People have been saying that “terrorism” now seems to have replaced “communism” as the enemy. There is a certain truth to that but it’s very important to notice that there are lots of differences. Because of these there will be no simple re-run of the anti-communist hysteria of especially the 1950s. The anti-terrorist hysteria will be or actually is already worse and here’s why. To phrase it in somewhat simplifying terms the difference between communism and terrorism is the following.
Communism is well defined geographically and in terms of its proponents but its actions are not well defined at all. We know where the communists are and who they are but we don’t really know too well what they really want to do. There’s talk of some “revolution” but, you know, in practice that’s the kind of talk similar to what you hear in church, right? They have to say that because it’s part of the canon but in reality they don’t believe in it anyway.
Terrorism is the complete opposite of this. We don’t really know too well who the terrorists are and especially not where they are but we know very well what their actions are. And we know that when they say they’re going to kill people they’re actually doing it.
This crucial difference between communism and terrorism immediately translates into differences in the way they are being fought. Of course, there are many aspects of the so-called “war on terrorism” which are similar to, for example, the witch hunt for communists in the 1950s. But the measures taken against terrorists and supposed terrorists can be much more extreme.
Communism threatens your way of life, terrorism threatens your life itself. Apart from the usual mass psychology, this difference might explain why people now are much more willing to support for example restrictions or reductions of civil liberties. And it also explains why the “war on terrorism” is potentially way more threatening for democracy itself.
Whereas there can be an end of communism, namely when communist regimes disappear or when communists themselves convert to some other political orientation, how would you know whether terrorism is gone? You could claim that you’ve defeated some terrorist group but how could you prove that? You could potentially capture each and every one of the terrorists you know but what about the ones you don’t know? You could try to invade very country which, according to the standards you come up with, supports terrorism but how would you know that’d be effective against terrorism?
Following this simple logic, you can justify basically any measure to “fight terrorism” and your politcal opponents can always accuse you that your real motives are completely different. The “war against terrorism” in that sense is completely unwinnable - basically, the notion of a war on terrorism doesn’t make any sense. You can and you should fight terrorism - with, btw, non-military means which, as history has shown, are the only ones which will really solve the problem - but you can’t wage war against it because there’s no way to define victory. And thus, if you decide to have a “war on terrorism” you end up in an Orwellian world where there is eternal war against an unknown somebody. Even worse, as the most extreme consequence, because the enemy is mostly unknown the enemy doesn’t really matter any longer, “the enemy” is becoming an abstract notion, the war is fought for its own sake to achieve the unachievable.
Once again: Even if you know the terrorist enemy you really have to to capture or kill him to achieve something which looks like a victory. The worst of all cases is when the enemy you know goes into hiding.
Another difference between communism and terrorism, I think, doesn’t play any role here. Communism is a political theory. Terrorism is the name for a set of actions. Terrorism is no political theory. For example, you can be an anti-communist terrorist. But this difference between communism and terrorism doesn’t really matter for how people react to it.