Those Hell-Hounds Called Terrorists

"Those Hell-Hounds Called Terrorists," Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2001.


These are the words of Edmund Burke, referring to a corps of irregulars used to enforce the tyranny of the French Revolution. I hope I will not be drafted into the “blame America” crowd if I briefly expound on the place of terror in the tradition of modern political thought in the West. Then we can compare the terror we know from our philosophers with the terror from Islamic radicals that we have lately experienced.

Aristotle speaks of terror used by tyrants to maintain their rule, but he rejects it because he rejects tyranny. Terror is directed against the notable and high-minded of the tyrant’s subjects; with terror, the tyrant eliminates these dangerous potential foes and keeps the people modest and submissive. It was Machiavelli, a modern writer, who picked up this tyrant’s weapon and made it an instrument of all government, including republican government. He recommended the practice of cruelty as long as it was “well-used,” but he suggested too that the infinite cruelty of Hannibal was a virtue. While individual killings might be represented as punishment for crimes, Machiavelli went so far as to propose killing all the gentlemen in a republic so as to make it governable. As with Aristotle, terror is essentially anti-aristocratic. It is used against the honorable, who do not fear death, or fear it less, in order to impress the multitude, who do fear it and take satisfaction in the elimination of those who pretend to be above them.

Thomas Hobbes founded a philosophy of rights on the timorous character of the multitude, making it universal in a “state of nature” where everyone would be in fear. John Locke, the founder of liberalism, continued Hobbes’ reliance on a fearful state of nature and the right of self-preservation. To a degree, therefore, modern political philosophy is implicated in the terror that was adopted as deliberate state policy by the French Republic when the Convention declared the Terror to be the order of the day on September 5, 1793. Here the tyrant’s recourse for saving himself becomes the republic’s chosen policy of killing its enemies, potential or actual.

To Burke the policy of terror revealed the principal feature of the French Revolution, its fanatical atheism. Religion can be the cause of fanaticism (“enthusiasm” in the eighteenth-century sense), he admitted. But so too, the world learned then for the first time, could atheism. The Revolution’s philosophers taught its politicians an atheistic doctrine that the used to consolidate their power at home and expand it abroad. Conscience was deposed from its dominion over the mind, and the dreadful maxim of Machiavelli—never to be wicked by halves in great affairs—was put in its stead.