De-Romanticizing Terror

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh; HarperCollins; 577 pages; hardcover; $29.99
In March of 2008, a Palestinian gunmen entered the Mercaz Harav seminary in West Jerusalem, armed with an AK-47. Spotting rabbinical students, he immediately opened fire, slaughtering eight and wounding nine, before finally being killed himself. The BBC quoted a witness at the scene: "When we got in...we saw young 15, 16-year-old guys lying on the floor with their Bibles in their hands-all dead." Justification for the attack soon came from a Hamas spokesman: "This heroic attack in Jerusalem is a normal response to the crimes of the occupier."

Savage acts of inhumanity are the signal mark of terrorists; so too is the rationalization of evil. In his riveting new work Blood and Rage, British historian Michael Burleigh examines this dark and alien world, stripping terrorists of their revolutionary glamour, and depriving them of the legitimacy they seek.

Blood and Rage is about "terrorism as a career, a culture and a way of life." It begins with a caustic look at the Fenians (forerunners of the IRA), who were among the first to employ explosives for political purposes. In the middle and late nineteenth century, these Irish brigands -- some of whom hailed from America -- terrorized businesses and commuters in England, a century before Islamic extremists would do the same throughout Europe. The similarities between the two movements are eerie: the indifference to human suffering we now associate with jihadists was fully evident among the Fenians back then. The only difference is that today's terrorists have better technology and weapons.

While Fenians might be called the progenitors of modern terrorism, others have eagerly spread it. The nihilists and anarchists in Russia, the Algerian and Latin American "nationalists," Palestinian "liberationists," the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhoff gangs, the Basque ETA-all have tried to outdo one another in this deadly game of mayhem. In seven carefully-researched chapters, Burleigh examines these movements, before ending with a strong section entitled "World Rage: Islamist Terrorism." Throughout, he addresses the major question that confronts all scholars in the field: What is it that motivates terrorists? Vanity and criminality, he says. Terrorists are sad, pathetic little men (and sometimes women) who have nothing to offer society but their artificially-induced rage and bottomless evil. In love with themselves, far more than with any supposed political goal, they are essentially narcissists with weapons-and need to be exposed as such.

Burleigh's cast of characters are both fascinating and repulsive. We meet Vera Figner, "the pretty daughter of a well-to-do justice of the peace," who attends an elite, nineteenth-century Russian boarding school, only to become an international assassin; Illich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal"), "the spoilt son of a millionaire Stalinist who would bask in the son's exploits"; Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, a notorious Ulster Loyalist, who terrorizes at will, while "injecting his arms and thighs with horse steroids"; and Mario Moretti, who exchanges the "cold, grey anonymity of Milan" for the thrill of the Red Brigades, who kidnap and kill Italian politician Aldo Moro. Better known Islamic terrorists, including the cult around Osama bin Laden, are also analyzed and skewered; and Burleigh's ability to interconnect them all, across time and culture, in a kind of fraternity of monsters, makes Blood and Rage a seamless, powerful read.

The book highlights the many personality traits terrorists share. One is the excitement, even perverse joy, terrorists get from killing people. Burleigh compares the thrill young jihadists get from watching suicide-bombing training videos, to the titillation induced by hardcore pornography. Equally intoxicating is the terrorists' "desire to bring chaos to the lives of others." Trapped in a hell of their own making, they feel compelled to bring others into this circle of pain. Eamon Collins, a former IRA terrorist (murdered for trying to go straight), is quoted explaining why he targeted Warrenpoint, a quiet Irish community:

"The people there seemed to be cocooned and relatively prosperous. Middle-class Catholics and Protestants lived in harmony, united-as I would have put it from my Marxist perspective-by their class interests in maintaining their high standard of living....I loathed the tranquility of this little seaside town: Warrenpoint was to me a little sugar-plum fairy on the top of a rotten unionist cake.... I was going to enjoy bringing Warrenpoint's fairy tale existence to an end."

Another characteristic of modern terrorists is their astounding ignorance. Though they speak endlessly about history and current events, Burleigh shows just how oafish these "socially conscious" revolutionaries really are. Whether it is jihadists feeding themselves myths about "Zionist-Crusaders," or pseudo-intellectual radicals talking nonsense about the European economy, Blood and Rage exposes a community of half-wits and callow know-nothings.

Burleigh is careful not to downplay ideology (whether political or religious) as a motivating factor. Ideology, he writes, "is like a detonator that enables a pre-existing chemical mix to explode." Before ideologies can detonate, however, they have to find damaged individuals with a "pre-existing" inclination to do wrong. Normal people, however distressed they may be with a given political or cultural situation, do not become terrorists, or enjoy watching human beings grotesquely tortured and killed.

Terrorists are so evil, in fact, that there is a temptation to consider them all mentally ill, thus excusing, at least in part, their barbaric acts. Burleigh will have none it: citing a bevy of studies, he argues that most terrorists know exactly what they are doing-and do so anyway. He calls them "morally insane without being clinically psychotic."

When it comes to proposing solutions -- the point where most books on terror flounder -- Blood and Rage excels. Military force is an essential part of any anti-terror strategy, says Burleigh, but we can also wage war through more subtle means. While he rightly mocks people like Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair's former chief of staff), who favors negotiation with hardcore terrorists, including even a "repentant" bin Laden -- "what American readers make of that suggestion is not hard to imagine" -- Burleigh believes we can reason with impressionable Muslims -- susceptible to jihadism, but not yet lost-before the fix is in. One way of doing that is by exporting our best, rather than worst, culture -- lest all Muslims think we have nothing to offer but night clubs and fast food. Young Muslims must be shown not just the carnage, but the absolute chaos jihadists would provoke were their goals actually to "succeed." Burleigh is cautiously optimistic about the de-radicalization programs being instituted by Arab governments, but he has no illusions about the repression in those states. The West needs to challenge such governments about the way they treat minorities and democratic activists. On the home front, we should be vigorously defending universal standards of morality, challenging the insane "multiculturalism" which breeds hatred, ethnocentrism, "honor killings" and bombings. If this means restricting, or even expelling, inflexible fanatics who call for murder on our sidewalks, so be it. Democracy is not a suicide pact.

At a time when economics has trumped terrorism as a leading concern, when lawyers and judges are doing everything possible to undermine our efforts against jihadism, and when some of our leaders have trouble even calling this war by its proper name, Burleigh's book provides a much-needed counter-balance. Better yet, it devastates terror's leading academic apologists. Blood and Rage deals a heavy blow to those who seek to "understand" terrorists, or adopt a "there but for the grace of God go I" approach. Eschewing armchair theorizing, Burleigh bases his arguments on hard facts, first-hand testimonies, and interviews with former terrorists and intelligence personnel. Having viewed this plague up close, he has little sympathy for those who "harbor a sneaking admiration for those who wish to change the world by violence."

Neither will anyone who reads this important book.
Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh; HarperCollins; 577 pages; hardcover; $29.99
In March of 2008, a Palestinian gunmen entered the Mercaz Harav seminary in West Jerusalem, armed with an AK-47. Spotting rabbinical students, he immediately opened fire, slaughtering eight and wounding nine, before finally being killed himself. The BBC quoted a witness at the scene: "When we got in...we saw young 15, 16-year-old guys lying on the floor with their Bibles in their hands-all dead." Justification for the attack soon came from a Hamas spokesman: "This heroic attack in Jerusalem is a normal response to the crimes of the occupier."

Savage acts of inhumanity are the signal mark of terrorists; so too is the rationalization of evil. In his riveting new work Blood and Rage, British historian Michael Burleigh examines this dark and alien world, stripping terrorists of their revolutionary glamour, and depriving them of the legitimacy they seek.

Blood and Rage is about "terrorism as a career, a culture and a way of life." It begins with a caustic look at the Fenians (forerunners of the IRA), who were among the first to employ explosives for political purposes. In the middle and late nineteenth century, these Irish brigands -- some of whom hailed from America -- terrorized businesses and commuters in England, a century before Islamic extremists would do the same throughout Europe. The similarities between the two movements are eerie: the indifference to human suffering we now associate with jihadists was fully evident among the Fenians back then. The only difference is that today's terrorists have better technology and weapons.

While Fenians might be called the progenitors of modern terrorism, others have eagerly spread it. The nihilists and anarchists in Russia, the Algerian and Latin American "nationalists," Palestinian "liberationists," the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhoff gangs, the Basque ETA-all have tried to outdo one another in this deadly game of mayhem. In seven carefully-researched chapters, Burleigh examines these movements, before ending with a strong section entitled "World Rage: Islamist Terrorism." Throughout, he addresses the major question that confronts all scholars in the field: What is it that motivates terrorists? Vanity and criminality, he says. Terrorists are sad, pathetic little men (and sometimes women) who have nothing to offer society but their artificially-induced rage and bottomless evil. In love with themselves, far more than with any supposed political goal, they are essentially narcissists with weapons-and need to be exposed as such.

Burleigh's cast of characters are both fascinating and repulsive. We meet Vera Figner, "the pretty daughter of a well-to-do justice of the peace," who attends an elite, nineteenth-century Russian boarding school, only to become an international assassin; Illich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal"), "the spoilt son of a millionaire Stalinist who would bask in the son's exploits"; Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, a notorious Ulster Loyalist, who terrorizes at will, while "injecting his arms and thighs with horse steroids"; and Mario Moretti, who exchanges the "cold, grey anonymity of Milan" for the thrill of the Red Brigades, who kidnap and kill Italian politician Aldo Moro. Better known Islamic terrorists, including the cult around Osama bin Laden, are also analyzed and skewered; and Burleigh's ability to interconnect them all, across time and culture, in a kind of fraternity of monsters, makes Blood and Rage a seamless, powerful read.

The book highlights the many personality traits terrorists share. One is the excitement, even perverse joy, terrorists get from killing people. Burleigh compares the thrill young jihadists get from watching suicide-bombing training videos, to the titillation induced by hardcore pornography. Equally intoxicating is the terrorists' "desire to bring chaos to the lives of others." Trapped in a hell of their own making, they feel compelled to bring others into this circle of pain. Eamon Collins, a former IRA terrorist (murdered for trying to go straight), is quoted explaining why he targeted Warrenpoint, a quiet Irish community:

"The people there seemed to be cocooned and relatively prosperous. Middle-class Catholics and Protestants lived in harmony, united-as I would have put it from my Marxist perspective-by their class interests in maintaining their high standard of living....I loathed the tranquility of this little seaside town: Warrenpoint was to me a little sugar-plum fairy on the top of a rotten unionist cake.... I was going to enjoy bringing Warrenpoint's fairy tale existence to an end."

Another characteristic of modern terrorists is their astounding ignorance. Though they speak endlessly about history and current events, Burleigh shows just how oafish these "socially conscious" revolutionaries really are. Whether it is jihadists feeding themselves myths about "Zionist-Crusaders," or pseudo-intellectual radicals talking nonsense about the European economy, Blood and Rage exposes a community of half-wits and callow know-nothings.

Burleigh is careful not to downplay ideology (whether political or religious) as a motivating factor. Ideology, he writes, "is like a detonator that enables a pre-existing chemical mix to explode." Before ideologies can detonate, however, they have to find damaged individuals with a "pre-existing" inclination to do wrong. Normal people, however distressed they may be with a given political or cultural situation, do not become terrorists, or enjoy watching human beings grotesquely tortured and killed.

Terrorists are so evil, in fact, that there is a temptation to consider them all mentally ill, thus excusing, at least in part, their barbaric acts. Burleigh will have none it: citing a bevy of studies, he argues that most terrorists know exactly what they are doing-and do so anyway. He calls them "morally insane without being clinically psychotic."

When it comes to proposing solutions -- the point where most books on terror flounder -- Blood and Rage excels. Military force is an essential part of any anti-terror strategy, says Burleigh, but we can also wage war through more subtle means. While he rightly mocks people like Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair's former chief of staff), who favors negotiation with hardcore terrorists, including even a "repentant" bin Laden -- "what American readers make of that suggestion is not hard to imagine" -- Burleigh believes we can reason with impressionable Muslims -- susceptible to jihadism, but not yet lost-before the fix is in. One way of doing that is by exporting our best, rather than worst, culture -- lest all Muslims think we have nothing to offer but night clubs and fast food. Young Muslims must be shown not just the carnage, but the absolute chaos jihadists would provoke were their goals actually to "succeed." Burleigh is cautiously optimistic about the de-radicalization programs being instituted by Arab governments, but he has no illusions about the repression in those states. The West needs to challenge such governments about the way they treat minorities and democratic activists. On the home front, we should be vigorously defending universal standards of morality, challenging the insane "multiculturalism" which breeds hatred, ethnocentrism, "honor killings" and bombings. If this means restricting, or even expelling, inflexible fanatics who call for murder on our sidewalks, so be it. Democracy is not a suicide pact.

At a time when economics has trumped terrorism as a leading concern, when lawyers and judges are doing everything possible to undermine our efforts against jihadism, and when some of our leaders have trouble even calling this war by its proper name, Burleigh's book provides a much-needed counter-balance. Better yet, it devastates terror's leading academic apologists. Blood and Rage deals a heavy blow to those who seek to "understand" terrorists, or adopt a "there but for the grace of God go I" approach. Eschewing armchair theorizing, Burleigh bases his arguments on hard facts, first-hand testimonies, and interviews with former terrorists and intelligence personnel. Having viewed this plague up close, he has little sympathy for those who "harbor a sneaking admiration for those who wish to change the world by violence."

Neither will anyone who reads this important book.