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Groundhog Die

Al Qaeda will not last forever, says Michael Burleigh, but terrorism will.

By 3.10.08

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Blood & Rage: a Cultural History of Terrorism
by Michael Burleigh
Harper Collins, 320 pages

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.

Of these, Burleigh finds the Salafist-Jihadists to be the vilest and most degraded, not least because they are, like the Nazis before them, motivated by "sheer racial hatred." Like ideological terrorists who have no qualms about bombing day care centers (Timothy McVeigh), or Palestinian suicide bombers who murder school children, the Jihadists are indifferent to the slaughter of innocents.

Though unlike other nationalist groups -- e.g., the Fenians who were interested only in their little Emerald Island -- today's jihadists seek to impose on the entire world a Mohammedan utopia that most of us would find worse than hell itself.

APPARENTLY NO TERRORIST act is too despicable to deserve the censure of the far left. Gore Vidal, you may recall, saw McVeigh, whose victims included 19 children in a day care center, and three unborn children, as a heroic freedom fighter. Professor Ward Churchill declared that the World Trade Center dead deserved what they got.

Churchill had much in common with Jean-Paul Sartre, who apologized for the RAF's Andreas Baader, the drug-addict and playboy, whose hatred of consumerism caused him to firebomb German department stores. Singer Marianne Faithfull dedicated her song/album Broken English to Baader's co-hort Ulrike Meinhof. While terrorists do not expect to win the hearts and minds of the average Westerner, they can always count on winning the hearts of celebrities and leftist intellectuals and the rest of the so-called "human rights mafia."

Burleigh concedes that the tactic of terror has "never amounted to more than an irritant," and that the good news is that the present irritant, i.e., Salafist-Jihadism, like all past forms of terror, will soon pass into history.

We can help that passing, he says, by showing Muslims that the West is much more than Internet porn and girls going wild, that is by promoting our incredibly rich culture (yes, this may mean increased funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, which will be considerably cheaper than fighter jets.) This will mean closely monitoring mosques, and ensuring that imams are encouraging young Muslims to work and start families, and not preaching jihad.

I would be more hopeful for a quick end to Salafist-Jihadism if I could but find in the Koran a single passage similar to "turn the other cheek," or "love one another as I have loved you." However that good book is oddly silent on loving one's enemies.

Indeed whenever the word "love" is used, it is applied in a negative sense, as in it is wrong to love this life, more than the next. We are left with an anachronistic and patriarchal religion that makes the Amish look in vogue.

That was Burleigh's good news. The bad news is that terrorism in general shall not perish from this earth. Like some particularly stubborn form of cancer it may go into remission, but it shall always return, perhaps in another place and another form. But have no doubt, it shall return.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.