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Understanding Modern Violence Through the Lens of the Reign of Terror

One of the most stimulating books I have read in some time is Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (published in 2003, but in English 2012). But it’s not the writing (which is murky) or its purpose (with which I generally disagree) but its viewpoint on Terrorism that can be instructive.

In fact, this little book is an apologetic for the Terrorists in the French Revolution. And its value is that in associating herself so clearly with her subject, she does see them much as they saw themselves. In short, Wahnich argues that the Terrorists were motivated by the “dread” that they felt after the assassination of Marat. They then had acted to protect the purity and integrity of the “sacred” revolution that they had made to affirm the political equality of all. More originally, Wahnich also claims that the mechanism of the Terror led to more incarcerations than executions and that its organizational existence at least put limits on popular “enthusiasm.” In sum, the Terrorists were justified and their leadership contained excesses.

Why do I find this interesting? In fact my own characterization of these people would be extremely different. But she may help explain not only the outlook of the Terrorists of 1790s but also of our day. Obviously, religion was not a factor for the French as it often is now and technology is far different, but her analysis helps us to understand the intransigence and determination of some current revolutionaries. It is especially useful because the eighteenth century Terrorists held these views in power, and so we might look at modern governmental as well as popular action through this prism. And, in short, Wahnich’s book, while wholly without a necessary distance or any critique, may get us pretty close to understanding the assumptions behind radicalism of many types.