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