When the Australian media on 4 July flashed the words “Web of Terror” on front pages, they were bringing together the two themes that dominate the present-day human situation. One is the advent of the computer and the revolution that followed; the other is the rise of terrorism as a weapon to resolve conflict.
Terrorism is not a new word. Its earliest occurrence is recorded around 1795 in the context of the French Revolution, specifically, the Reign of Terror that killed 250,000 people for not being loyal to the cause. This period, leading to the fall of Robespierre, was known as the Red Terror because of the river of blood that flowed in France. A hundred years later, there was another Red Terror, orchestrated by Trotsky and implemented by Stalin using the agency of the notorious Cheka.
Modern-day terrorism is a continuation of the guerrilla warfare of earlier times. The word guerrilla (little war) was borrowed into English during the Peninsular War of the early 19th century in which British forces supported by Portuguese and Spanish guerrilleros defeated Napoleon.
In 1937, Mao Zedong wrote his seminal book on the theory of guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla tactics included deception, ambush and skirmishes in inhospitable terrain.
The glossary of terrorists contains several terms for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). There are chemical weapons, including the “dirty bomb”, which—by spreading radiation—can make a place uninhabitable, and the sarin gas released by the Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway. The Iraq war made WMD a central issue. Two expressions that George Orwell would have found interesting are “collateral damage” and “asymmetric warfare”. The former refers generally to civilian casualties during a military operation. The latter is a conflict between unequal forces, in which the smaller force resorts to unconventional tactics to offset its weakness.
The ordinary citizen associates terrorism most often with suicide bombings. The Old Testament has the story of Samson, who, when betrayed by Delilah, turned suicide warrior. He pulled down the temple on his own shoulders, killing himself and his enemies. World War II saw the official formation of the kamikaze force in Japan. These were soldiers who flew their aeroplanes into enemy targets, chiefly warships. Kamikaze, pronounced in four syllables, means “divine wind”. The reference is to the fierce storm that saved Japan from the invading fleet of Kublai Khan in 1281. In the terrorists’ lexicon, suicide bombing is known as “martyrdom operation”.
The vocabulary of terror goes with the vocabulary of the Internet. The developments in the computer revolution have led to a proliferation of new words in English. The beginning was when Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics” for the study of communication and control in biological, mechanical and electronic systems. The root of the word is Greek “kybernetes” from kybernan, to steer. The nearest word in current English is “gubernatorial”, referring to a governor. “Cyber” became one of the most productive prefixes. If people who travel in spaceships are called astronauts, people who surf the Web are cybernauts. The cybercafe provided access to computers to interested citizens; some Indian states promoted cyber dhabas, which could provide telephone, copier and printer services besides access to computers. The uses of the Internet multiplied. Netbanking brought in paperless currency. E-businesses flourished and email became indispensable. As people began to depend on the computer for their business transactions, criminals caught up. They began to steal personal data from computers and use them to commit credit card frauds or to manipulate bank accounts. This is known as identity theft. The Net also became a haven for arms sales, gambling, drug peddling and pornography.
A separate branch called cyberlaw has evolved. But the Internet has abolished geography and so law enforcement gets bogged down in jurisdiction considerations.
Terrorists find many uses for the Internet. They distribute propaganda material on the Internet and try to win international sympathy for their cause. This goes with what is called “psyops”, psychological operations, to influence the enemy’s state of mind by using gruesome videoclips of mutilation or beheading of hostages and images of women and children. Terrorist cadres are recruited on the Internet, and are given virtual training. Information is power today, and the Internet is a perennial source of such power for the terrorist. Even classified information pertaining to defence and technology can be harvested from the Net.
In Gitanjali, Tagore pleaded: “...Where knowledge is free, .... Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” Tagore’s dream has come true, and the whole world of knowledge opens up at a mouse-click for free access. But the prospect that lies beyond is by no means heavenly.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to email@example.com