The Faludy Park near Toronto’s university district is named after the poet George Faludy. The author of My Happy Days in Hell survived terrorists and tyrants in various parts of the world before spending the last 22 years of his exile in an apartment overlooking the small patch of grass that now bears his name. Such literary gestures allow the neighbourhood dogs to pay their respects to poetry while doing their business. Toronto is a practical city.

George Faludy returned to Budapest in 1989 and lived there until he passed away in 2006 at 96. The poet was a fabulist. His stories were often apocryphal, which I define asastory that rings so true it would be gauche to inquire whether it really happened or not. Faludy’s favourite anecdote about the nature of totalitarian terror went like this:

In the late 1940s, after the communist takeover of Eastern Europe, bitter bickering erupted between the Soviet leader, J. V. Stalin and the Yugoslav leader, J. B. Tito. The conflict gave Stalin another excuse for purging rivals and opponents, real or imagined. After a university student vanished in a Soviet satellite country, no one was surprised to see a faculty member, who had been outspoken in his criticism of the regime, charged with his murder.

The professor was branded a “Titoist” agent, aka “chained dog of the imperialists”, put through a show trial and executed. Few believed he was guilty, but people weren’t really jolted until, a few weeks later, the “murder victim” showed up to attend classes as before.

Novices to totalitarianism were flabbergasted. Why would the authorities let the “murdered” student go back to the same university? It would have been so easy to enrol him elsewhere, or enlist him in the army, lock him up, exile him, kill him for real, anything. Having framed a political opponent for a non-existent homicide, an authoritarian, semi-fascist regime, or even a fully fascist one like Generalissimo Franco’s, would have done just that.

But Stalinism was totalitarian: coercion without cosmetics. Blatancy was the whole point, as sophisticated people understood. The message of Stalinism was: “We can do anything.”


It’s possible to describe totalitarianism as terrorism in power, and terrorism as totalitarianism in opposition. All coercion carried out (or credibly threatened) by lethal force may be described as “terror”, whether committed by the strong against the weak or the weak against the strong, but broad definitions of this kind can lead to nonsensical sophistries, such as “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. No, Virginia, he isn’t; he may be a freedom fighter if he puts a bomb under Hitler’s desk but he’s a terrorist if he puts a bomb under the bleachers during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

One man’s terrorist is definitely not another man’s freedom fighter, but it’s true that terror is terror, whether it’s our enemies applying it to our friends, our friends to our enemies, the rich to the poor or the stealthy to the wealthy. Many terrorist acts are identical; others seem related only by our abhorrence of them. Terror’s inexhaustible variety ranges from the crude to the ingenious, and from the wickedly novel to the tediously old-hat. Types of terrorism differ one from another in degree as well as in kind. Classifying their various strains isn’t merely of taxonomic interest. Having different origins and manifestations, terrorisms attack the body politic at different points and need to be resisted in different ways.

That is, assuming that we want to resist terror. We may not. Our abhorrence may be feigned. At heart, we may be terrorists ourselves. Our objection may not be to the politics of terror, only to the political objectives of a particular terrorist. I bring this up because it’s true and frankness compels me to say it, but I will now lay it aside.

Despite the variety, it’s possible to distinguish terror’s two main branches. One is the lawmaker’s terror; the other, the lawbreaker’s. Either can be left-wing or right-wing, fascist or anti-fascist, Marxist or anti-Marxist, atheistic or theocratic, because ideology isn’t what distinguishes them. What sets them apart is that one has the power and authority of the state and the other has not.

The tyrant-terrorist with the stamp, seal, orb, crown, military support and – rarely, but sometimes – popular mandate to troop his colours in the streets is sitting pretty. He needs to blow up nothing. If his secret police have to make a few subtle adjustments to concepts of law and order in terror’s subterranean workshops, upstairs black robes sit on the bench of imposing edifices to cover outrages and depredations with a veneer of legitimacy. Meanwhile the hapless rebel-terrorist has to “occupy” the downtown core wearing a motorcycle helmet, looking every inch the hoodlum that he is. The law not being on his side, he has to make a pitch for justice, always second best, then keep his fingers crossed that history and the chattering classes will be kinder – or perhaps more gullible – than his contemporaries.

The Sheriff of Nottingham is a terrorist. So is Robin Hood. Nottingham robs the poor ostensibly on behalf of the rich; Robin and his merry men rob the rich ostensibly on behalf of the poor. In reality, both Nottingham and the bandit of Sherwood Forest rob people for themselves, only the Sheriff allies himself with the law, whereas Robin Hood allies himself with justice, social or poetic. As a result, Nottingham’s robbery seems “legal” to contemporaries who know little, whereas Robin Hoodlum’s robbery appears “just” to posterity that knows even less.

Even though they are at each other’s throat, there is little difference between the two. Robin Hood is an asymmetric Sheriff of Nottingham, and Nottingham is a tyrannical Robin Hood. The terror of the powerful: state sanctioned, uniformed, black-robed doesn’t always turn totalitarian; it’s often content to remain merely autocratic. Robin Hood’s terror: makeshift, scofflaw, ragtag, the terror of the powerless, is more likely to become totalitarian if it ever gets the nod from Clio, aka history. Both forms will be violently coercive, but the violence of the powerful is more likely to be calculated and targeted, while the powerless will be opportunistic and random.


Terror works. Not perfectly – nothing works perfectly – but it achieves political goals as reliably as measures of conventional warfare. It’s an evolutionary success story. It persists and recurs as periods and societies follow one another. Presumably, if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t. It follows that terror flies, we’re just not sure why and how.

Totalitarian terror flies high, though not for long. It creates early successes, but in the 20th century all totalitarian regimes perished either in aggressive wars they engendered (Nazi Germany) or in episodes of spontaneous combustion (the “people’s democracies” of the Soviet Empire). The Soviet Union simply imploded while trying to reform itself. The crime family of North Korea demonstrates the futility of trying to deal with terrorist states so convincingly it’s hard to believe that God – I say this as an agnostic – didn’t create it for that very purpose. Cuba survives after a fashion as a theme park for Canadians in search of a cheap vacation.

One terrorist state that survived, ”communist” China, has undergone an acrobatic metamorphosis, resembling not so much a paradigm shift as an act in the Beijing circus. Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping brokering a union between Karl Marx and Adam Smith under the inscrutable glance of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square has given new meaning to the concept of “gay marriage”. Bizarre as it may be, it’s the closest totalitarianism has come to a success story.

Asymmetric terror shouldn’t fly at all. It rarely causes economically or militarily significant damage. Similar losses accruing during ordinary hostilities – and airplane here, a handful of casualties there – would be barely reported. Yet when such negligible losses are caused by terror, they may bring an electorate to its knees, as many believe they did Spain’s after the Madrid train-bombing of 2004.

What’s the mechanism of terror’s success? What’s the clockwork inside al-Qaeda and its cousins, Hamas or Hezbollah? Is it just a matter of scaring people badly enough?

I don’t think so. For terror to work scaring people is necessary but not sufficient. Even all-powerful, naked, totalitarian terror requires more than fear to function. For the asymmetric terror of the weak – Basque, say, or Chechen or Uyghur secessionists – fear serves as kindling to ignite an illusion of sympathy.

No one likes to think of himself as a coward. People resist admitting that they’re afraid. Simply scaring them might even get their backs up. People prefer to think they end up yielding to what the terrorists demand, not because it’s safer or more convenient, but because it’s the right thing.

Jerusalem’s Hebrew University scholars Eric. D. Gould and Esteban F. Klor looked at terrorist incidents between 1988 and 2006 in Israel (their 2009 study is entitled Does Terrorism Work?) to conclude that “terrorism appears to be an effective strategy in terms of shifting the entire political landscape to the left”. Bingo! Asymmetric terrorists hit the jackpot when they manage to convince their targets that they haven’t been swayed by fear of injury or inconvenience, but by a desire for justice.

Once he has frightened his victim enough to do his bidding, what clinches the terrorist’s triumph is salvaging his victim’s self-esteem. Terror is victorious when it persuades the terror-stricken that they’re motivated by a sense of equity. When victims meeting the terrorists’ demands think they’re acting out of an abundance of goodwill rather than an abundance of caution, terror is triumphant.

“I’m not worried about Hezbollah blowing me up”, says the new convert to terrorist-apologia. “I simply believe that Iran has as much right to nuclear technology as France.”

Terrorism’s great achievement isn’t hijacking jetliners, but hijacking the debate. Successful terrorism persuades the terror-stricken that he’s conscience-stricken. Once adapted and internalised by its targets, asymmetric terror can be as powerful as totalitarian terror.

Ultimately, terror triumphs when it allows perpetrators to masquerade as victims. It’s the intolerant demanding tolerance that bedevils Western civil liberties and anti-defamatory organisations (as some commentators, myself included, have been suggesting for years). From diverse Holland to multicultural Canada, the story is the same. Institutions, churches, universities that stood up against the kind of anti-Semitism that doesn’t dare speak its name, are being thrown for a loop by the kind that shouts its name from the rooftops.

Let old-style, Western, guilt-ridden, camouflaged, code-worded, Teutonic, WASPish or pure laine anti-Semitism rear its head, chances are it will be slapped down even today. Ferocious B’nai B’rith-types will pounce and pulverise it. Social consensus will wring its neck, burn it to a cinder, and what’s left of its ashes will be dispersed by the “human rights” police. I shed no tears. But when post-modern, robust, Third World, self-righteous, grievance-fuelled, boisterous “liberation” anti-Semitism browbeats, disrupts and intimidates – as it has, from universities to trade unions to book stores – chances are, the same anti-defamatory organisations will look the other way. As for the Jewish targets of a new, in-your-face, mid-Eastern-style anti-Semitism, they’ll be lucky if the state’s “human rights” commissars don’t turn on them. Anti-Semitism may be marching on the right again, but on the left it’s gaining the field.

Calamity often comes out of left field. A popular saying from the Vietnam-era goes: “Grab ‘em by the short hairs, and their hearts and minds will follow.” It has become the story of asymmetric terrorism and the United Nations. Also, in a big way, the European Union, the ad hoc predecessors of the International Criminal Court, even the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. One can only hope it isn’t going to be the story of the White House. If it is – Houston, we have a problem.


The last time I saw George Faludy was in 2002. The place was Budapest; the topic, anti-Semitism.

“This isn’t my father’s anti-Semitism”, an earnest 20-some-year-old student was saying to the poet. Young people surrounded him on the east bank of the Danube. It was the spot where “Arrow-Cross” thugs of Nazi terror used to shoot Jews into the river. Now the papers were noting that anti-Semitism was on the rise again.

“Yes, it’s not like your father’s anti-Semitism”, Faludy agreed. “It’s more like your grandfather’s. That’s what worries me.”

Next day I left. Faludy and I never saw each other again, but we exchanged two or three more phone calls as the plague of a corrupt and inefficient socialist government engulfed Hungary for the next eight years. I meant to ask Faludy if he thought such a regime would delay or hasten the arrival of old-style anti-Semitismbut the clock was ticking and I had a more pressing question.

In one of Faludy’s most popular poems from the 1930s, a danse macabre written in the manner of François Villon, the figure of Death grimly turns down pleas for favours or extension from the Emperor, the Bishop, the Scientist, the Banker, the Child, the Society Lady, but nods at the request of an old peasant to scatter his body as manure over the fields. Now in his 90s, Faludy said he was getting ready for his own interview, and I wondered if he felt intimate enough with the Grim Reaper for a personal question.

“Is Death an anti-Semite, do you think?” I asked. “I’ll let you know”, he replied.

But he never did.

Note. A short version of this essay appeared in the National Post, Toronto21 November 2009.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email