Commentary Magazine

Blood & Rage, by Michael Burleigh

All Terrorists Are Not the Same

Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism
By Michael Burleigh
Harper, 577 pages, $29.99

The task of creating an all-purpose profile of a typical terrorist has proved elusive for the Western law-enforcement and intelligence agencies that have tried to simplify the job of uncovering those most inclined to such activity. The same is true for historians who have sought to provide a comprehensive explanation for the various terrorist movements that have left their imprint on the global landscape during the past 150 years.

However, this daunting challenge has not deterred the British writer Michael Burleigh from attempting to place the vast roster of terrorist movements during this period in a coherent historical context. Burleigh tells us in the preface to his Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism that he is more concerned with providing a cultural history than with the theories and ideologies that justify or interpret terrorism. He focuses on the lives and actions of terrorists, on terrorism as a career and a way of life, and on the cultural milieu of terrorists and their organizations.

Identifying a unifying theme in a book so wide-ranging is no easy task, as Blood and Rage touches on everyone from the Irish Fenians, to Russian -Nihilists, to assorted anarchist terrorists, to the Irgun Zvai Leumi of pre-state Israel, to the ANC, to the Palestinian Black September, to the Red Brigades of Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang of West Germany, the Basque ETA, and finally a 140-page chapter (a book in itself) on the rise of Islamic terrorism in our time. It is tempting to say the book doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts, but each part is so well written and informative that this lack of an overarching synthesis ought to be overlooked.

Undeterred by the diversity of the cast of characters that he has assembled, Burleigh does take a stab at suggesting a few features common to all terrorists:

The unexpressed goal of bringing about transformative chaos becomes the element in which terrorists are most at home. Destruction and self-destruction briefly compensate for some perceived slight or more abstract grievances that cause their hysterical rage. As endless studies of terrorist grievances reveal they are morally insane, without being clinically psychotic. If that affliction unites most terrorists then their victims usually have one thing in common, regardless of their social class, politics or religious faith. That is a desire to live unexceptionable lives settled amid their family and friends, without some resentful radical loser—who can be a millionaire loser harboring delusions of victimhood—wishing to destroy and maim them so as to realize a world that almost nobody wants.

This attempt to describe what might unify the various terrorist organizations raises more questions than Burleigh has answers. Is the goal of all terrorists to bring about “transformative chaos” as an end in and of itself? If not that, do all terrorists view their activity as some penultimate stage toward the establishment of a renewed political order? In many cases, can it not be more simply understood as a form of guerrilla warfare or as an insurgency occurring by morally questionable means? What, for instance, does anarchist terrorism, a phenomenon based on a philosophy that “regards the state as nothing more that the organization of violence on behalf of vested interests,” have in common with a movement that understands the state in theocratic terms? And just what does it mean to suggest that all terrorists are “morally insane”?

Perhaps Burleigh is suggesting that any political order ushered in principally through terrorist means is likely to be as oppressive as the regime it has replaced. That is an entirely plausible hypothesis. At the conclusion of his chapter on Russian revolutionaries and anarchists, he regrets that tsarist Russia’s reaction to terrorists and revolutionaries did little “to foster a liberal camp that might have combined an insistence on legality with an unambiguous condemnation of terrorism.” As for the terrorists themselves, he tells us that “many of them slipped effortlessly into the apparatus of state terror that Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades established in Russia, beginning with the Cheka and from 1922 onwards the dread GPU.”

The example here of Josef Stalin, whose bloody career began with politically motivated extortion and robbery before ultimately moving on to state-ordered mass murder, is highly informative. Moving forward several decades, given the antiliberal theories that justified their violence, in the unlikely event that the Red Brigades or the Baader-Meinhof gang had prevailed in Italy or Germany, a nasty bloodbath would surely have followed. But is this a model to be expected of all terrorists of every stripe once they assume the reins of power?

Burleigh, of course, will have none of the notion that today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s statesman, or that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. “If you imagine that Osama bin Laden is going to evolve into Nelson Mandela,” he says on the opening page, “you need a psychiatrist rather than an historian.” As Burleigh’s comment suggests, there may well be cultural features that radically distinguish Mandela’s African National Congress, which sought to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime, from other terrorist organizations with less defensible political goals. There are other examples of “reluctant terrorism”—such as the behavior of the Irish Republican Army before the departure of the British from southern Ireland in 1922 and Jewish terrorism directed against the British in Palestine. These -cases, as well as those of assorted anarchist movements, all had methods and beliefs that differ in fundamental respects from today’s Islamists. Does the word terrorist as a general description somehow lose its meaning when it is used to describe these disparate phenomena?

Burleigh is not unaware of the problem this last question raises. In his long “Afterthoughts” chapter, he offers a word of caution to those Europeans who think their experience with different terrorist groups is easily transferable to the contemporary fight against Islamist terrorism. Burleigh is scornful of naive politicians and diplomats who think that because they know something about fighting the ETA or the Red Brigades, they have any idea of how to deal with Islamists. Burleigh finds a certain “post-imperial hubris lurking behind attempts to export conflict-resolution studies” to contemporary Islamist terrorism, as when, for instance, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell suggested that we should negotiate with al-Qaeda on the same basis of his past dealings with the IRA’s Gerry Adams.

Military historians are well aware of the perennial problem of planning for and fighting the last war. The problem of learning the wrong lessons from even successful counterterrorist efforts is not limited to politicians and diplomats. Indeed, Burleigh offers the following anecdote to show how you cannot go about fighting Islamist terrorism the same way you might have fought the Provisional IRA:

I am reminded of a story related to me by a senior Mossad officer who had many dealings with the Irish Special Branch in the shape of a giant rugby player with big ears and a collapsed nose. The Mossad man was told that the Irish police already knew about terrorism. He pointed out that the first concern for a Provo terrorist planning an operation was how to get away, a minor concern for jihadis who are seeking martyrdom and paradise. After due reflection on such suicide tactics, the Irish detective conceded: S—, you know what, we’ll keep the Provos and you can have Hamas and Hizbollah.

So just what does unify the diverse histories of these terrorists’ organizations and personalities? At the end of the day, not much, which is not to say that a series of cultural studies is not valuable. Burleigh successfully shows that the cultural milieu of the terrorist is “invariably morally squalid, when it is not merely criminal.” He confesses in his preface that his goal here is to disabuse those who “harbour a sneaking admiration for those who wish to change the world through violence.” Indeed, Burleigh impresses upon us the extent to which criminals and thugs, some of whom revel in violence simply because they like fighting, tend to find common cause with the true believers.

If criminal support is one common feature, the support of feckless intellectuals is the other. Blood and Rage is not an intellectual history, and Burleigh spends little time engaging the various theories of terrorism, but each chapter is full of well-deserved contempt for intellectuals who either give warrant for terror or excuse it.

Burleigh describes the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia as “a sub-set of the educated classes, encompassing those who talked about books they had never read, distinguished both by a disavowal of class or occupation, such as bureaucrat or soldier, and by their conformist subscription to such supposedly progressive ideals as atheism, socialism and revolution.” The Russian intelligentsia embraced an essentially secularized Christian vision—“a redemptive Populist crusade . . . in which redemptive virtue was ascribed to the lowest of the low, and paradise would dawn after their consciousness had been raised to revolutionary levels.”

Burleigh summarizes the dual motives among many who resort to -violence in so-called “wars of national liberation”—which aim to “magnetize public opinion” as well as to usher in a transformed personality:

Methods of fighting which had been peripheral to the vast industrialized clashes of the Second World War become commonplace in the wars of decolonization that succeeded it. Guerilla movements became the norm, with many resorting to terrorism partly to magnetize public opinion, but also because clever men like the psychiatrist-revolutionary Frantz Fanon (or his modish spokesperson Sartre) told them that violence was both bonding and liberating—a new man would emerge upright from the deformed personality created by colonialism. They had less to say about how violence could develop its own psychopathetic momentum, a habit that was impossible to shake off, or how in some left-wing circles it would be invested with a spurious glamour.

Nowhere is Burleigh’s contempt for the intelligentsia more evident that in the chapter entitled “Guilty White Kids: The Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction.” Burleigh speaks of jaded Italian academics who “discovered an antidote for the accidie and boredom through lai-cized left-wing messianisms and the espousal of violence for other people, an especially despicable trait among left-wing intellectuals.” We are introduced to the likes of Antonio Negri, an intellectual celebrity who, along with his admirers, argued that there was little difference between liberal democracy and authoritarian and fascist states:

In order to legitimize [political violence] Negri spouted a lot of claptrap, worthy of his French friends Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault, about the structural or systemic violence inherent in capitalism, while warning such people as judges, executives, managers and policemen that they performed their duties at their own risk.

Terrorists will no doubt always find useful idiots among the intelligentsia. But even in this regard, we might wonder about the strength of historical analogies. Burleigh is correct to point out that “throughout Europe there are left-liberals (and a few pro-Arab ‘Camel Corps’ right wingers) whose hatred of the United States, and Israel, is so pathologically ingrained that they have become apologists for the most reactionary elements within Islam.” Such knee-jerk anti-Americanism and the grip of multiculturalism have much to do with Europe’s lack of self-confidence in confronting the rise of radical Islam. But however regrettable, even this is not akin to the overt sympathy New Left intellectuals had for the Red Brigades or the Red Army Faction; Burleigh acknowledges “no significant section of Western elite opinion is sympathetic to contemporary Islamist terrorism, as many were to Marxist-Leninism in the 1930s.”

But this is to quibble. Blood and Rage is an indispensable one-stop-shop study of modern terrorist movements. Policymakers and those working in the area of counterterrorism will find here a -historical-reality check for their policies and tactics: don’t let your prisons be turned into community colleges where terrorists learn their tradecraft; watch the universities lest they become breeding grounds for radicals and terrorists; interdict the financing of terror through various criminal enterprises and exploit the fault lines between the true believers and the thugs; understand the extent to which terrorists see themselves as a vanguard in front of popular support, and therefore make their defeat inevitable or at least inevitable-seeming to the broader population.

For these reasons, Blood and Rage would be put to good use as a core text for military and intelligence officers studying the challenges of the 21st century. For obvious reasons, it will likely be less well received in academia. But that is more of an indictment of the academy than it is of Burleigh or his fine cultural history of terrorism.


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