In the latest Tribune I review Michael Burleigh's Blood and Rage. I think this is a very useful and readable history of terrorism and the links, practical and philosophical, between different terrorist groups (even those in different times).
Burleigh leaves us in no doubt that terrorists are responsible for their own actions and perverse 'death cults'. What is striking is how depressingly similar many of the groups are in the way they evolve.
Below is the review as submitted:
Blood & Rage is a history of terrorism beginning from the mid-nineteenth century with Irish Fenians and Russian Nihilists. Michael Burleigh finishes with the terrorism of today, which he terms ‘jihadi-salafist’. He looks at the lives and actions of terrorists and the choices they make rather than focusing on their particular ideologies, though these are addressed. He regards ideology as ‘like a detonator that enables a pre-existing chemical mix to explode.’ This is a grim history containing many gruesome crimes. The viscous acts of groups such as the Baader-Meinhoff gang were compounded by the support they often received from some on the Left whose ideological stance prevented them condemning murder and violence. To read this book is to be transported to other times but then to realise that much remains unchanged.
It is striking how many terrorist groups adopt similar approaches and echo the Russian Nihilists. The usually small groups, frustrated by lack of support, find that their ideologies encourage them to commit dramatic and horrific acts of destruction. These acts of blowing up bombs, torturing and murdering people, mount in number and scale and the groups become more cult-like. They convince themselves that their acts will be catalysts that will bring about some sort of revolutionary change. As Burleigh writes, ‘the unexpressed goal of bringing about transformative chaos becomes the element in which terrorists are most at home.’ In this they fail, prompting an escalation of terror. He believes terrorists are morally insane without being clinically psychotic.
At first, governments are often painfully slow to appreciate the threat they face. Detection efforts are poorly resourced and incompetent while terrorists are often clever and outwit police efforts to stop them. Governments may also adopt ‘appeasement’ strategies, believing the terrorists’ cause has some degree of legitimacy, not realising that they are dealing with people whose appetite for violence can never be satiated. Terrorist suspects and convicted terrorists are often treated leniently.
Alternatively, governments sometimes risk increasing support for unpopular terrorists by draconian measures against whole populations in response to terrorism rather than identify the (often small) band of terrorists responsible. State terror is not addressed in this book.
The ‘jihadi-salafist’ terrorist threat is, next to climate change, the most serious we face. Burleigh believes that we are not taking the threat as seriously as we should. Armed interventions such as in Afghanistan should continue so that terrorists are denied operating and training space. The West must not be closely identified with authoritarian allies in the ‘war on terror’. Greater effort must be made to unite public opinion strongly against terrorism around the world. Convicted terrorists should not be grouped together on prison wings. Burleigh believes we should learn from the Saudi Arabian approach where those on the ‘lower rungs of jihadism’ are weaned off extremism. Clerics discuss and educate prisoners about their religion and explain why the prisoners’ outlook is a distortion while their families are looked after in their absence. Burleigh argues for a focus and celebration of our cultural values alongside a mutual curiosity about each other from Muslim and non-Muslim societies that avoids the trap of multiculturalism. More controversially he believes that Islam’s place in British society should be linked to freedom of non-Muslim religions in Muslim societies; this generalises Muslims in a way he argues against elsewhere.
Burleigh has a distinctive style and ranges across his subject. His conservative political outlook is apparent. I suppose anyone who can get away with including Jesus Christ, Adolf Hitler, and the actor Steve Berkoff in the same sentence, as Burleigh does in an earlier book, Earthly Desires, deserves some respect. Whether his editor deserves similar praise for letting him do it is open to question. Similar editorial indulgence appears to occur in Blood & Rage. Burleigh writes an informed history infused with his personal, polemical, commentary but this raises questions about how he marshals the vast array of facts he deploys. Nevertheless, Blood & Rage is a sobering but challenging read.