Saturday, January 03, 2009

Terrorism then and now

Astrid Proll in custody, 1973

I came across a useful comparison between the jihadist terrorism we associate with Al Qa'ida and the kind of domestic terrorism a number of countries experienced in the 1970s, including Germany, Japan, the US, Italy, Spain and Argentina. It comes from a book by Astrid Proll, Hans und Grete: Bilder der RAF 1967-1977 (2004 edition). The author has some experience in the subject. She was one of the original members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), aka, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, who managed to spread considerable terror in Germany during the 1970s, although remnants of the group remained into the 1990s.

The formation of the RAF can be dated to May 14, 1970, when Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ennslin and others, including Proll, sprang Andreas Baader from police custody. Baader, Gudrun, Astrid's brother Thorwald, and Horst Söhnlein firebombed a department store in Frankfurt in 1968 as a political protest. The bombs went off at night; no one was injured though the store burned down. Baader was in custody in 1970 in relation to that bombing.

One official was severely wounded in freeing Baader, Astrid says by a hired gun the group brought along with them. She herself was arrested on May 6, 1971, which effectively ended her participation in the group's actions, before most of their more notorious and deadly actions began, although she considered herself part of the group for another couple of years.

Her comparison of the RAF's brand of terrorism to the kind the word invokes today, as in the Oklahoma City bombing or the 9/11 attacks, is as follows.


The text of this edition of the book is a parallel text in German and English:

To me, the production of this book was a way of getting close to my own history as well as the history of the RAF, which has been distorted by myths. And yet, appraising this type of 1970s terrorism in West Germany has become much more difficult since Al Quaida showed their murderous contempt for human life on 11 September 2001. Compared with the commandos who flew jet planes into the World Trade Center in New York, we were troubled amateurs, tormented by moral scruples. While Islamic assassins not only accept the death of civilians but attempt to kill as many as possible, we had long discussions about the issue of legitimate goals. When 17 workers were unintentionally hurt in a bomb attack on the headquarters of the Springer media corporation in Hamburg in May 1972, there was serious criticism about it and heavy tension within the group.

In making this comparison I do not want to, nor can I, deny our responsibility, but I wish to point out nevertheless that the term terrorism has undergone a change of meaning and is now understood in a different context than it was in the seventies. The media revolution through the Internet, satellite TV and 24-hour news channels around the world, creating the possibility of messages from all corners of the world, give the terrorists of today a power and visual impact which we never had.

Today, the propaganda methods we used seem completely antiquated. Andreas Baader did not pose for a video camera like Osama Bin Laden, Kalashnikov in hand, to recruit new comrades. In Ulrike Meinhof we had an excellent, professional journalist, but our press releases were always reduced to brief, formulaic commando-like declarations. We never really tried to use the power of pictures. [my emphasis]
Not that the RAF's history is without violence against people and deliberate killings, quite the contrary. Actions like bombing American bases in Germany were intended to kill people, and did.

And when fanaticism takes hold, whether it comes in a religious or secular cast, the definition of who are innocents can become very broad. Bodyguards? The RAF killed them. Civilian prosecutors? Targeted for assassination. And so on.

In the case of Salafi Sunni extremists like Osama bin Laden, they typically embraced something like the theory of Sayyid Qutb, who classified not just non-Muslims or even non-Sunnis as infidels, but included anyone who was not an adherent of true Islam as defined by those of like mind to himself. In Qutb's case, that would have been the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Astrid Proll circa 2008

But Astrid Proll is right to distinguish between different types of terrorism. Bush's favorite formula that terrorists are the embodiment of evil who kill because "they hate our values" makes them sound like near-mindless nihilists. But it hinders rather than helps trying to actually understand what those groups do. And some level of understanding is obviously required to protect innocent people against them. One of the most bizarre things about today's Republican ideology is that they take the notion of trying to understand what terrorists are doing as the equivalent of sympathy. Truly weird.

Terrorism is a technique of warfare, not an ideology. But it's also important to distinguish between the types of groups using it. Pro-Allied partisans in France, Yugoslavia and Russia during the Second World War practiced bombings, sabotage and assassination. But they didn't simply try to kill large numbers of civilians. They certainly wanted to terrorize the German occupiers and any local sympathizers. But they wanted the support of the local population, not their hostility.

Deliberate mass killing of civilians is typically not practiced against a group's own population base of support, although I'm sure there are exceptions. The Irish Republican Army were willing to indulge in random killing of English civilians. Leaving aside the morality of it for a moment, that at least makes more sense than, say, Timmy McVeigh blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City and killing hundreds of people, including white people who theoretically should have been potential participants in the theocratic-Christian White Power revolution McVeigh imagined.

But morality is part of war, however much today's Republicans may despite the very notion of law or morality in war, except to assume that Our Side is justified in doing whatever Dear Leader tells us - as long as Dear Leader is a Republican, of course. And deliberate killing of civilians, or even careless disregard for the safety of civilian noncombatants, is wrong. Whether its a terrorist group or a government on Our Side doing it.

She also offers these descriptions of the thinking of RAF members in the 1970s:

We wanted to be part of the world-wide youth revolt in the late 190s, and we wanted to be its vanguard. We were shocked and enraged by the images of the war in Vietnam, such as the photograph of the Saigon Head of Police who killed a captured Vietcong on a open road by shooting him in the head. Most Germans accepted the Vietnam War without taking action - we, by contrast, identified with Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and the liberation movements in the Third World. In Nazi Germany our parents had been stranded in an ugly, despicable place in history. We wanted to escape their guilt and their nightmare, as well as their continuing love of law and order.
So far as I'm aware, the RAF didn't promote any Jewish conspiracy theories or anything like that. But their revolutionary purity from the sins of their parents' generation didn't stop them from going for military training to a Al Fatah Palestinian guerrilla camp in Jordan. (This was long before Al Fatah became a sometime ally of Israel as it is in the Gaza attack going on now.) And they certainly considered Israel as an enemy of the world revolution of which they wanted to be a part.

We wanted to be radical, courageous, pioneers, we considered ourselves to be a vanguard. We overestimated ourselves excessively, indulging in the illusion that revolution was possible in the prosperous German Federal Republic [West Germany]. In this light we were self-timers [i.e., self-justifying] who acted cut off from reality in a void. We lived a kind of armed existentialism. The men were ready to get going. While they were busy affectionately cleaning their guns, the women did the major part of organising and thinking. The women did bank raids, too, but more carefully and reluctantly. I also carried a gun, though I would have tried everything else to defend myself before using it. The weapon was the membership card of the RAF which we, in accordance with the [American] Black Panthers, would only use in self-defence, if it was really necessary.
While this may relate her own experience accurately, it could also be misleading in another sense. The RAF from the start aimed at a violent revolution in West Germany and was certainly willing to take actions that could hardly be called self-defence. (The Black Panthers would be a different story, though in practice they didn't see armed action as strictly a matter of self-defence, either.)

It's also worth noting that women later were not only active but in leadership positions in the RAF. As one commenter said, the men of the RAF were very macho. But the women were more macho than the men.

After her arrest in 1971, Astrid was brought to prison in Cologne-Ossendorf. She was kept for a time in extreme isolation, something that has been a part of the torture techniques of the Cheney-Bush administration. She describes her experience as follows:

At first in Cologne I was kept isolated in a normal prison block. Then I was taken to an empty wing, a dead wing, where I was the only prisoner. Ulrike Meinhof later called it the "Silent Wing". The shocking experience was that I could not hear any noises apart from the ones that I generated myself. Nothing. Absolute silence. I went through states of excitement and was haunted by visual and acoustic hallucinations, extreme concentration disturbances, horrible weakness and fatigue. I had no idea how long this would go on for. I had a terrible fear of going mad.
The history of the RAF is an important part of recent German history in itself. And it does have some similarities to more recent terrorist events.

But differences do matter between the various groups. A Marxist-Leninist group like the RAF does not have the same goals or worldview as a white supremacist like Tim McVeigh, heavily influenced by Christian Identity religious doctrine. And violent Sunni Salafi extremists are different still. To pretend that they are all just some nihilist killers with no goals other than to kill people, destroy property and make life difficult for Americans is absurd.

Astrid Proll, by the way, after being released from jail went underground again in England for several years. She was eventually re-arrested and served part of her sentence. She was released early, though she doesn't detail the particular terms of her release. She went back to school and became a professional photographer, working for major publications including Der Spiegel and the London Independent, and even for Time magazine. So far as I'm aware, she has not been noted for having an urge to commit nihilistic violence.

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