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Finding Who Is Responsible When No Group Takes Credit

July 28, 1996|Anna Geifman | Anna Geifman, an associate professor of history at Boston University, is author of, "Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1893-1917" (Princeton University Press)

MOSCOW — Despite all the talk about terrorism in connection with the crash of TWA Flight 800, no credible group has come forward to claim responsibility for the air disaster. This is in marked contrast to all previous patterns of terrorist behavior--when extremist groups rushed to attest their responsibility forpolitical assassinations and bombings, avidly competing for high scores of violent attempts, regardless of their success. Lately, however, terrorists have remained silent after their assaults--a definite shift from familiar paradigms.

No group ever came forward to take responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which went down over Scotland. The Pentagon has never received a credible claim of responsibility for the bombing of U.S. military housing in Saudi Arabia. And no group has taken credit for the recent explosions in the Moscow mass-transit system. So we cannot dismiss the terror-related explanation of the Flight 800 tragedy because we do not have an affidavit from those who might have caused it. Yet, if the air disaster was another episode in a death play repeatedly acted out by terrorists, why don't they come out and say so?

"Terror is to be done, not to be talked about," went a notorious maxim of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party, the largest terrorist organization in the world at the turn of the century. Nonetheless, as soon as the radicals adopted terrorism as a primary tool in their anti-government struggle, they began to violate this maxim. From the outset of their terrorist campaign, the Socialist Revolutionaries, along with zealous colleagues from lesser-known terrorist conspiracies, sought to explain the rationale for their violent tactics to the public.

In April 1902, Stepan Balmashev, dressed as an aide-de-camp, entered the Marinsky Palace in St. Petersburg. He handed Russian Interior Minister Dmitry Sipiagin an envelope containing his death sentence, then shot him twice. Balmashev acted independently, but the Socialist Revolutionary leadership immediately declared the sensational assassination a deed of the party and issued pamphlets glorifying the terrorist's feat.

And so it was with all major acts of political terror, including those the Socialists Revolutionaries considered "a matter of honor for the party:" the 1904 assassination of Sipiagin's successor, Interior Minister Vyacheslav K. Plehve, and the 1905 bomb that blew up Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, governor-general of Moscow and an uncle of Csar Nicholas II.

Similarly, revolutionary and extremist nationalist groups operating outside the major centers of political life frequently disputed responsibility for combat ventures in such regions as the Caucasus, Balkans, Turkey and India. All sought to enhance their reputations, after the fact, by condemning their enemies and deifying selfless martyrs of "the sacred terror." Indeed, the unprecedented escalation of terrorism was unthinkable without the extremists' high-flown language of political and national liberation, public castigation of oppressive regimes and exoneration of violence as a regrettable prerequisite to the imminent dawn of a free era.

Around 1900, there emerged a new breed of terrorist. This new radical was a blend of revolutionary and common bandit, whose psychology revealed marked liberation from all ethical restraints. The archetypal terrorist had "his own code of values by which he judges whom to hurt." Initial signs were already discernible in late-19th century Russia, where extremist socialists were busy laying the groundwork for modern terrorism. Feodor M. Dostoevsky depicted this emerging trend in "The Possessed," with Pyotr Verhovensky and Nikolai Vsyevolodovitch Stavrogin as prototypes of a new terrorist. By the early 1900s, the phenomenon was widespread enough to be evident not only to a literary genius, but also to the public at large. Despite distinctive national and local characteristics, early practitioners of the new type of violence became the forerunners of modern extremists, who in recent decades have caused terrorism to assume "the proportions of a global epidemic."

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