In the second half of the 19th century, there was a shift in both descriptive and evaluative meaning of the term.
The history of terrorism is probably coextensive with the history of political violence.
The term “terrorism”, however, is relatively recent: it has been in use since late 18th century.
Accordingly, the Jacobins applied the term to their own actions and policies quite unabashedly, without any negative connotations.
Yet the term “terrorism” and its cognates soon took on very strong negative connotations.
While social sciences study the causes, main varieties, and consequences of terrorism and history traces and attempts to explain the way terrorism has evolved over time, philosophy focuses on two fundamental—and related—questions. The second is moral: Can terrorism ever be morally justified?
Philosophers have offered a range of positions on both questions.
A central role in attaining these objectives was accorded to revolutionary tribunals which had wide authority, were constrained by very few rules of procedure, and saw their task as carrying out revolutionary policy rather than meting out legal justice of the more conventional sort.
They went after “enemies of the people”, actual or potential, proven or suspected; the law on the basis of which they were operating “enumerated just who the enemies of the people might be in terms so ambiguous as to exclude no one” (Carter 1989: 142). Trials and executions were meant to strike terror in the hearts of all who lacked civic virtue; the Jacobins believed that was a necessary means of consolidating the new regime.
They had come to the conclusion that words were not enough, and what was called for were deeds: extreme, dramatic deeds that would strike at the heart of the unjust, oppressive social and political order, generate fear and despair among its supporters, demonstrate its vulnerability to the oppressed, and ultimately force political and social change.
This was “propaganda by the deed”, and the deed was for the most part assassination of royalty or highly placed government officials.