- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009



By Michael Burleigh

Harper, $29.99, 592 pages

Reviewed by William Anthony Hay

Philosophers and theologians have long grappled with the problem of evil, and terrorism casts it in a particularly vivid form. Specialists have described terrorism as the last resort of the weak, but Michael Burleigh argues, instead, that it expresses the pride and vanity of those who set themselves above any moral code.

The Duke of Gloucester lamented in “King Lear” that “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/they kill us for their sport,” and randomly inflicting pain and despair offers the allure of conferring power on those thwarted by their rage.

Mr. Burleigh picks up themes from his earlier works on the connection between religion and politics in “Blood and Rage” where he traces a cultural history of terrorism from the 19th century through the present day. Political messianism - the impulse to realize perfection on Earth by whatever means necessary - marks a common thread, along with the struggle between religion and secular ideologies that mimic it. But ideology provides the spark for materials in place as Feodor Dostoevski and Joseph Conrad saw among terrorists of their own day.

Irish Fenians were the first recognizably modern terrorist group, and their story prefigures later developments. The transition from rural poverty to urban ghettos fostered militant nostalgia for an imagined past expressed in anti-British sentiment. Americans overlooked or romanticized Irish terrorism, and the government’s culpable neglect allowed Fenians to use the United States as a base for fundraising and planning operations.

Dynamite, invented in the 1860s, provided the means to inflict massive damage. When attempts at organizing a mass revolt in Ireland failed, Fenians used bombings to force change despite their countrymen’s indifference. Careful policing driven by public outrage defeated the Fenians by 1890, but their influence persisted. Mr. Burleigh notes that their successors choreographed the 1916 Easter Rising “as a form of blood sacrifice witnessing the birth of a nation.” Its aftermath won undeserved sympathy that allowed terrorists to play public sentiment against the authorities.

Russian nihilists embraced terrorism to break the political deadlock that inhibited reform. Admiration for bandits and criminals often lay beneath the surface, while contempt for authorities drew fellow travelers. If displaced or disappointed idealism drew many to terrorism, Mr. Burleigh emphasizes the corruption violence brought. Killing became addictive, and the thrill played to “a megalomaniac and sadistic desire to dominate others.” Enforcing order within terrorist cells offered an outlet along with depredations against others.

Achieving revolution gave way to the obsession with revolutionary violence that the Bolshevik Revolution would institutionalize. Nineteenth-century anarchist terrorists combined the theory of revolutionary violence with banditry. Murdering politicians, royalty and heads of state - including President William McKinley - and arbitrary bombings to instill random terror sparked a climate of fear now forgotten. The resentful desire to inflict random destruction on ordinary people as an end in itself shows the underlying psychology.

Colonial liberation struggles kept terrorism alive into the 20th century, and Middle Eastern conflicts affected the West. Arab terrorists not only operated in Europe, but also provided encouragement to groups in Italy and Germany during the 1970s. The failure of Marxist revolution in those countries drove radicals to embrace terrorism, but Mr. Burleigh shows other preoccupations at work. Beyond the theory a former German terrorist describes as “half-read but fully understood,” lay an obsession with the criminal underworld and its thrills.

Privileged youths became gangsters with a cause. Violent Hollywood films like Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” had more influence than Karl Marx or Antonio Gramsci. Terrorism gave the discontented a way to live out fantasies with fast cars, weapons and kidnappings. In post-industrial Northern Ireland, terrorism also gave otherwise marginal proletarians a social status within their communities and a career path otherwise unimaginable.

If the Red Brigades and Red Army Faction played at gangsters in the 1970s, Irish terrorists morphed into criminal organizations from the 1990s that blended political violence with crime in areas from which government authority had retreated.

Mr. Burleigh’s account sets Islamic terrorism within this context rather than that of debates over regional politics or American foreign policy. Failed states and the absence of civil society may facilitate, but do not cause the rage of an often privileged class. Boredom and a personal sense of being thwarted drove men like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri to terrorism, and they provide a potent lure to potential followers.

Like other revolutionary ideologies Salafist Islam strives for a great upheaval to rescue a fallen world. An unachievable cause that licenses otherwise unthinkable behavior channels personal discontent, and horrifying violence becomes sanctified, with ritual beheadings taking on the role of human sacrifices broadcast over the Internet as a vicarious thrill.

What lessons does Mr. Burleigh’s story provide? Fighting terrorists demands a long struggle to disrupt their operations, deny them support, and fragment organizations without alienating wider opinion or giving terrorist groups undeserved sympathy. Authorities in Europe have done just that. And the fact there has been no repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks points to American success.

Preventing conflicts in South Asia and the Middle East from rebounding onto the developed world is part of containing Islamist radicalism within Europe. Asymmetrical fighting has moved from the frontiers of civilization to exploit weaknesses at its heart.

Besides effective policing, this task requires cultural initiatives to discredit extremism and marginalize those who embrace rage. Ignoring or compromising with radicals no longer works, and even Muslims themselves realize the dead end Salafism offers. Instead of false analogies and misleading slogans, it takes careful, persistent efforts to counter the psychological disorder that has made terrorism the scourge of our day.

William Anthony Hay is an historian at Mississippi State University.

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