Political violence used to require no philosophical underpinning. Throughout prehistory, there were no “non-combatants.” All war was total war. There were no “terrorists,” either – or, rather, everybody was a terrorist.

Then came civilization. It may not have eliminated political violence, but established rather strict perimeters for it. Stabbing society ladies to get one’s name in the newspapers was placed well outside permissible limits.

A terrorist’s profile a century ago would have shown a white Caucasian male in his 20s or 30s, often of Slavic or Mediterranean background. Luigi Lucheni, 25, born in Paris to an Italian maidservant, would have fit it effortlessly. On Sept. 10, 1898, almost exactly 112 years ago, Lucheni stabbed the Empress of Austria to death with a needle file as she was about to board a ship for a cruise on Lake Geneva.

The assassination of Franz Joseph’s popular and peripatetic wife – Sisi to her intimates, of whom there were many – inspired the first attempt to launch a war on terror. The word for “terrorist” at the time was “anarchist.” Held in the late fall of 1898, shortly after the Empress’ death, the International Conference of Rome for the Social Defense Against Anarchists defined “anarchism” as “any act using violent means to destroy the organization of society”.

To this day, the word “anarchist” conjures up a hirsute and disheveled outsider, throwing a bomb at some dignitary. In fact, to find such an anarchist, you’d probably have to meet 10,000. Anarchists tend to sit at their desks or (these days) in computer cafes reading or writing, trying to figure out how to diminish social or state authority they regard as undesirable and unnecessary. Sometimes they debate each other in pubs, lecture halls or on park benches. That’s all. Living next door to an anarchist would probably decrease rather than increase your chance of being harmed by a neighbour.

At the time of the Rome conference, anarchists would have been overwhelmingly anarcho-communists. Today, most would be anarcho-libertarians, somewhere between neo-con and Tea Party-types. It’s a welcome ideological reversal, but the point is, even back then, only a tiny percentage of anarchists advocated or practiced violence. Today, if an anarchist throws anything, it’s likely to be breadcrumbs to pigeons.

Is public perception wrong?

Well, no, public perception isn’t wrong. It can’t be: It’s a perception. It is what it is.

Anarchism’s bad reputation comes from letting envious, exhibitionistic sub-clinical psychos conclude that if authority is wrong, then stabbing, shooting or blowing up anyone associated with authority must be right. Lucheni didn’t kill Elisabeth of Austria as an anarchist but as an asshole. “I have to murder someone important enough for the papers to write about it,” his diary reads, demonstrating how publicity hounds bring anarchism into disrepute.

What public perception demonstrates, in turn, is the centrality of borderlines. The fringes make the lead news, while the mainstream is often relegated to the back pages. Not only is the mainstream not news; it may not even become history. History remembers fringes long after central narratives have been reduced to footnotes.

One of my high school teachers wrote on the blackboard once that the Church of England is a footnote to the history of Henry VIII’s mating habits. I thought he was joking at the time; today I’m not so sure.

Religion and philosophy are especially vulnerable to the “fringe wagging the dog” syndrome. It’s their extremes that define ideologies – not exclusively, but most prominently. Belief systems become most easily identified – or misidentified – with their fringe ideas and fringe followers in the public’s mind. It happens even when extremists are numerically insignificant within a faith or philosophy and the mainstream disowns them swiftly, publicly and unequivocally – and it’s almost certain to happen if the majority is silent, and the dissociation slow, reluctant and equivocal.

L’agitatore, the Swiss anarchist newspaper, didn’t endorse Lucheni’s crime, but explaining it as “an act of protest against the principle of power” foreshadowed some “moderate” Muslim responses to Islamist outrages. The anarchist establishment mocked Lucheni for a bumpkin and ignoramus – not surprisingly, since the young assassin was as far removed from the pacific anarchists of Switzerland as the young men arrested in Canada last week on terrorism charges are likely to be from mainstream Muslims.

No matter. When fringes rule, terrorists taint without belonging. Mockery didn’t help anarchists to avoid association. The Rome conference’s theme was “the social defence against anarchists,” not “the social defence against bumpkins.”

“The world is mad, I tell you!”

My friend on the phone is venting. He got to the airport an hour before departure time, thinking it would be enough. It wasn’t. Now he’s trying to figure out whether he’s furious at security bureaucrats who make him miss his flights or jihadists who try to blow up his airplanes. He wants to know where these jerks (he actually calls them “shvantzes”) are coming from.

They don’t have to be coming from anywhere, old friend. Airports and modern jihadists may be relatively new, but shvantzes have been with us forever.

National Post