The Terrorist Past Has a Message for the Terrorist Present

Western Europe appears to be under an unrelenting terrorism assault. In the past 19 months, France has seen the attack on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo (17 deaths); the coordinated attacks in Paris (130); a cargo-truck attack in Nice (84); and this week a hostage-taking and murder of an elderly parish priest in the small town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

Since July 18, Germany has seen at least three smaller-scale attacks: A Pakistani refugee injured five people with an ax on a train; an Iranian-German teenager shot nine people dead in Munich; a Syrian refugee tried to set off a bomb at a concert in Ansbach, killing himself. Belgium, meanwhile, was struck by suicide bombers on March 22 who killed 32 people.

It is certainly understandable if fear and panic now grip the Continent. But it’s important to remember that this is hardly the first wave of terrorism that Europe has seen—and so far not the worst.

The first wave was the work of anarchists who struck across Europe and the Americas from the 1880s to the 1920s. In the worst of these attacks, a horse-drawn wagon filled with explosives killed 38 on Wall Street in New York in 1920. The next-worst attack occurred when an anarchist flung two bombs into a crowded opera house in Barcelona in 1893, killing 22 people. Between 1892 and 1894, Paris saw 11 bombings, which killed nine people.

But the anarchists’ true calling card was assassinating heads of state. They murdered the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria-Hungary, the king of Italy—and President William McKinley.In addition, a band of nihilists killed Tsar Alexander II of Russia. No terrorist group before or since has assassinated so many leaders.

The second wave of attacks was the work of leftist and nationalist terrorists from the 1960s to the 1980s, representing groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Red Army Faction (aka West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang), the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Irish Republican Army.

Between the early 1970s and early 1990s, there were four years when at least 400 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Western Europe and five years when fatalities exceeded 250. High-profile attacks included the bombing of a Pan Am aircraft over Lockerbie in 1988 (270 dead); attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna in 1985 (19); the Bologna railroad station bombing in 1980 (85); and the attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics (12 dead, excluding the terrorists).

The third wave Europe is now experiencing is of Islamist terrorism. The worst attacks have been the Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people in 2004, and the London bombings, which killed 52 in 2005. Attacks then tapered off, only to rise again last year at the instigation of Islamic State.

Horrible as the recent atrocities have been, they are not as bad as those of the second terrorist wave. Attacks this year in Western Europe have killed 130 people (not counting the attackers) and last year killed 147. Islamic State has claimed many more victims in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries—including the U.S. (49 dead in Orlando, 14 in San Bernardino).

History does not suggest when this current wave of terrorism will end. It does suggest that it will end some day, and that it can be ameliorated, if not entirely stopped.

The anarchist wave led to innovations such as the creation of Britain’s Special Branch to investigate political crimes, and of Interpol to link Western police forces. It simulated the development of technologies such as “mug shots” and fingerprints to trace criminal suspects. Less commendably, it led to crackdowns on innocent immigrants and violations of civil liberties that should not be emulated.

Ultimately, the first wave of terrorism disappeared because anarchist ideology lost its appeal. It was superseded on the left by the Bolsheviks, who advanced their cause through subversion and military conquest rather than bombings.

The terrorists of the 1960s also eventually lost their ideological motivation. Nationalist groups such as the IRA and PLO were somewhat propitiated by negotiated territorial compromises. Marxist groups, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades, collapsed along with the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War deprived them of logistical support and, more important, of ideological backing. Who wants to die for the “proletariat”?

As the failure of Communism discredited Marxist extremism, so the eventual failure of Islamism—whether in Taliban-era Afghanistan or present-day Iran or Islamic State—will discredit Islamist extremism.

That day can be hastened by vigorous Western action to destroy Islamic State and subvert Iran’s regime. Meanwhile, more can be done to improve intelligence and security; Israel offers a good model.

But there is no foolproof way to stop the low-tech attacks we are seeing. Like it or not, we will have to tough it out while the ideological extremism of the Islamic world burns itself out.