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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 37-57

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Reflections and Reports

Activism from Starbuck to Starbucks, or Terror:
What's in a Name?

Belinda Davis


Young man holds placard, chants "Free Fries!" Second young man enthusiastically offers to join in, then asks who "Fries" is.

—Television advertisement for McDonald's Corporation, United States, fall 2001

Close-up on a Big Mac. Voice-over: "Now this is a real 'Burger'-Initiative."

—Television advertisement for McDonald's Corporation, Germany, spring 2000


Advertisers love "the sixties," an era often extending well into the 1970s. Beginning with the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" and the Beatles' "Revolution," the sixties—and the period's more and less countercultural messages—sell. This is an obvious irony in light of the attack on self-satisfied, materialist consumer societies proclaimed by many real 1960s activists, the latter—and/or their children—now considered prime targets for advertising dollars. 1 But the more notable irony is perhaps the following: advertisers make those apparently halcyon days "cute," comfortable, and mainstream, and growing numbers of multinational corporations attempt to give themselves an earnestly socially responsible face in language grown out of that era. Yet the protests in Seattle, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—and in Genoa, Quebec, and Prague—which form a direct and important legacy of the earlier activism, continue to face violent and even fatal police repression, just as [End Page 37] they did in the past. The events of 9/11 have served to make officials all the more confident in their right to assert a definition of patriotism that delegitimizes and disallows such protest in the present and justifies still more brutal and preemptive a response; the examples accrue daily. 2 And yet the lesson is clear that such a response not only assaults ideals for which the United States and many nations claim to stand. It can and has set in motion spirals of violence between police and protestors, and between state and society more broadly, violence that officials have at moments found efficacious to name "terrorism." Ultimately such examples may serve best to illustrate the potential for state terrorism, a phenomenon at least as frequent as and far more powerful than any other sort of terrorism—in the West as elsewhere.

What is terrorism, and what are its constitutive elements? The term seems to have proven maddeningly elusive as well as changeable. Despite numerous attempts, the United Nations remains unable to compose an operational definition, though ad hoc committees have addressed the charge at least since events in Europe and elsewhere in the 1970s. 3 In his classic study of terrorism, Walter Laqueur claims that terrorism dates back at least to the age of Aristotle, defining it in this epoch as legitimated acts of tyrannocide. 4 From a more recent perspective, one might question whether to name the violence against the tyrant, or rather the acts exercised by the alleged tyrant, as terror. Certainly the first self-identified practitioners of terror were those exercising state power, namely, la terreur of the French Revolution. Other commonly identified examples of terror before the 1970s were also exercised by the state, as in Nazi Germany and in Stalinist Russia. Likewise in these cases, those who exercised it frankly, proudly, and forcefully adopted the characterization, the last an important aspect of making this state violence work. Thus, while the Gestapo relied most heavily on a broad circle of willing informants in identifying targets, its power also lay in projecting a fearful image of its potential violence far broader than its actual capability to survey and control the greater population. 5 Historians of Nazi Germany claim that winning "societal acceptance" of this activity also constituted an essential element defining it as terror. 6 This paradoxical aspect is consistent with the definitions offered by Laqueur and some others: that so-called terror has historically contained a potent element of legitimacy. It is also consistent with terrorism as an act most commonly associated with the state, to the degree to which we generally perceive states as such as the legitimate...


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pp. 37-57
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Archived 2004
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