What is a “revolutionary? According to one definition, “The term —both as a noun and adjective— is usually applied to the field of politics. In politics, a revolutionary is someone who supports abrupt, rapid, and drastic change, and often includes violence as a method to achieve the intended revolutionary ends.
A Thug is originally a member of a Hindu gang, called “Thugees” who specialized in assassinating people, generally by strangling them. They were robbers who killed travelers. The term “thug” has now come to mean more simply someone who is antisocial and engages in criminal behavior, up to and including killing people for personal gain.
Recently, we watched a film about the “Baader-Meinhof Complex”. Baader-Meinhof refers to a group in post-war West Germany that proclaimed itself to be revolutionaries, opposed to Fascism in Germany and throughout the world (including especially the US in its war in Vietnam). The group protested Iranian leadership also, regarding the Shah as a fascist who was oppressing his own people. When the Shah visited Germany, the protests turned violent, including fairly severe German police-inspired violence. The Baader-Meinhof group, or gang as it came to be known, proceeded over several years to commit many acts of violence, including blowing up various commercial and government institutions. They also went on a crime spree, by robbing banks to secure money for its various activities.
Whatever their motives, the film characterizes them as drifting towards anarchy, wherein actions, especially violent actions became almost ends in themselves. In the end, before the gang was eliminated, they may well have lost all pretense at idealistic revolutionary ends, and operated as hyper-realistic “video-gamesters” (before the invention of video games), whose “games” included blowing up/killing real people to no end except the thrill of the game.
Note the difference between Baader-Meinhof as revolutionaries, and, say, the American revolutionaries during its war against King and Country, or the war of Indian revolutionaries to overthrow and push out their British overlords. In the first case, the ends disappeared in favor of the means—violence for violence sake. In the latter two cases, the ends remained intact, and the means were designed, over time, to be realistic, i.e., to have a real chance at achieving the ends.
All this is by way of wondering about the current crop of revolutionaries, now scattered in various places around the globe—Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Western Pakistan. The “jihadi’s” as they call themselves, or Al Qaida, or the Taliban, are engaged in a battle for survival that increasingly has taken the form of the Baader-Meinhof gang. That is, their violent means increasingly have no meaningful, rational objective end. The violence almost seems to have taken over as the necessary and sufficient set of conditions for the existence of these disparate “gangs.” Ostensibly, they are about overthrowing regimes (Regime Change as we often call it), but they seem to have no plausible means of achieving their ends. Arguably, in anarchic places like Yemen, Somalia, parts of Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, they may be able eventually to secure a safe haven, mainly because there is no actual government in such places. These are spots of dirt in various remote places around the globe that have never known open democratic societies. They are often rooted deeply in the 13th or 14th centuries. So, the concept of “overthrowing” a regime implies more than exists—that an actual regime is in place, governing these spots of dirt.
We often have caught ourselves as characterizing this long term struggle as a kind of “Crusade” of Christianity vs. Islam. Such characterizations would appear to me to play into the hands of the jihadists, since it better enables them to recruit followers from around the very large world of Islamic adherents. In the end, Baader-Meinhof was characterized simply as criminals, rather than revolutionaries. I now wonder whether we need to rethink our overall strategic approach to defeating jihadists around the globe, treating them as criminals rather than political revolutionaries. This might mean reducing/eliminating our War rhetoric, and adopting international police strategies, as distinct from military strategies.