The word ‘terrorism’ derives from the Latin word ‘terrere’ – to frighten. The term has its origins in the reign of terror (1793–94) following the French Revolution, and originally referred to intimidation or rule by terror. The term began to take on its modern form with the Russian Narodnaya Volya (the people’s will) group of the 1860s to 1880s. Popularly known as the nihilists, they were revolutionaries who believed that the only way to remove the tsarist regime was by a programme of assassinations and bombings.
In modern times the definition of terrorism remains contested but is generally applied to actions that:
- have political aims and motives
- are violent or threaten violence
- are designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate target
- are conducted by an organisation with an identifiable structure.
Some people believe that the term terrorism applies only to actions carried out by groups, and not to the actions of countries or of individuals.
Early reactions in New Zealand to terrorism
New Zealand newspapers in the mid-19th century used the term ‘terrorism’ to refer to intimidation. Governments, politicians, trade unions, Irish land activists and Māori warriors were all referred to as using ‘terrorism.’ This meant they used intimidating, but not necessarily violent, tactics. However, actions such as attacks by Māori prophet Te Kooti on civilians in Poverty Bay in 1868 were not referred to as terrorism but as ‘outrages’ or ‘atrocities.’
In March 1868 Irishman Henry James O’Farrell tried to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh in Sydney during a royal tour. Extra police were transferred to guard the duke when he visited New Zealand in 1869. Events such as the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia by nihilists in March 1881 and a bombing in Haymarket Square, Chicago, in 1886 received wide coverage in New Zealand. The New Zealand press referred to the nihilists as ‘the terrorist party.’
The royal visit and Archie the anarchist
When the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York visited New Zealand in June 1901, detectives boarded ships entering the country in search of ‘suspicious persons’, including any ‘who may be members of foreign Anarchist Societies.’1 The New Zealand Free Lance complained that police were neglecting real crime in their search for would-be assassins: ‘Apparently our detectives have been so much occupied in looking out for Archie the Anarchist that they have not had time for Bill the Burglar.’2
The assassination of US President William McKinley in September 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz sparked calls in the New Zealand press to ‘exterminate’ anarchists. Assassins and anarchists were identified as ‘foreigners’ and ‘continentals’ – generally Italian, German or Russian. From the 1880s police detectives were assigned to keep watch for the arrival of any foreign revolutionaries. There was concern in 1900 that some socialist immigrants, known as Clarion settlers (named after the English socialist newspaper, the Clarion), were anarchists. These settlers, who were mostly English, appear to have been regarded as troublemakers, but not as potential terrorists.
Terrorist actions in New Zealand?
New Zealand has been fortunate to have largely been free of terrorism. There have, however, been a number of incidents that might be seen as terrorist. Most involved the actions of individuals rather than organised groups, and lacked clear political motives. One such action was by farmer Joseph Sewell, who blew himself up outside the Murchison courthouse on 14 July 1905. Sewell was angered by a dispute with another local farmer over ownership of a heifer. In some cases the actions were clearly aimed at property rather than people. It is therefore questionable how accurately they can be described as terrorism.
Bombings during industrial disputes
In November 1913, during a general strike, a bomb caused some damage to the winding gear that lowered coal trucks down the Denniston incline on the West Coast of the South Island. In April 1951, during the waterfront industrial dispute, a rail bridge near Huntly was dynamited to disrupt coal supplies. Train drivers were warned beforehand and no one was hurt. Prime Minister Sidney Holland denounced this bombing as ‘an infamous act of terrorism.’3 It could, however, be argued that these actions were sabotage (the destruction of property for political purposes) rather than terrorism. In both cases the targets were property not people, with the aim of disrupting industrial processes, rather than achieving a political aim through terror. The attacks appear to have been carried out by individuals operating without the knowledge or support of the unions involved in the industrial actions.
The Wanganui Computer Centre bombing
On the night of 18 November 1982, 22-year-old Neil Roberts was killed while attempting to blow up the police computer at the Wanganui Computer Centre in Whanganui. Roberts, an anarchist with a long involvement in the anti-racist and peace movements, appears to have intended to kill himself in the explosion. No one else was harmed in the attack, which targeted the computer rather than police personnel. Roberts’s attack was aimed as a blow against what he saw as an oppressive state and society. He left the graffiti message: ‘We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.’
Bombings as protests against the Vietnam War
In 1969 four student activists attempted to blow up the flagpole at Waitangi as a protest against the Vietnam War. Over the next year there were 13 bombing attacks against military bases and other sites such as the Auckland Supreme Court and the offices of the newspaper Truth. No one was hurt in these bombings. Seven of those involved were convicted and served sentences ranging from four months detention to five years jail.
The Trades Hall bombing, 1984
Caretaker and unionist Ernie Abbott was killed on 27 March 1984 by a bomb at Trades Hall, in Vivian Street, Wellington. Trades Hall was the headquarters for many trade unions. The device had been left in a suitcase. No one has ever been arrested for the crime, and the bomb appears to have been aimed against the unions at a time of heightened industrial tensions.