|Osama Bin Laden|
Synthesis marks this history of terrorism
British historian Michael Burleigh has said that a new book about terrorism is published every nine hours. Judging by Burleigh's own new work on the subject, he has read all the others.
"Blood and Rage" is a useful synthesis of what so many others have spoken or written. Burleigh surveys terrorism in many parts of the world from about 1850 into 2008.
Before explicating current day Islamist terrorism, Burleigh synthesizes troubles in Ireland, Russia, Italy, Germany, previously colonized sections of Africa, and various other lands with their sad, violent histories.
Burleigh might have gone farther back in time and covered more of the globe, but he decided to impose limits. "We could venture back to the medieval Assassins of Syria or the early modern British Gunpowder Plot, but my knowledge of both has faded with age and I do not regard either as especially helpful in understanding contemporary terrorism," Burleigh writes. "If this book were to be absolutely comprehensive, it would be doubly long, losing its human focus. That is why such subjects as terrorism in Latin America from the Tupamaros to FARC, the US itself, and the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka have been omitted, although there is passing allusion to them all."
Another limiting factor is the focus on terrorist groups, rather than violence initiated by governments. Burleigh notes, "That modern states, from the Jacobins in the 1790s onwards, have been responsible for the most lethal instances of terrorism, including self-styled counter-terror campaigns, is taken as a given, which does not absolve non-state actors through repetition of this historical truism. State violence is currently on the defensive, as various rabble armies run amok under the guise of Islamic or liberation or people's revolution or whatever they call themselves."
Burleigh refuses to credit the aphorism that yesterday's terrorist is tomorrow's statesman. "If you imagine that Osama bin Laden is going to evolve into Nelson Mandela, you need a psychiatrist rather than an historian," he writes. "The Al Qaeda leader does not want to negotiate with us since what he desires is for all infidels and apostates to submit or be killed."
Like many synthesists, Burleigh offers little fresh insight for those who have read widely about terrorism. He does, however, synthesize with vigor, using loaded language and stereotyping (not always with maximum sensitivity) to condemn those employing violence. Rarely does Burleigh accept the reasoning that some terrorists are driven to violence through mistreatment by repressive governments or ethnic enemies.
Burleigh believes that the reliance of contemporary faith-based terrorists on coercion and intimidation will wear thin among potential converts. After all, the killers "have no positive vision, except the desire to visit chaos and bloodshed elsewhere. If that is clearly understood by enough people, particularly in the Muslim world, we may have a shorter long war. Looking back over the history of terrorism, we can see any number of ideological causes which once fed violent passions but which have passed into oblivion. These things take time. The Cold War lasted from 1947 to 1989. On that calendar, we are in the equivalent of 1953 in the struggle with the jihadi-salafis."
Steve Weinberg is author of eight nonfiction books, most recently "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."