Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism
By Michael Burleigh
Harper, 577 pages, $29.99
Nearly a decade has passed since this country declared war on terror, and still, I’m afraid to report, the definitive history of modern terrorism remains to be written.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. Whatever consolation it provides Michael Burleigh—or his American fans, who’ve waited over a year for the British historian’s latest to make it to our shores—the failures of Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism are sins less of omission than questionable inclusion. If you could scrub the grime of sweat and snark off its pages, all 577 of them, you’d uncover a survey, perhaps a tenth shorter, of impressive scope and verve. Such an abridgement would demonstrate that 25 years in print, on television and behind lecterns have made Mr. Burleigh, above all else, a craftsman. It would show a master weaver at his hand loom, crossing disparate threads of fact and argument (the lack of original research and reliance on secondary sources become moot here) to form a single intricate fabric stretched across the long 20th century, from the discovery of “dynamite terrorism” among Irish-nationalist “Fenians” in the 1880s to the internecine rivalries besetting today’s various extant Al Qaedas.
Look in Blood and Rage for a comprehensive and authoritative cultural history of a long-lived, polymorphous phenomenon, and you’ll find it—but that isn’t the book Michael Burleigh wrote. In truth, the odd 10 percent, the sweat and the snark, can’t be excised from the whole. Grimy indeed, this layer contains Mr. Burleigh’s vituperative, mocking fixation on the present-day Islamist threat in Western Europe, with terrorists, in his view, coddled and abetted by “liberal” public policy. Here his historical treatise on terrorism—which includes, for instance, a remarkably balanced account of political violence on both sides of the early Arab-Zionist conflict in British Palestine—becomes a polemic against “multiculturalism,” an amorphous concept (or rather, word) that’s apparently so self-evidently dangerous it requires no stable referent.
At one point, “multiculturalism” refers to “each diverse group adopt[ing] a story of victimhood so as to put itself beyond close scrutiny, enveloping itself in the myth of moral purity that comes with being the historically oppressed.” Some 50 pages later, the “dogmas of multiculturalism” expand to envelop “the wide-spread post-modern rejection of authority, truth and meaning,” and lead us to a pass “where a three-month inquest has not comprehensively dispelled belief that MI6 murdered Princess Diana.” Everything from lax welfare laws to the greed for foreign tuition money at the London School of Economics is targeted for scrutiny.
“Whites,” Mr. Burleigh reports in his Afterthoughts, “feel alienated in their own country, both because they have become surrounded by people who have not bothered to learn the language and customs of the host society, and because of a more sinister chill emanating from professional Islamists who ensure the collapse of such thing as the betting shop and street-corner pub.” Is the economic and psychological loss of the local watering hole really tantamount to, or a precursor of, terrorism?
Disqualifying a historian on account of his politics, or prejudices, is a sure path to historical illiteracy. But Mr. Burleigh’s invective against Islam(ists) is finally not just grime on the surface of Blood and Rage—the unbalanced obsession with this latest thread and threat tears through his definitive 100-year history of terrorism, subtly yet profoundly shape-shifting the entire tapestry.
THE CASE OF Mr. Burleigh, whose last major work, Sacred Causes (2007), was another hugely ambitious study accused in some precincts of Islamophobia, illustrates one of the stranger realities of post-9/11 life: Of the serious figures to be “radicalized” by the attacks, turning from good libertarian-moderates (if not multiculturalists) to (alleged) anti-Muslim firebrands, almost none have been, well, citizens of the country so spectacularly attacked in 2001. They tend, instead, to be European, especially British—subjects of a monarchy expelled some 225 years ago by American freedom fighters. (To the victor go the linguistic spoils, even if Mr. Burleigh rejects the familiar freedom fighter–terrorist cliché: “If you imagine that Osama bin Laden is going to evolve into Nelson Mandela, you need a psychiatrist rather than an historian.”)
The examples are probably too numerous and multifarious to do justice to here. But can you imagine, say, the late John Updike, author of Terrorist, publicly pondering—as Martin Amis did—random strip searches, travel bans and deportations on the domestic “Muslim community [which] has to suffer until it gets its house in order”? Can we imagine even Denny Hastert asking—as the House of Commons leader Jack Straw did—for Muslim women to remove their veils for the sake of “community relations”? In November 2007, the Evening Standard held a panel discussion titled “Is Islam Good for London?” Ron Liddle, of BBC Radio’s Today program, took the “no” position; remarkably, Mr. Burleigh represented the affirmative side. Although he agreed with Mr. Liddle that Islam is “masochistic and homophobic,” he pulled back before the brink: “I’m not sure I could agree with the accusation of fascism.”
No, we can’t imagine David McCullough and Matt Lauer having the same conversation in, and about, New York.
The point is not, of course, that America is free of terrorism-induced xenophobia and racial panic (words may hurt, but military invasions break bones), but rather that a phenomenon that over here seems strictly the province of far-right jingoists has over there infected people you would have thought more or less immune to hysteria. Why? In Blood and Rage, Mr. Burleigh notes that “the key difference between the U.S. and Europe is that … Europeans already have ‘it’ in their midst in the shape of North African, Bangladeshi and Pakistani second- or third-generation citizens, as well as those to whom they have sometimes been foolish enough to grant asylum.” But the numbers don’t quite bear that out: In a 2001 census, 2.7 percent of Britons listed their religion as Islam; the number of Muslims in the United States is estimated at seven to eight million, or about 2.6 percent.
A critical reading of Blood and Rage suggests another explanation for the discrepancy: The world’s Anglophone elite may be united in regarding terrorism a savage strike against civilization, but it seems only the toffish commentators of Oxbridge or London (“Londonistan” for Mr. Burleigh) take “it” to be a cultural affront as well as an existential threat. This naturally expands the notion—and fear—of terrorists from actual perpetrators of the acts to what Mr. Burleigh calls “a milieu … invariably morally squalid,” which takes on strangely intellectual and, really, class connotations that Americans tend to ignore when we understand them at all.
Consider the seven broad terrorist episodes Blood and Rage recounts in detail before arriving at the main event—that is, “World Rage: Islamist Terrorism”: Neither state-sponsored terrorism nor random, lone-wolf acts of the Timothy McVeigh or Unabomber sort make its pages. Instead, terrorism is the exclusive precinct of the shadowy, deluded “cell.” Mr. Burleigh traces the birth of modern terrorism to the late-19th-century Russian Nihilists, drawn from “the Russian intelligentsia, a species of being that requires comment in itself.” The intelligentsia, he specifies, were those educated young “who worshipped newer foreign gods like Marx and Nietzsche,” and “who talked about books they had never read,” and who were “distinguished … by their conformist subscription to such supposedly progressive ideas as atheism, socialism and revolution.” They were “kept afloat like some speculative fraud, on a bubble of liberal good tastes.”
The bizarre expectoration of bile against a long-dead group is, unfortunately, one of Michael Burleigh’s persistent tics—it’s as if he means to demonstrate that, yes, he’s against the titular blood and rage. A later chapter on German left-wing terrorism in the ’60s and ’70s (“Guilty White Kids”) targets youthful “radical snobbery” encouraged by “New Left ideology” (its “gurus”: Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas) “so stunningly tedious, except for a generation of academics, that we do not need to deal with it in any detail.”
Why deal with it at all? The vast majority of young people who fall under the sway of a particular ideology, whether it’s Nietzscheans in the 1880s or Frankfurt Schoolers in the 1960s, never plant bombs. In an often tremendously erudite and enlightening book, Mr. Burleigh’s voyeuristic focus on the terrorist “milieu”—setting an equivalence between the intelligentsia and the dynamiters—can’t help but seem driven, consciously or not, by a need to blur the line between the unfamiliar “Islamic” and the fanatical “Islamist.” Paradoxically, this tactic also serves to diminish the moral stakes of terrorism. Are we really to think of the indiscriminate murder of civilians as a cultural crime on the level of dilettantism?
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Brooklyn, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.