February 20, 2008


A cultural history of terrorism: a review of Blood and Rage by Michael Burleigh (Nigel Jones, 2/17/08, Daily Telegraph)

In the winter of 1869-70, an impoverished Fyodor Dostoyevsky, eking out a penurious exile in Dresden with his young wife and new-born daughter and casting about for ideas for a new money-making novel, read newspaper reports of a sensational crime in his native St Petersburg.

A charismatic young Nihilist, Sergei Nechaev, had created a small cell of student revolutionaries and then made them - seemingly to cement their ties with bonds of blood - participate with him in the gruesome murder of one of their number, Ivanov.

Instantly it seemed to Dostoyevsky that he had found his theme: the corruption of innocent idealism by brutal violence, and the placing of abstract and absurd political goals before basic human decency.

As he set about writing the masterpiece that became The Devils the great Russian novelist was also, says Michael Burleigh in his own factual exposé of terrorism and the wretched recurring mindset that so often motivates it, revealing a template common to many terrorist movements.

It is a template that has held true from Nechaev's own Nihilists, through the international anarchists that plagued the Western world at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries or the playboy revolutionaries of Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, down to the Islamist fanatics of our own era.

Most, if not all such terrorists, says Burleigh, whatever the ostensible causes for which they bomb, shoot or stab, share common traits of more interest to the psychiatrist than the rational political analyst.

These include a secure economic background; a chilling disinterest in - or even a sadistic enjoyment of - the suffering they inflict; and a zombie-like distance from the mundane realities of everyday life.

Beyond the terrorists themselves, there is another, larger group that comes under the lash of both Burleigh and Dostoyevsky: the protective penumbra of left-liberal, bien pensant opinion that comfortingly surrounds the terrorists, glossing over or excusing the crimes they commit, and obsessively attacking verbally the society the terrorists assail physically.

It is these fellow-travellers of terrorism - the lenient judges, the lying lawyers, the cosily tenured academics, the establishment 'radicals' with a permanently open microphone at the BBC - who are the real targets of Burleigh's own righteous indignation.

His barely suppressed rage, not only at the casual cruelty he describes, but also at the weaselly excuses and justifications of the terrorists' apologists, make his book - though far from a rant - a refreshing douche of cold anger at our weak postmodern moral evasions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2008 6:46 AM
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