Cre­at­ing a cli­mate of

In shin­ing a light on po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence, Michael Burleigh gen­er­ates plenty of heat, writes Sam Leith

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AT the out­set of this rich, dense and polem­i­cal primer on the mod­ern his­tory of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence, Michael Burleigh has the good sense to de­fine his terms. He de­scribes ter­ror­ism as ‘‘ a tac­tic pri­mar­ily used by non- state ac­tors, who can be an acephalous en­tity as well as a hi­er­ar­chi­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion, to cre­ate a cli­mate of fear in or­der to com­pen­sate for the le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal power they do not pos­sess’’. A phrase that re­curs is ‘‘ pro­pa­ganda by the deed’’, and he adds: ‘‘ That mod­ern states . . . have been re­spon­si­ble for the most lethal in­stances of ter­ror­ism . . . is taken as a given.’’

Burleigh doesn’t seek to be com­pre­hen­sive — South Amer­ica and in­dige­nous South­east Asian ter­ror­ism are largely omit­ted — but he is im­pres­sively wide- rang­ing. Start­ing with the 19th- cen­tury Fe­ni­ans, he moves east to round up the an­ar­chists, ni­hilists and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies ( and drunks and mad­men) we glimpse in Dos­to­evsky and Con­rad. He has co­her­ent and very in­ter­est­ing chap­ters on the way ter­ror­ism op­er­ated in the post- colo­nial con­tin­u­ums of Al­ge­ria and Is­raelPales­tine, with their es­ca­lat­ing call- and- re­sponse pat­terns of op­pos­ing paramil­i­tary ul­tras.

Through the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion and Black Septem­ber he ex­am­ines the way ter­ror­ism be­came me­dia- lit­er­ate, then sur­veys the ‘‘ guilty white kids’’ of the Red Brigades and the Baader- Mein­hof mob. A chap­ter ti­tled Small Na­tion Ter­ror takes in the Basque sep­a­ratist or­gan­i­sa­tion ETA and the trou­bles in North­ern Ire­land be­fore a long chap­ter deals with Is­lamist ter­ror, which Burleigh calls, I think a lit­tle over­heat­edly, ‘‘ an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the whole of civil­i­sa­tion’’.

This is a very an­gry book in a way that’s un­usual in the work of a his­to­rian. If the ter­ror­ists bring the blood, the au­thor brings the rage. Burleigh open- hand­edly scat­ters ep­i­thets such as psy­chotic, atroc­ity ( and, on one oc­ca­sion, enor­mity), evil, in­fan­tile, dis­grace­ful, mon­ster and gob­bledy­gook. Some­times, as he with­er­ingly de­nounces yet an­other long- dead Mit­telEu­ro­pean lu­natic, he sounds a bit batty. But it doesn’t half liven things up.

Hither and yon, he di­rects his con­tempt at ‘‘ typ­i­cal ig­no­rance’’ and ‘‘ stun­ning credulity’’. He de­nounces ‘‘ id­iot Bel­gian so­cial­ists’’, the ‘‘ loath­some’’ Jean- Paul Sartre (‘‘ the vet­eran arm­chair revo­lu­tion­ary’’), Ben­ito Mus­solini’s ‘‘ tawdry Salo repub­lic’’, Ul­rike Mein­hof’s ‘‘ surly pud­ding face’’, neo- cons ‘‘ weary­ing to lis­ten to’’, the ‘‘ lum­ber­ing charis­matic dem­a­gogue’’ Ian Pais­ley and Ariel Sharon’s ‘‘ bumptious thug­gish­ness’’. Thatcher cabi­net min­is­ter Wil­lie Whitelaw gets off lightly with ‘‘ koala- like’’, but Bernard Man­ning is ‘‘ an un­la­mented Bri­tish racist co­me­dian of a vul­gar dis­po­si­tion’’. Mem­bers of an al- Qa’ida cell that tried to blow up the ‘‘ slags’’ in a Lon­don night­club are such as ‘‘ many Bri­tish peo­ple may pri­vately re­gard as amoral, de­ra­ci­nated scum that has fetched up from var­i­ous Third World hell­holes’’. Calm down, dear, you want to say. It’s only an ad­vert.

But, of course, it’s not only an ad­vert. If he’s an­gry, it’s be­cause he has a lot to be an­gry about; and he ar­gues that we in the West would do well to feel a bit more an­gry, too. The over­whelm­ing les­son of this book echoes Sartre’s ver­dict when he vis­ited An­dreas Baader in jail: ‘‘ What an ar­se­hole, this Baader.’’ What­ever their ide­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tions, Burleigh ar­gues, what the ter­ror­ists he de­scribes tend to have in com­mon is that their mi­lieu is ‘‘ in­vari­ably morally squalid, when it is not merely crim­i­nal’’. He evinces a per­sonal con­tempt for moral out­rages and a his­to­rian’s con­tempt for the rad­i­cally racist and his­tor­i­cally il­lit­er­ate un­der­pin­nings of, say, al- Qa’ida with its myth of op­pres­sion at the hands of a Zion­istCru­sader con­spir­acy.

He has force­ful if not al­to­gether sur­pris­ing things to say about the way ter­ror­ists are vol­un­tar­ily at­tracted by ‘‘ the thrill of clan­des­tine ac­tiv­ity in a se­cret or­gan­i­sa­tion that be­stowed sta­tus on its mem­bers’’, rather than forced into it by cir­cum­stance. He of­fers telling quo­ta­tions — ‘‘ the­ory was some­thing we half- read but fully un­der­stood’’ — and care­ful judg­ments. But what it comes down to most of­ten is ‘‘ the mur­der­ous van­ity of sad lit­tle men labour­ing over their bombs in dingy rooms’’.

Burleigh is par­tic­u­larly en­ter­tain­ing when he tack­les char­ac­ters he holds in es­pe­cial odium. His ac­count of Ul­ster loy­al­ist paramil­i­tary thug Johnny ‘‘ Mad Dog’’ Adair — hus­band of ‘‘ Mad Bitch’’, fa­ther of ‘‘ Mad Pup’’ and, pre­sum­ably, scourge of ‘‘ Mad Post­man’’ — is full of re­ward­ing de­tail. Mad Dog, we hear, was a slow starter in the mat­ter of mur­der­ing peo­ple and was orig­i­nally known as Wee Man. To ac­quire the more flat­ter­ing nick­name he is now known by, he in­jected horse steroids into his limbs and ‘‘ used the pop­u­lar house­hold aerosol furniture pol­ish Mr Sheen to make his head shine’’. While in jail in the run- up to the Good Fri­day Agree­ment, Burleigh re­marks, many paramil­i­taries ‘‘ had re­con­fig­ured them­selves into lawyers and so­ci­ol­o­gists, ex­cept those like Adair who were bent on a life of or­gan­ised crime and hence con­cen­trated on drugs and weightlift­ing’’. Af­ter his re­lease, a na­tion­al­ist at­tempted to shoot him in the back of the head at a UB40 con­cert: the bul­let merely bounced off the vic­tim’s shaven head. Wounded, Adair fled the scene as Red, Red Wine re­sounded.

Few of the vic­tims of vi­o­lence in this book ben­e­fited to quite that ex­tent from choos­ing the right brand of furniture pol­ish. Leav­ened though it is by the oc­ca­sional comic ab­sur­dity — the booby- trapped flag, the bowl of poi­soned cus­tard, the Is­lamist whose busi­ness card read ‘‘ in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist’’ — Burleigh has as­sem­bled a gru­elling laun­dry list of hor­ror.

The Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front in Al­ge­ria cut off the lips of those who used al­co­hol and the noses of smok­ers, slash­ing the throats of re­peat of­fend­ers, ‘‘ a de­lib­er­ate in­dig­nity oth­er­wise in­flicted on sheep’’. In Kosovo we hear of Serbs us­ing ropes and cars to drag off the tes­ti­cles of Mus­lim men. We see Red Army Fac­tion hi­jack­ers throw­ing the brain mat­ter of a mur­dered air­line pilot ‘‘ out of the cock­pit win­dow’’. We see the Red Brigades shoot one man 22 times in the legs. We see faces blown off as a re­sult of bit­ing on det­o­na­tor caps; end­less head hack­ings; botched cir­cum­ci­sions with nail clip­pers and com­mando knives; a ran­dom Catholic mill worker in Belfast strung up and cut to rib­bons with a chisel be­fore his plea ‘‘ Kill me! Kill me!’’ is an­swered. The forces of law and or­der aren’t squea­mish ei­ther. When the CIA needed a DNA sam­ple from a man

held in cus­tody in Cairo, Egyp­tian intelligence vol­un­teered to ‘‘ cut off his arm and send it over’’.

The prob­lem with Burleigh’s approach is that he cov­ers so much fac­tual ground in such de­tail that not very much in the way of an over­ar­ch­ing ar­gu­ment is al­lowed to emerge, ex­cept that ter­ror­ists are ar­se­holes. In­deed, the word cul­tural in the sub­ti­tle seems dis­tinctly op­tional. Each chap­ter is a boiled- down book in it­self, a san­guinary jour­ney through thick­ets of ac­ci­den­tal ex­plo­sions and fis­si­parous acronyms. If you re­ally want to know about ETA, you should read a book about ETA; but if you need a crib, Burleigh’s chap­ter will do you hand­somely. Though he slips oc­ca­sion­ally — the fa­mous ricin plot never in­volved any ricin, and ‘‘ a new gen­er­a­tion of ro­bot weapons’’ that ap­par­ently have ‘‘ built- in moral sys­tems’’ sounds science fic­tional to me — he is in gen­eral a deft and ju­di­cious guide.

The anger that in­forms the book is sel­dom al­lowed to cloud the au­thor’s judg­ment. He’s just as alert to Is­raeli bad be­hav­iour as he is to that of the PLO; just as able to dis­cern and con­demn state ter­ror as non- state; yet rightly clear in his con­vic­tion that the for­mer is no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the lat­ter. In one very lu­cid and care­ful pas­sage, dis­cussing the ori­gins of al- Qa’ida, he re­jects ‘‘ Is­lamo- fas­cist or the more ap­pro­pri­ate Is­lam­obol­she­vik’’ as terms in favour of the more pre­cise if wordier com­pound ji­hadi- Salafist.

He also has prag­matic sug­ges­tions as to how the ‘‘ long war’’ against ji­hadi- Salafism can be made shorter: a com­bi­na­tion of cut­ting across some of our more fas­tid­i­ous lib­eral shib­bo­leths, and a softly- softly approach to de- pro­gram­ming low- level re­cruits. He can mar­shal vel­vet glove as well as iron fist.

For a writer so fre­quently dis­crim­i­nat­ing, though, Burleigh is oddly free at other times with bar- room stereo­types. The Be­douin are ‘‘ fiercely proud no­mads’’. Of the an­ar­chist Karl Heinzen, he writes: ‘‘ Be­ing Ger­man, he had to flour­ish an­a­lyt­i­cal cat­e­gories to give his ob­ses­sions the sim­u­lacrum of sci­en­tific re­spectabil­ity.’’ Later we meet ‘‘ heavy Teu­tonic so­cia­bil­ity’’. ‘‘ In­ad­ver­tently giv­ing the lie to the no­tion that the Ital­ian es­tab­lish­ment was ca­pa­ble of a co­her­ent con­spir­acy to do any­thing’’ gives way to ‘‘ Italy be­ing what it is . . .’’ ‘‘ Charm was not the av­er­age Afrikaner’s strong suit,’’ he writes. Aus­tralians have a ‘‘ char­ac­ter­is­tic lack of cir­cum­lo­cu­tion’’. It’s only half- clear he’s para­phras­ing sources when he de­scribes Copts as bumptious or Afghans as ‘‘ child- like, bar­baric and ve­nal, with an un­healthy in­ter­est in boys’’. A ‘‘ ho­mo­sex­ual pedophile’’ and ‘‘ gay Protes­tant ter­ror­ist’’ are pass­ingly iden­ti­fied as such with no ob­vi­ous rel­e­vance, and I’m not sure it’s on to de­scribe des­ti­tute women beg­ging in burkas as ‘‘ black sacks hold­ing their hands out’’.

Like­wise, his at­tacks on a left- lib­eral con­sen­sus in me­dia, law and academe — which he sees as pro­vid­ing ide­o­log­i­cal and prac­ti­cal suc­cour to ter­ror — some­times cross the line from ar­gu­ment to rant. Aca­demics who once stud­ied ‘‘ the com­par­a­tive his­tory of par­lia­ments or war fi­nance . . . are now more likely to be ex­perts on gay and les­bian body art, se­rial killers or the per­se­cu­tion of witches, ri­valling television in their pop­ulist pur­suit of the lurid or triv­ial’’. De­plor­ing the ‘‘ creed of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism’’ and ‘‘ cul­tural sel­f­re­pu­di­a­tion’’, he states that ‘‘ in Bri­tain an en­tire television sta­tion, Chan­nel 4, was pro­gres­sively de­voted to prop­a­gat­ing it with pro­grams that are nowa­days dif­fi­cult to par­ody within the de­graded tacky rub­bish which it com­mis­sions’’.

This is the lan­guage of the tabloid colum­nist, not of the his­to­rian. There’s no doubt Burleigh is on to some­thing, but he’d draw more blood if he used less rage.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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