law” means “rule by law enforcement.” These are probably the worst of the worst. For the merely bad, instead of the law being paramount, they think the job of enforcing the law is paramount. And anything that gets in the way of doing that job is an injustice or even a threat. For the truly evil, you get the cop as tyrant, one who thinks he’s judge jury and executioner. They’re enforcing their own authority. And even if a particularly awful sheriff were to use systemic violence to keep the population in fear of him, his private tyranny would be AGAINST the rules. State terror IS the rules.

      But what if the judges and the rest of government looked the other way, you ask. Doesn’t that implicitly authorize it? The problem with that is, when politicians and judges look the other way, it’s usually because most of the population is looking the other way as well. Police may feel that they’re embattled, that the world has turned against them, but that’s a hallucination brought on by too many “Us vs. Them” pills. Most people, especially those who don’t live with routine police violence, still think the cops are the good guys. A politician or elected judge who didn’t side with the cops often enough might find himself replaced — by the voters — with someone who does. And even then, there’s just a presumption that cops are doing the right thing and we ought to help them.

      That may be shocking ignorance or it may be an appalling lack of judgment, but it’s not a deliberate course of conduct intended to frighten the population. It’s certainly not systemic violence intended — expressly or unofficially — to stifle dissent. It’s awful, but it’s not state terror.

      • Would voter surpression count? Namely, those instances where the state specifically enacts laws to make it harder to vote, or where state actors use violence to prevent someone from voting? That seems like it lacks the qualifying areas that handle this, though one would argue that it is, like…the lowest of State Terror.

        • It would probably depend on how it’s happening. I mean, if the state is actually killing and beating people to make them afraid to vote against the regime, wouldn’t that be state terror? And not the lowest form of it at all. Quite serious, in fact.

          But simply making it more DIFFICULT to vote… that’s not putting you in fear of your life if you dissent. That’s just an obstacle to dissent. It may be reprehensible, but it isn’t state terror. Can’t have state terror without terror.

          (And not every obstacle to voting even counts an obstacle to dissent. For it to count as an obstacle to dissent, it would have to exclude a substantial proportion of otherwise legitimate votes, which would have counted against the government in power. A system meant to guarantee that a voter is actually registered in her district, and hasn’t already voted that day, for example, is by definition an obstacle to voting. It excludes the voice of outsiders, and prevents fraudulent multiplication of voices within. But unless that system poses a significant burden to lawful voters who oppose the regime, realistically preventing them from voting in representative numbers, then it’s not an obstacle to DISSENT.)

          • That’s not the problem with voter ID laws, the problem is that 1. politicians who advocate for them have also publicly stated that it’s to prevent the ‘black vote’ which usually leans democratic. 2. Research has shown that voting fraud doesn’t happen due to lack of voter ID. 3. requiring ID would be perfectly fine if it wasn’t made difficult to OBTAIN ID. Most places in the US to obtain ID especially in places with voter ID laws have rules that make it arbitrarily difficult to obtain it, especially if you’re lower class (which due to historical reasons, most of the african-american community) such as only opening on specific hours on a Tuesday every month (hard if you risk losing your job to go get ID), or ridiculous requirements to prove who you are that also require extensive work to get. Of course, there are also other ways voter suppression occurs against the working class such as elections always being held on a weekday and are not a mandatory holiday. This is a terribly written extremely short and very rough explanation of it, and i encourage you to watch John Oliver’s segment on Last Week Tonight about it where he explains it way better than I ever could (available freely on Youtube)

  4. Andrew Farrell says

    So under this framework, the treatment of the Helots by the Spartan ruling class would not qualify as State Terror because it was not ideologically motivated, correct?

    • I think that’s right. It wasn’t state terror because it wasn’t trying to stifle dissent. Dissent was a given. This was the oppression of slavery, instead.

      The Helots were slaves, more or less. Not quite property, but serfs tied to the land who had barely any rights. They were killed and beaten routinely, not to gain their support, but to keep them down. The killing and beating happened without regard to whether the victim happened to disagree with the system. Helots were to receive a certain number of beatings every year, whether deserved or not, simply to remind them of their low status. Killing them was justified simply because they were Helots, not because they had done anything wrong.

      The Spartans were the ones who were in fear, constantly and sincerely afraid of an uprising by the Helots, who greatly outnumbered them. The Spartan policy was meant to reduce the Helot numbers and to eliminate any who didn’t act downtrodden enough (fearing that an “uppity” slave might inspire others to stand up for themselves). Any deterrent aspect of this policy was to meant to enforce the rules — to prevent forbidden conduct — rather than to deter dissent. Dissent was PRESUMED.

      Not all tyranny is state terror.

  5. Ryan says

    Would the holocost be considered an example of state terror as well?

    • (I nearly posted an essay disagreeing with the author!)

      I feel like “People who didn’t act downtrodden enough” pretty much defines Dissent, though. But, yeah, the oppression of slavery needs to be different. (In much the same way Manslaughter and Murder need to be different.) And, now that I think of it, there is a level of activeness to it.

      My personal opinion with the holocaust would be no. Its goal wasn’t to stifle DISSENT. Its goal was to SCAPEGOAT. Blaming the Jews for the problems, allowed Hitler to gain power. The Jews did nothing wrong, their only sin was simply being JEWISH. The gays did nothing wrong, Hitler simply didn’t like them.

      Nazi Germany did, however, include lots of state terror, but his oppression of the Jews wasn’t it. The oppression of Communists was closer, but in many cases they didn’t like him because HE didn’t like them. (Right up until it was politically convenient, then he changed his mind…then changed it back)

      The Gestapo was pure state terror, though.

      I’d think of it like this.

      If it is done to regulate dissent, and keep control against people who protest, it’s state terror.

      If it’s done against people who did not dissent, and is arbitrary, it’s not.

      Another way to put it…

      It is the use of violence or threat of violence,
      TO extort
      Political INACTION
      Committed by a Government Entity

      That a fair definition, Mr. Burney?

      …Holy fuck…if my definition is accurate, Voter Suppression would be a perfect example…

      • Even if your definition is accurate (and to my eye it looks like a broadening of the definition put forth in the comic), voter suppression is not an example. Nathan’s comment up the page highlights that voter suppression fails the extortion and violence tests. If voting were routinely suppressed by killing those who voted for the wrong person (e.g. non-secret ballot), it would be a good candidate for being state violence. But an unfair application of mere bureaucracy isn’t violent and doesn’t use fear to disincentivize a wider community from voting.

  6. Karl says

    It’s funny you wrote marxist and communist projects use repression as an illusion their working while a Marxist and communist country has surpassed the USAs gdp ppp. Even more hilarious when you realize that your entire country is built upon the genocide of Indians and the brutal repression against blacks and poor people.

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