Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism

Charles Townshend is taken aback by a combative and oddly incurious survey of the enemies within

March 27, 2008

Michael Burleigh's "cultural history" of terrorism enters a crowded marketplace, although historical approaches to the subject are still comparatively rare. His starting point is "the moment when recognisably modern terrorist organisations emerged".

This is sensible, though we might expect to be told how to recognise these groups. What are their distinctive characteristics? This he does not say. Taking the common line that attempts to define terrorism are a waste of time, he simply launches into his first case study, giving "dubious precedence to the Irish Fenians". Does the dubiety attach to the Fenians themselves, or to Burleigh's selection?

This blurring turns out to be typical of his method, which privileges moral condemnation over systematic analysis. He calls terrorism a "tactic" rather than a strategy, though he must know the difference between the two concepts (he rightly labels bank robbery a "tactic"). It becomes clear that he does not intend to assess terrorism as a possibly rational and effective political method: for Burleigh that is just the kind of liberal nonsense that has hampered our ability to bring terrorists to the end they deserve.

His book, he says, is about the choices terrorists make, about "terrorism as a career, a culture, and a way of life". Except it mostly isn't. For such a big book, it contains surprisingly few life stories, and most of these are told in a pretty perfunctory way - certainly without the depth necessary to understand the life choices that Burleigh regards as so significant.

Take Vera Figner, the pioneering Narodnik terrorist. She, Burleigh pityingly reports, "had fallen for the myth of deep causes". Well - maybe some explanatory potential lies in this: what is this myth, and how does it work? But he does not say.

Or take the shoe bomber Richard Reid, "the hulking son of a Jamaican father and a white English mother", presented as typical of contemporary jihadists, whose terrorist career began when "he found a new idol to worship in the bulky form of Zacarias Moussaoui". But why did he need an idol? Where did Moussaoui's appeal lie - was it a size thing? We hear no more. Burleigh does not attempt to weigh the relative influence of ideological and material factors, although in talking about suicide bombing he proposes that in places such as Gaza and Jenin "expectations are so low that killing oneself can seem like an attractive career option".

The historical studies Burleigh presents are pretty familiar by now. After the Fenians, the Russian nihilists, socialist revolutionaries and anarchists; then a leap forward to the Irgun in Palestine and the FLN in Algeria. Next, the Palestinians, before we come to the "guilty white kids" of the Rote Armee Fraktion and the Brigate Rosse, where we find the usual suspects - Carlos the Jackal, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, and so on.

Burleigh's storytelling shows a perhaps slightly worrying fascination with the technical details of destruction, and a concern for brand identification in the tradition of Ian Fleming. The French Army don't simply move in helicopters, they move in banana-shaped Vertol H-21 helicopters. The jihadist Ali Mohammed doesn't just use a laptop, he uses an Apple PowerBook. Richard Reid is not just put in jail, he is put in the Colorado Supermax. What, one may ask, does his extended description of the Tomahawk cruise missiles "rotating in their tubes on several destroyers in the Arabian Sea as their gyroscopes were orientated" before being launched at al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan have to do with the culture of terrorism?

Yet where there are real cultural issues that might be discussed, as with Irish republicans, he confines himself to saying that the Gaelic language "relies heavily on an archaising Celtic script". That is his only comment on one of Europe's most remarkable cultural movements.

For all the loving detail, Burleigh's case histories are oddly uninvolving. Perhaps it is his weary cynicism about his subjects: his ineffable condescension to the Russian intelligentsia (in his lexicon, idealism equals feeble-minded delusion), or his attribution of "low peasant cunning" to the rural IRA. He has it in for many groups: "idiot Belgian socialists", the academic profession in general and the London School of Economics in particular. (Already in the 1970s, when Carlos the Jackal went there, it was "notorious for welcoming any foreigner with an open chequebook", Burleigh says. And when Ahmed Omar went there 20 years later he left little impression "amid the Eurotrash and Americans doing 'Let's see Europe'".)

Burleigh is so combative that it is surprising to find him sometimes using weasel words to deliver his denunciations, as when he suggests that "many British people may privately regard" the jihadist instigators "as amoral, deracinated scum that has fetched up from various Third World hellholes".

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his central target is liberal multiculturalism, though in denouncing this he comes closest to empathising with his subjects, discussing the dilemma of young Muslims torn between two contending value systems. But none of this modifies his conviction that "the milieu of terrorists is invariably morally squalid, when it is not merely criminal".

And the big question that must surely be faced, for instance at the end of his account of the Northern Ireland peace process - did terrorism actually achieve political gains? - he does not raise.

If there are any common structural patterns across these histories, Burleigh seems unconcerned to draw them out. (One of the possible meanings of "blood" in his sensationalist title might be the nationalist idea of ethnic kinship, a fruitful source of terrorist action, but he refers only elliptically to this concept.) Nor does he provide much of a connection between the historical and the final part of the book, where the somewhat puzzling concept of "rage" provides the platform for what can only be described as a diatribe against contemporary "jihadism", and an equally fierce denunciation of the failures of British and other authorities to awake from their "narcoleptic trance" to take effective action against terrorism.

Burleigh frequently neglects to support his assertions with evidence, and another (non-academic) reviewer has already noted that "such a casual attitude to sources seems odd in so eminent a historian". It calls for absolute trust from the reader. Any carelessness will inevitably erode this, and there is certainly some here. Burleigh multiplies the auxiliary police in Ireland by ten, for instance, and says "significantly there was no Ministry of Education" in the Irish Free State (but there was). He gets the British restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine seriously wrong, suggesting that he has not read the 1939 British White Paper he cites. He suggests bizarrely that the Red Army, not the USSR, declared war on Hitler's Germany. And no archival research was needed to get the spelling of Hizb ut-Tahrir right - just a simple tap into Google.

Most strangely, when retelling the story of the events of 9/11, Burleigh gets one of the most famous - or notorious - parts of it wrong. Will the world ever forget the image of President Bush reading The Pet Goat to a second-grade class, and carrying on for 25 minutes after getting news of the attacks? Burleigh's account has them reading to him. Do such errors really matter? For one of those (rare) historians who claim infallibility, they surely do.

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism

By Michael Burleigh
ISBN 97800072419
Published 18 February 2008

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