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This article is about the historical and political concept. For other uses, see Terror (disambiguation).
Victims of Red Terror in Crimea, 1918

Terror, is from the French terreur, from Latin terror meaning "great fear", a noun derived from the Latin verb terrere meaning "to frighten",[1] is a policy of political repression and violence intended to subdue political opposition. The term was first used for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.[2][3] Modern instances of terror include red terror or white terror.

Before the advent of modern terrorism, the term "terrorism" in the English language was sometimes used interchangeable with terror. The modern definition of terrorism refers to acts or threats of violence against non-combatants — typically neutral military personnel and civilians — in hoping that such violence or threat would generate a political or religious change. It is practiced by extremist groups with a limited political base or parties on the weaker side in asymmetric warfare. Terror on the other hand is practiced by governments and law enforcement officials, usually within the legal framework of the state.

Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary terror[edit]

Main article: Revolutionary terror

Revolutionary terror, also known as "Red terror", was often used by revolutionary governments to suppress counterrevolutionaries. The first example was the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution in 1794.[4][5] Other notable examples include the Red Terror in Soviet Russia in 1918–1922, as well as simultaneous campaigns in the Hungarian Soviet Republic and in Finland. In China Red Terror in 1966 and 1967 started the Cultural revolution.

Counterrevolutionary terror is usually referred to as "white terror". Notable examples are the terror campaigns in France (1794–1795), in Russia (1917–20), in Hungary (1919–1921), and in Spain. Modern examples of counter-revolutionary terror include Operation Condor in South America.

Terror and terrorism[edit]

David Forte states that the primary difference between terror and terrorism is that while terror can be neutrally evil (i.e., random violence committed by robbers, rapists, and even military personnel), terrorism has the additional political or moral dimension, being the systematized use of randomly focused violence by organized groups against non-combatants to effect a political objective.[6]

However Charles Tilly defines "terror" as a political strategy defined as "asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence against enemies using means that fall outside the forms of political struggle routinely operating within some current regime," and therefore ranges from:[7]

  1. intermittent actions by members of groups that are engaged in wider political struggles to
  2. one segment in the modus operandi of durably organized specialists in coercion, including government-employed and government-backed specialists in coercion to
  3. the dominant rationale for distinct, committed groups and networks of activists.

According to Tilly, the term "terror" spans across a wide range of human cruelties, from Stalin's use of executions to clandestine attacks by groups like the Basque separatists and the IRA and even ethnic cleansing and genocide[8]


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "terror". Online Etymology Dictionary. 
  2. ^ Kim Campbell (September 27, 2001). "When is 'terrorist' a subjective term?". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2010-01-11. New York Times columnist William Safire wrote that the word "terrorist" has its roots in the Latin terrere, which means "to frighten." 
  3. ^ Geoffrey Nunberg (October 28, 2001). "Head Games / It All Started with Robespierre / "Terrorism": The history of a very frightening word". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2010-01-11. In 1792 the Jacobins came to power in France and initiated what we call the Reign of Terror and what the French call simply La Terreur. 
  4. ^ "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy", by Barrington Moore, Edward Friedman, James C. Scott (1993) ISBN 0-8070-5073-3, p.101: "Social Consequences of Revolutionary Terror"
  5. ^ French revolutionary terror was a gross exaggeration, say Lafayette experts. By Chandni Navalkha. April 28, 2008. accessed 5-20-2009
  6. ^ Forte, David F. (1986). "Terror and Terrorism: There Is a Difference". Ohio Northern University Law Review (Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law) 13: 39–52. 
  7. ^ Charles Tilly. Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists. Sociological Theory, Vol. 22, No. 1, Theories of Terrorism: A Symposium (Mar., 2004), pp. 5-13
  8. ^ Tilly, p9