Opinion | If Boudica and Spartacus were alive today, they would be called terrorists too | South China Morning Post
Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

If Boudica and Spartacus were alive today, they would be called terrorists too

  • In the old days, those who resisted empire and colonialism were called savages and barbarians, all the better to enslave and murder them and their families and steal their lands. Things haven’t changed much, only different words are used

History is mostly propaganda in the short term but truth-telling in the long run.

So in their days, those who fought Rome were called savages and barbarians. And indeed, what they did was often savage and barbaric. But what their subjugators, torturers and exterminators who claimed to have civilisation and enlightenment on their side, unleashed on them was in truth incomparably more savage and barbaric.

In such moments, empire and colonialism were forced to take off their masks and reveal the face of the true monster behind the prettified concealment and nicely constructed myths.

History is currently repeating itself. Those masks are again falling off before our very eyes.

When Boudica rebelled against the Roman yoke, she burned down what is now Colchester, St Albans and parts of London. Her followers supposedly massacred tens of thousands of Roman colonisers, including many women and children, and their native collaborators. They also annihilated Rome’s 9th Legion.

Spartacus and his followers tortured to death slave owners and their family members. They forced captured legionaries to fight each other like gladiators or be crucified. Often, the survivor of the fight was crucified anyway.

Viriatus in Iberia, Vercingetorix in Gaul (France), Civilis and Arminius in Germany, Caractacus in Britain – all were denounced as savages or barbarians for daring to resist Rome. Today, the term is “terrorists”.

In the more recent history of Western extermination and colonialism, the Apache, the Sauk, the Sioux, the Lakota, the Cherokee, and the Seminoles and their allied runaway black slaves, among others, fought white settlers and were routinely denounced in 19th century American public discourse, from newspapers to presidents’ speeches, as “savages”.

Today, they also would be called terrorists.

Of course, history does eventually reach a fuller understanding of why they did what they did, so their courage is rightly recognised and their crimes relegated from the main text to the footnotes.

The oppressors may feign outrage at “moral equivalence” between our “legitimate self-defence” and their atrocities. And they would be right, there is no comparison. The oppressors are incomparably more cruel. Their scorched-earth extermination methods, while taking a holier-than-thou attitude, not only destroy a people, but also their whole world. A person who survives extermination is lost like a ghost because his or her world is lost forever. A philosopher might say, personhood is nothing without worldhood. We are nothing without the world we are accustomed to living in.

One of the greatest tricks that modern states have played on the stateless has been to turn the original meaning of state terror or terrorism on its head. So when the stateless and the powerless rebel, they are branded “terrorists”.

But the term didn’t start off like that. Originally, it was the terror committed by the French revolutionary state as a political or ruling method. Terror had meant state terrorism.

As a result of the upside-down terminology, such violence is now equated with stateless resistors fighting against their oppressors. At most, it applies to “rogue states”, that is, enemy states.

Of course, then as now, what the dominant or colonial-settler states commit against those “terrorists” and their peoples is almost always far worse, and the destruction far more systematic and long-lasting.

But since they are by definition terrorists, they are less than human, and so are their families and their children. Because they have done terrible things, much more terrible things can, and indeed must be done to them – to restore order, civilisation, tranquillity … the rules-based system.

“Terrorists” is the term they use to dehumanise those who say no to them and to justify whatever mass murder and torture and imprisonment being done because today’s “savages” and “barbarians” deserve nothing less.

But eventually, inevitably, in the long run, history will prevail over short-term temporary or transitory propaganda. That is so, if for no other reason, because all empires fall eventually, and so their propagandists can’t write their history forever.

The world now realises those savages and barbarians of olden days were actually brave fighters defying imperium. In time, many terrorists of today will be called by their proper name.