The series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday killed 129 people, and some of those wounded remain in critical conditions. While terrorist attacks are now a regular phenomenon around the world, it still raises indignation every time another bomb goes off killing more people. Alarmingly, those who get killed are mostly civilians including women and children at times. They are guilty of the politics of their politicians no more than a butterfly flapping its wings two continents away is responsible for a tornado outbreak.
Let's for argument's sake accept that these terrorists have got genuine grievances to lash out at the world. They are oppressed and they are deprived. Let's also accept millions of refugees fleeing their homes often find it insensitive when the countries, which have caused their dislocations and sufferings, hesitate to give them shelter. If poverty leads to perfidy, deprivation and cruelty spawn depravity.
But that doesn't explain why modern-day terrorists don't have a conscience. One could understand if they targeted military installations, facilities and personnel. One could understand if they hit out at governments and their organs. Oppression of the oppressor restores a sense of natural balance.
Once upon a time there was something called “the terrorist conscience”. The first assassination attempt on Grand Duke Sergei, Governor General of Moscow, in 1905 had failed because Russian revolutionary Ivan Kalyayev refused to kill the children, who were riding in the Grand Duke's carriage. It was in the name of that same conscience that another revolutionary Boris Savinkov was opposed to an attempt on Sergei's successor Admiral Dubassov in the Petersburg-Moscow express because the explosion could kill “strangers”. His comrade Voinarovsky made it clear he wasn't going to throw the bomb if Dubassov were accompanied by his wife.
Thus terrorism was once a precision art. The revolutionaries targeted their enemies and eliminated them without having the innocent people suffer death and devastation. In their bid to change the world, they refused to kill more people than needed. They killed not to terrorise, but for the same reason surgeons operate patients to remove malignant tumours. The targets of those attacks were kings, ministers, police chiefs and other persons of political or military importance.
Thus the terrorist attack on ordinary people is a recent phenomenon, perhaps the attack on the Twin Towers being its first and single biggest manifestation. Earlier, rulers carried out mass executions to put down mutinies or conquer another kingdom. Religious wars and inquisitions also victimised common people. A large number of civilians died in the two World Wars including six million Jews sent to the gas chambers and over 300,000 Japanese killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American bombs.
Revolutionaries have carried out retail executions of their enemies since the days of Spartacus, who had led a slave uprising against the Roman Republic. But the masters had exacted their revenge on the slaves at a usurious price. Six thousand survivors of the revolt captured by the legions of Crassus were crucified, lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua. Wholesale killing has always been the preserve of the ruling class.
The suicide bombers have turned that game on its head as those who are ruled discovered that their anguished souls could unleash the energy of deadly bombs. Explosives tied to the body, an individual could kill hundreds so long as he was ready to get himself blown up. It has also created this new crisis of conscience when people are getting punished for the sins of their politicians.
When the Taliban started it in Afghanistan, it was still a national crisis that Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have made global. Hardly a corner of the world is left that doesn't live in the fear of terrorist reprisals. Yet the world doesn't realise that the war against terror is only repeating the Greek myth of Medusa, which has it that the blood dropping from her severed head has produced the innumerable serpents that infest Africa.
The terrorists are also failing to see their mistakes. Not all people in a country have voted for their government in power and neither are they to blame for its hideous policies. Yet some of these people get killed or maimed when suicide bombs indiscriminately explode in public places. Miscarriage of justice doesn't rectify injustice. The blood of subjects doesn't wash the guilt of their rulers.
It takes conscience to make that distinction. The western powers are supposedly killing for a cause; and the terrorists are allegedly looking for a cause to kill. But how does anybody distinguish the regular victims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan from the sporadic victims elsewhere both in savagery and statistics? Innocent people are getting killed on both sides of this dangerous divide. Explosions merely ring out that inane crisis of conscience afflicting everyone.
The writer is the Editor of weekly First News and a columnist for The Daily Star.