It was like that scene from Groundhog Day, you know, that one scene played over and over again? After each terrorist attack, whether in New York, London or Madrid, President George W. Bush would go before the nation and declare that the perpetrators of these “cowardly acts” were “cowards.” For our chief executive that pretty well summed up matters. The terrorists were cowards who committed cowardly acts out of a sense of cowardice.
Naturally many liberals disagreed. “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” said Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
In his new cultural history of modern terror, Michael Burleigh finds terrorists distinguished not by cowardice, but by several recurring, and similarly offensive traits, most notably resentment and narcissism, a willingness to place abstract and unrealistic political goals before basic human decency, and a dim understanding of the forces — whether economic, cultural, or religious — they seek to destroy.
In nearly every terror group Burleigh finds the same type of financially secure, moderately educated young men, possessing a sociopathic indifference to inflicting suffering and death. In a line headed straight for Bartlett’s, Burleigh notes that for these young men and women ideology was “like the detonator that allows a pre-existing chemical mix to explode,” thus seconding the sentiments of a member of Italy’s Red Brigades conceded that ideology was “a murderous drug, worse than heroin.”
Burleigh groups his terrorists into three categories: the ideological (e.g., the German Red Army Faction, the Russian Nihilists, the international anarchists), the nationalist (Basque separatists, IRA) and the Salafist-Jihadist (al Qaeda and friends). What strikes the reader are the eerie similarities between organizations, until it becomes evident that each group had done its research, studying the techniques of its predecessors.
Who knew, until reading Burleigh, that Irish-American terrorists had bombed the London Underground in 1885? And how about the similarities among the German cells of 9/11, the Black September cells (responsible for the Munich Olympic massacre) and the student cells formed by 19th century Russian nihilist Sergei Nechaev? It was the Black September attack that inspired Thomas Harris’ novel and John Frankenheimer’s film Black Sunday, which told the story of Palestinian suicide bombers who attempt to turn the Goodyear blimp into a massive suicide bomb during the Super Bowl. Thus does art imitate life which imitates art…
Among Burleigh’s categories, there is considerable overlap. Al Qaeda, it should be noted, does not particularly discourage the erroneous notion that, besides being a Salafist-Jihadist group, it is also a nationalist group that seeks to rid the Holy Land of imperialist zionists and crusaders. After all when enlisting leftist allies, two ideologies are better than one.
Nor is it unusual for these desperate groups to actively cooperate, as when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — External Operations and the far left German Revolutionary Cells group hijacked an Air France jet to Entebbe in 1976, taking 260 hostages, before they were rescued by an Israeli commando unit.
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