A Historical Reflection on Terrorism


History has proven its stubborn indispensability to me when I think about problems. How exactly should I articulate them, especially if they lack easy definition? How should I come up not even with solutions, but places to start considering problems? Throughout this essay, I will argue for the primacy of the genealogical approach to problems in history, and why it exposes “sites” that are of the utmost importance and urgency for now in formulating a fight against injustice. As Colin Koopman put it, “Genealogies articulate problems . . . submerged problems,” like, for example, terrorism. The discovery of this approach to history has influenced my life greatly and has helped my continuing education and fight against the injustices of Islamophobia, racism, imperialism, and climate change.

What comes to your mind when someone says the word “terrorism?” All at once, it may conjure up images of buildings impaled with planes, civilians shot, and the Middle East torn apart. These are examples of the results of terrorism, but what about its definition? If someone asked you this question, it would be much harder to answer. Truthfully, it is a meaningless question. The word terrorism is what the theorist Ernesto Laclau would call an “empty signifier,” that is, a word that tries to “paper over the cracks and to invent stability and system where no such things exist.” The word does not refer to any concrete action, backed up by this or that cause; it is “floating” in a land of a plurality of definitions, usages, and contexts. Its meaninglessness is exposed when people or countries in power commit violent acts against civilians. Is it terrorism, people ask? Tortured ambivalence awaits them.

We define words with other words; words, in fact, only make sense in relation to other words. But there is no inherent meaning in any of these signifiers (words), and this chain of definitions goes on ad infinitum. The relationships between signifier and signified (what the word is referring to) are slippery. Thus, we tie meaning down to certain words; these “quilt” or “anchor” the ideological fields in which we operate. For example, words like “democracy,” “freedom,” and yes, “terrorism,” are examples of these “quilting points.” After all, if we don’t believe in democracy or freedom, what is Western civilization built upon? Likewise, if we don’t believe in the boogeyman that is terrorism, why is the United States sending so many troops to the Middle East? If we didn’t tie meaning down to certain words, it would be nigh impossible to be attached. I believe that ambiguous words such as “democracy,” which lack easy definition, are ripe for genealogical analysis. How, and why, have we come to see manifestations of these concepts, and why are they so important to us as a society? How can we define them?

This reminds me of something the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated: “Only that which has no history is definable.” The only answer then, not to determine terrorism’s definition, but to illuminate its mechanisms, drives, contexts, and causes, is to turn to history. The objective of tracing the various discourses of terrorism through the ages is to see how they have “created meaning systems that have gained the status and currency of ‘truth’ . . . whilst other alternative discourse are marginalised and subjugated, yet potentially ‘offer’ sites where hegemonic practices can be contested, challenged and ‘resisted.’”A historical approach of this undertaking must not be performed in the interest of finding certain narratives, but rather through a painstaking search to expose an issue from all possible angles and vantage points, allowing the conditions of its engenderment to materialize.

A helpful metaphor for understanding genealogy is “No individual is the goal of a family history. Rather, a family is a vast fabric of relationships, and any one individual represents only one among many confluences of past lines of descent.” So, for terrorism then, one would have to analyze the historical material available, concerning its origins in many of its manifestations and treat it as a “family” of genealogies, all converging to produce what we, in 2022, believe “terrorism” is, and why it produces itself in the ways it does. This is what Erlenbusch-Anderson did in her book Genealogies of Terrorism: she worked through historical archives from the French Revolution, state violence during the Russian Revolution, colonial violence in French Algeria, and up to the post-9/11 era. According to Erlenbusch-Anderson, terrorism develops as a mechanism of social defense. This means that calling and then treating something as terrorism is a way to keep threats, internal or external, out of society. Additionally, she evaluates the type of terrorism we face in the present to be synthetic (a manifestation of violence used for many different means) ranging from the “charismatic” terror instigating from particular persons to “strategic” terror instigated by the state, and so on. 

Synthetic terrorism is mind-boggling and its consequences are far-reaching. As the sociologist, Jean Baudrillard stated, “A new terrorism has come into being, a new form . . . which plays the game . . . solely with the aim of disrupting it.” How does a system of total power, the West, respond to this disruption? What happened is the War on Terror: sowing fear and hatred, dictating who is human and who is not. For example, the massacres of civilians in places where the U.S invaded post-9/11 were in some cases not even reported, or more recently, the US government reclassified all males of military age as combatants in other to avoid confronting the atrocity of killing the same civilians they were supposedly protecting. Deepa Kumar states, “Thus, you didn’t even count as a civilian, a statistic, or much less a human being who deserved life.” Kumar later goes on to talk about affairs for Muslims inside the United States: “. . . tens of thousands of Muslims were put through a registry, detained or deported, and forced to leave family members behind.” When a group of people is dehumanized, violence against them becomes reasonable. 

All of this knowledge I would not have gained without world history, and a powerful method to approach it: genealogy. Even more importantly, I now have ‘sites’ in which I can confront injustice; this is priceless.


  • Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (Verso Books, 2003), 19
  • Michael Freeden, Ideology, A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2003), 111
  • Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson, Genealogies of Terrorism: Revolution, State Violence, Empire (Columbia University Press, 2018), 9
  • Colin Koopman, Genealogy as Critique; Foucault and the Problems of Modernity, (India University Press, 2013), 1
  • Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire: 20 Years After 9/11 (Verso Books, 2021), xiii
    • Ibid., 13
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, (Vintage Books, 1989), 80
  • Jenny Pinkus, Foucault
  • Point de capiton
  • Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Volume 4, 1