Anatomy of the Red Brigades: The Religious Mind-set of Modern Terrorists

August 11, 2011

In his first paragraph, Alessandro Orsini makes an attempt on the world record for definitions unmade and issues avoided. "It is a frightening thought", he pronounces, "that envy, resentment and hate can sometimes have a decisive effect on the course of history. A rational version of politics, in which the actors' choices are always based on a cost-benefit calculation, is much more reassuring."

Thereafter, Orsini's approach is to deploy lengthy citation of the terrorists' writings and speeches to expose their utter wickedness, with their statements underlined by generalisations of his own. While they flourished in 1970s Italy, we learn, the Brigadists were fundamentalists, believers in and practitioners of the absolute. As far as they were concerned, "to kill for the revolution is the noblest of gestures, a demonstration of love to humanity awaiting redemption". In their minds, "there could be millions of people to kill but no matter".

There is no room for doubt and accident here, no place for context, no history, except of the most summary and melodramatic kind. So, Orsini describes but scarcely analyses neo-Fascist violence, which was widespread in those years. There is no mention of Italians' (complex and divided) reading of the meaning of Fascism and anti-Fascism; no probing of messages that were being understood and misunderstood from the fate of Salvador Allende in Chile, from Vietnam or from the communist world, split between the USSR and China; no proper account of the ambiguities of the Italian welfare state or of the "blocked" politics malignly resulting from the Cold War; no review of the ideological travails of Catholicism after Vatican II.

Orsini's terrorists are ethereal and wicked beings, self-consciously marginal and uprooted people, who decided that they had experienced an "anthropological revolution" and been sacralised in their all-or-nothing cause. Evidence about them is read with absolute credulity. Thus Orsini assures us - even while drawing on their correspondence with their mothers - that terrorists shrugged off their families.

His case, then, is that these killers were, and are, not like us. Rather they renounced anything that we deem as constituting humanity. Their misguided "knowledge" rendered them blind. They were also not especially Italian. They were commanded by their words and belief system, not in any deep sense products of their context, even if chapter five takes the origins of dystopian utopianism back to the Reformation and on through Robespierre to Marx in a familiar rightist gallery of horrors. Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot fall in chapter six. The argument has become, therefore, so far as Italy is concerned, that the Brigadists were "accidents in the works", rather as conservative Germans, in the 1950s, argued Hitler was.

In its original Italian version, Anatomy of the Red Brigades won a major prize in 2010, presumably demonstrating that its argument suited the mentalité of Berlusconian Italy. Away from there, however, Orsini's book is not recommended, except for those who comprehend life through a business plan in bullet points that lists the baddies as incorrigibly and totally bad (and thereby justifies any violence designed to suppress them).

With sublime irony, the book offers Orsini's final solution to the terrorist problem. In its author's mind, there is "one truth" and only one truth about them, with the result being a strange metamorphosis whereby the analyst takes on what he claims is the spiritual character of those evil men and women whom he thinks he is studying.

Anatomy of the Red Brigades: The Religious Mind-set of Modern Terrorists

By Alessandro Orsini. Cornell University Press. 328pp, £19.95.ISBN 9780801449864.Published 25 March 2011

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