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Spies in History & Literature ~
Defining Terrorism – A Short History of Fact, Fiction, and Film

By Wesley Britton

“An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist because he prefers a great moment to everything. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions, the poet delights in disorder.”
(G. K. Chesterson, The Man Who Was Thursday, 1908)

Without question, what we refer to today as terrorism has been a tactic used for centuries – that is, organized or independent violence against civilians or political figures not directly involved in military combat. But before 1972, the term wasn’t commonly used to describe such actions.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, “terrorist” as a political term appeared twice during 1795. In one publication, terrorists were also called “Hell-hounds . . . let loose on the people.” (Note 1)

A secondary definition mentioned that an early use of “terrorist” especially applied to “members of one of the extreme revolutionary societies in Russia.” One 1798 quote said, “The causes of rebellion, insurrection . . . terrorism, massacres, and revolutionary murders.” The OED also referred to an 1883 Harper’s Magazine article mentioning Russian Terrorists and “the revolutionary party.”

According to another source, it’s agreed the term dates back to 1795, coined by a British journalist to describe French revolutionaries. Somewhat inaccurately, this site claims “Terrorist in the modern sense dates to 1947, especially in reference to Jewish tactics against the British in Palestine” – earlier it was used of extremist revolutionaries in Russia (1866). (Note 2)

Of course, as noted by the same author, throughout history, defining terrorism has depended on which side of the conflict one was on; one party’s terrorist was seen on the other side as guerilla or freedom fighters as in the British action in Cyprus (1956) and the war in Rhodesia (1973). “The word terrorist has been applied, at least retroactively, to the Maquis resistance in occupied France in World War II (e.g. in the ‘Spectator,’ Oct. 20, 1979).”

From still another view, “The word ‘terrorism’ came into general use at the end of the 18th century, and it was then used to refer to acts of violent states that suppressed their own populations by violence . . . That concept is of no use whatsoever to people in power, so, predictably, the term has come to be changed. Now it’s the actions of citizens against states; in fact, the term ‘terrorism’ is now almost entirely used for what you might call ‘retail terrorism’: the terrorism of small, marginal groups, and not the terrorism of powerful states. We have one exception to this: if our enemies are involved in terrorism, then you can talk about ‘state terrorism.’” (Note 3)

So just what makes a terrorist remains a question of debate.


As discussed in my Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (2005), many European fears at the dawn of the 20th Century came from worries about both anarchist and Bolshevik agents bombing ships, docks, munitions installations, and historic sites. In America, the Chicago Haymarket Riots of the 1870s were the major anarchist events in U.S. history before part-time anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. He did so “for much the same reason John Hinckley later shot President Reagan – he was trying to impress Anarchist Emma Goldman with his devotion to the Anarchist cause, as he was infatuated with her.” (Note 4)

“Execution of Czolgosz, with panorama of Auburn Prison” (1901) was a studio-made recreation of the event, although the shots taken outside Auburn prison are authentic. (Note 5)

The most famous use of these concerns was novelist Joseph Conrad’s 1907 Secret Agent. Based on an actual bombing, the story’s main protagonist, Verloc, was pressured to bomb the Greenwich Observatory so the British people would renew their European responsibilities. From Beyond Bond

Another character type was a tragic foreshadowing of terrorists in fact and fiction into the 21st Century. Professor X . . . was portrayed as the perfect anarchist. Like later villains in film and literature, he had grand visions of creating the perfect detonator. For protection, he strapped explosives to his own deformed body, and supplied Verloc with the explosives for the bombing. However, Verloc relied on a pawn, the imbecilic brother of his wife, who bungled the attack and blew himself up instead. Such moments evoke later news stories about Palestinian and Chetzian terrorists in modern times, as does the speech by “spymaster” Vladimer justifying terrorism:

“There could be nothing better. Such an outrage combines the greatest possible regard for humanity with the most alarming display of ferocious imbecility . . . And there are other advantages. The whole civilised world has heard of Greenwich. The very boot-blacks in the basement of Charing Cross Station know something of it. See?” (1992 44, qtd. in Britton 9)

Conrad was not the only significant author to use anarchists for literary purposes; novelist G. K. Chesterson’s surreal classic, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was a fanciful story with more undercover agents than most books of the era. In this case, one agent thinks he’s investigating a group of anarchists disguising themselves as anarchists because their leader says that if anyone trumpets their beliefs out loud, no one will take them seriously. Chesterson’s spy joined the inner circle of seven scheming bombers, six of whom all turn out to be police informants spying on each other. The evil leader was the mysterious Scotland Yard official who'd hired them in the first place. (Britton 10)

Later, two film updatings of Conrad’s novel used terrorists to reflect then-contemporary fears, Notably Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 Sabotage and Christopher Hampton’s 1997 The Secret Agent. The latter focused on a reconstruction of the 19th century London Anarchist milieu at a time when the Uni-bomber was the newest representation of such characters (Porton 22). Perhaps the first film centered on the subject was The Nihilists, a 1905 Biograph which included “Two Terrible Explosions of Dynamite Bombs” by an underground terrorist organization in Russia. (Note 6)

D. W. Griffith’s 1909 Voices of the Violin was an exploration of anarchists in which a gentle German émigré was duped into becoming a saboteur before true love saved him (Porton 17). Made in Paris, director Herbert Brenon’s The Anarchist (1913) starred King Baggot who’s seen standing with a bomb in each hand ready to blow up a crowd until he remembers a little girl to whom he once gave a toy horn. He hears her playing the horn and gives himself up.

Perhaps the strangest outgrowth of the anarchist/terrorist themes of the period were the number of film comedies using bombs for entertainment. Some believe the entire milieu in the slapstick “Keystone Cops” series revolved around the subject, as in A Life in the Balance (1913) with a plot involving anarchists and The Noise of Bombs (1914) with another mad bomber. One Charlie Chaplin short, “Behind the Screen” (1916) had striking workers trying to sabotage the set by placing bombs in the basement. In Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922), a bomb lands on the comic’s furniture wagon. Keaton’s 1924 The Navigator has villains described as “enemies of the state.”

Huns and Commies

However, as World War I dawned, foes in silent films were most often “Huns,” or German agents, trying to sabotage U.S. military readiness. For example, D. W. Griffith also produced The Hun Within (A.K.A. The Enemy Within) in 1915. Lillian Gish starred as a woman who became involved with a German spy plotting to blow up an American ship. Other films with a clear bent for propaganda against German sabotage included The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), Doing Their Bit (1918), and The Key to Power (1920).

After the First World War, America’s first “Red Scare” lasted from 1919 through 1920 when a number of bombs were mailed to U.S. officials. The most famous was the “Palmer Incident” where a terrorist blew himself up on the doorstep of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The first to investigate, and to step over the remains, was then Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt (Barson and Heller 8). Such events prompted a new vogue in silent films, as in the obvious propaganda piece, Dangerous Hours (1920), which tried to connect worries about labor unions, anarchists, and Communism in a story with Bolsheviks attempting to stir up revolution in shipyards (Barson and Heller 9).

But terrorists in films often had other agendas not associated with anarchists, Germans, or Reds. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) has been connected to terrorists “as the KKK is the oldest terrorist organization in the world.” In defense of Griffith, who rejected cries claiming racism in his epic, “ . . . as the film The White Caps (1905) included on the recent Edison package put out by Kino makes clear, there was a tendency among early American film makers to celebrate the activities of unlawful groups that bring justice to local situations where the law is perceived as falling short of the need.” (See Note 4)

Other acts of terrorism in movie houses involved Mexican revolutionaries as in Behind the Lines (1916). Clara Kimball Young was a leader of a group of Russian terrorists trying to assassinate the Tsar in My Official Wife (1914). Two Lon Chaney films that involve groups that are implied “terrorists” are The Penalty (1920) and The Ace of Hearts (1921).

In A Face in the Fog (1922), Lionel Barrymore played Boston Blackie who, with government agents, finds a gang of jewel crooks are really Russian terrorists wanting to block a Duchess from selling a diamond to raise funds to restore the monarchy. The villain of the serial The Power God (1926) has been described as qualifying as a terrorist. A late entry was A Ship Comes In (1928), where Rudolf Schildkraut played an immigrant who was tricked into carrying a bomb. (Note 7)

But, while clearly dealing with what we would now call terrorism, the term wasn’t used in the scripts.

“Unmasking the man behind your back.” (From promotional poster for Saboteur, 1942)

As European concerns over the growing Nazi presence grew in the 1930s, the most frequent term used to describe German infiltrators in both England and America was again “saboteur.” But a few film titles used as propaganda to warn civilians to be vigilant on their home streets were Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Madmen of Europe (A.K.A. An Englishman’s Home, 1940), Federal Fugitives (1941), Saboteur (1942), and The Deadly Game (1942).

While other espionage films of the era dealt with more-or-less straightforward spies looking for government secrets, these movies dealt with Germans looking for ways to blow up ships, munitions, or guide bombers to targets in London. In such fare, a “saboteur” necessarily meant an agent of the Axis powers – agents on the Western side were seen as defenders of their country.

Depending on your point of view, terrorists were also found in surprising film genres. For example, John Carroll was James Vega in the quasi-Western serial, Zorro Rides Again (1937). In this very espionage-oriented story, a singing great-grandson of the first Zorro battled a gang of terrorists who want to stop a train track being built over the U.S./Yucatan border that would benefit Mexico.

Post WW II Terrorism

From the onset of the Cold War through the 1960s, considerable international violence has been defined, in retrospect, as terrorism, most often in South America, India, and the Middle East. In 1966, spokesmen for the Klu Klux Klan referred to themselves as a “terror organization” when they announced planned retaliation against Beatle John Lennon after his remarks his group was more popular then Jesus Christ. Of course, the KKK’s burning cross and white hoods were well-known symbols of racist terrorism, especially in the American South where first former slaves and ultimately Civil Rights workers were lynched or murdered in cases still being investigated and prosecuted.

According to various reports in The New York Times, the word “terrorist” had yet to be used for what we now consider terrorist acts in the early 1970s. (Note 8)

For example, on Sept. 7, 1970, “hijackers” was used to describe various takeovers of airlines, hijacking being one of the most frequently-used techniques during that time period. On Jan. 8, 1972, “Political radicals” were blamed for time bombs planted in safe-deposit boxes at three Wall Street banks and six others in Chicago and San Francisco. In the same year, on May 31, “Gunmen,” “attackers,” and a “guerilla group” were blamed for killing 25 people at Tel Aviv airport.

In 1972, two widely-publicized actions made the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and various Palestinian groups the central focuses of fears of terrorism. July 21, 1972, was dubbed “Bloody Friday” when IRA bomb attacks killed eleven people and injured 130 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Ten days later, three IRA car bomb attacks in the village of Claudy left six dead. On September 5, 1972, what became known as “Black Sunday” or the “Munich Olympic Massacre” took place when Eight Palestinian “Black September” terrorists seized eleven Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich, West Germany. In a bungled rescue attempt by West German authorities, nine of the hostages and five terrorists were killed.

As a result, in 1972 President Richard Nixon formed the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism. Nixon's memo asking his secretary of state, William Rogers, to oversee the task force said –

It is vital that we take every possible action ourselves and in concert with other nations designed to assure against acts of terrorism . . . It is equally important that we be prepared to act quickly and effectively in the event that, despite all efforts at prevention, an act of terrorism occurs involving the United States, either at home or abroad. (Note 9)

Still, language used to describe assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, or hijackings were not consistent. As Bill Koenig noted, the Patty Hearst SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) kidnappers were called “radicals” in The New York Times and a 1975 article attributed a tavern explosion in New York to “Puerto Rican nationalists.”

One Sept. 6, 1972, story regarding “Black Sunday” used the word “terrorists,” but Reuters referred to Black September as an “Arab guerrilla organization.” In some circles, there was obvious reluctance to use the term. One October 12, 1973, article in The Capetown Times, ostensibly referring to pro and anti-Apartheid demonstrations, reported “The Minister cannot expect journalists to do violence to the English language . . . by describing guerilla warfare as terrorism at all times and in all circumstances.” Even as late as 1979, the Iranians involved in the hostage crisis were described as “revolutionaries.” In literature, perhaps the most obvious use of the term came in 1977 when “Matt Helm” creator Donald Hamilton published The Terrorizers, in which Helm pursued a gang of American terrorists.

Terrorism Now

In subsequent decades, “terrorism” has most often been associated with Islamic groups described as “radicals,” “fundamentalists,” “Insurgents,” “suicide bombers”, and “extremists,” although any act performed by a small group, say anti-abortionists bombing Planned Parenthood clinics, has been dubbed “terrorist.” Basque separatists and Hamas are now typically called “terrorists” in media reports. Certain characteristics seem to apply in modern parlance:

  1. Kidnappings, bombings, hostage-taking, or murder committed by rebel groups opposed to specific governments or their policies. Typically, such governments are not in a formal state of war but are instead attacked by disgruntled citizenry from within.

    Examples – On Jan. 31, 1975, the Weather Underground, a group opposed to the Vietnam War, claimed responsibility for an explosion in a bathroom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington. On June 5, 1984, Sikh terrorists seized the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. One hundred people died when Indian security forces retook the Sikh holy shrine. On January 31, 1996, members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rammed an explosives-laden truck into the Central Bank in the heart of downtown Colombo, Sri Lanka, killing 90 civilians and injuring more than 1,400 others. (Note 10)

  2. Violent acts by small groups linked to wider conspiracies opposed to the presence of the U.S. or other countries seen to be an oppressive force in parts of the world where there are objections to “Americanization.” Typically, military targets are preferred, although civilians have not been excluded.

    Examples – On December 4, 1981, three American nuns and one lay missionary were found murdered outside San Salvador, El Salvador, killed by members of the National Guard. On April 18, 1983, sixty-three people, including the CIA’s Middle East director, were killed and 120 were injured in a 400-pound suicide truck-bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. On November 13, 1995, the Islamic Movement of Change planted a bomb in a Riyadh military compound that killed one U.S. citizen, several foreign national employees of the U.S. government, and over 40 others.

  3. Violent acts by individuals or very small groups with personal agendas.

    Examples – On February 25, 1994, Jewish right-wing extremist and U.S. citizen Baruch Goldstein machine-gunned Moslem worshippers at a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron, killing 29 and wounding about 150. On April 19, 1995, right-wing extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a massive truck-bomb that killed 166 and injured hundreds more.

When James Bond appeared in Dr. No (1962), he battled agents of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. – the Special Executive for Espionage, Terror, Revenge, and Extortion. While the organization and its founder, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, seemed to emphasize extortion as a goal, the concept inspired a host of film and television imitators who used sci-fi flavored terrorism for quasi-utopian goals. While this light fiction would seem to have little to do with actual “terrorism,” in October 2001, reports circulated that many thought Hollywood and U.S. intelligence should work together to combat new threats – the attacks on America on 9/11 were discussed as a plot similar to a Hollywood script. For example, on November 15, 2001, deejays on the #1 talk radio show in Chicago, The Roe & Garry Show on WLS-AM, said the James Bond movies were prophetic. “Do you suppose Osama sits in his cave, stroking a cat?”

Perhaps. More importantly, fictional villains who have sought to rework the world in the image they prefer share much with modern terrorists. In the film Our Man Flint (1965), a group of scientists try to convince Derek Flint (James Coburn) their mission is noble – to force world leaders to find peaceful ways to solve problems. Those known as terrorists today too see themselves not as criminals but revolutionaries, politically or religiously inspired to use whatever means are at hand to force changes they seek.

Ironically, dealing with terrorism after 9/11 has become difficult for creative endeavors. For but one example, when word was released that a new Bond novel would be commissioned for 2008, a quick debate ensued about how to use terrorism in the new world of 007. Marc Lambert, chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust, said, “My personal inclination is to really update where Bond is operating and what he is trying to do – the obvious subject matter is terrorists in the post-communist world and grappling with the issues that come out of that.”

Ian Rankin, Scotland’s best-selling crime writer, agreed, noting, “. . . there is scope for more ambitious plot lines. We have all manner of terrorists around the globe but there are also environmental catastrophes all the time and that is something the spy world doesn’t seem to have really tackled yet – the causes of environmental catastrophes and how to stop them and how they could be used by terrorists in the future.”

On the other hand, Bond historian Graham Rye doubted that anyone would want to pit Bond against the terrorists of today. “Al-Qaeda would be too political. A Bond villain has to be a completely abstract creation.” (Lyons)

Clearly, fantasy has one set of problems. Outside of keeping Bond Bond, most novelists can use any form of terrorism they like in speculative fiction, from Tom Clancy to Daniel Silva to Joel C. Rosenberg. But Hollywood studios and television networks are more restricted. When the third season of the television show 24 employed Islamic characters, the network added disclaimers read by the show’s cast insisting no one should think all Muslims should be thought of as terrorists.

For that reason, Hollywood has tended, to date, to avoid the cultural aspects entirely opting for neo-Nazis (The Bourne Supremacy [2004]) or corporate powermongers (Tomorrow Never Dies [1997]) and stayed far afield from potential controversy. Of course, reality has a different set of issues. Until there are means to solve economic, cultural, and political conflicts, we will continue to be victims of those who wear many labels.

Whatever term is used, terrorists will strike out at an imperfect world.

Notes ~

Note 1 – As reported by Betty Glass, e-mail, April 23, 2005. (Channel D Yahoo list-serve.)

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Note 2 – Source – Online Etymology Dictionary.

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Note 3 – Quote provided by David Manning on Aug. 27, 2005, on alt.movies.silent@googlegroups.com.

Source – “Terrorism: The Politics of Language”

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Note 4 – E-mail from “spadeneal,” Sun. Aug. 28, 2005. (alt.movies.silent@googlegroups.com)

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Note 5 – Available online in the Library of Congress’ exhibit “The Last Days of a President: Films of McKinley and the Pan-American Exposition, 1901.”

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Note 6 – The Library of Congress. Here’s some text from an ad for The Nihilist:

The final scene is laid in the grand ballroom of the Governor’s palace. While the conference is occurring, the remaining brother and sister are seen stealthily slipping from pillar to pillar, until the girl is within a few feet of the Governor. In her hand is a bomb. She hesitates an instant to make sure of her aim, and then hurls the deadly missile. It explodes with terrific effect. The Governor is torn to shreds, and the magnificent palace is wrecked. The girl alone remains uninjured in the ruins, and with arms raised to Heaven she gives thanks for the success of her effort.

The complete text can be found at The Nihilists.

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Note 7 – greta de groat, Christopher Snowden, Bruce Jensen, Sally Dumaux, J. Theakston, and Rodney provided details about silent film terrorists on alt.movies.silent@googlegroups.com

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Note 8 – Bill Koenig provided the review of articles in the 1970s from The New York Times. E-mail, Aug. 21, 2005. (Channel D list-serve)

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Note 9 – Noted by Susan Perry in e-mail, Aug. 21, 2005. (Channel D)

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Note 10 – In March 2004, the U.S. Department of State posted a “Historical Background” of terrorism including a comprehensive list from 1961 to 2003. I quote extensively from this list.

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Works Cited ~

Barson, Michael and Steven Heller. Red Scared: The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 2001.

Britton, Wesley. Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. 2005.

Chesterson, G. K. The Man Who Was Thursday. Miami: Books on the Road. 1985. (audio book)

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. New York: Knopf. 1992.

Lyons, William. “New lease of life for 007’s licence to kill.” Scotsman.com News. Sun 28 Aug 2005.

Porton, Richard. Film and the Anarchist Imagination. London, New York: Verso Books. 1999.