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Blood and Rage by Burleigh

After an extended hiatus, Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! re-starts……

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh

British historian Michael Burleigh brings the same kind of unsparingly brutal prose to the history of terrorism that he previously delivered on National Socialism in his acclaimed, The Third Reich: A New History. There is a wealth of detail about terrorists, their casual atrocities and the warped morality that terrorists habitually employ to rationalize their crimes; a nihilistic mentalite shared with their intellectual groupies in universities and political law firms that will shock and inform the reader. The scattered nature of the case studies that comprise modern terrorism though, makes Blood and Rage more of a kaleidescope than microscope.

Burleigh set out to chronicle a comprehensive examination of the evolution of terrorism in the last two centuries. There are Feinians and radicalized Russian Narodniks, murderous FLN Algerians and their pied noir OAS blood enemies, Irgun gunmen and Black September, ETA, IRA and Baader-Meinhoff gangsters consorting with Palestinian radicals and Herbert Marcuse. Burleigh dissects the psychopathology of ultraviolent degenerates like Hugh “Lenny” Murphy, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Andreas Baader. Terrorists, statistically speaking, are generally not madmen in a clinical sense, but Burleigh records a noteworthy exception regarding Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff Gang:

….With their numbers by now reduced to about a dozen people, the group was desperate for new recruits. Salvation came from an unlikely quarter. The mad. A radical psychiatrist at Heidelberg University, influenced by the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing and the anti-institutionalisation theories of Franco Basaglia, had formed a socialist collective among the mainly student clientele he was treating for various mental disturbances common to that age cohort including depression, paranoia and mild schizophrenia. In early 1971 Baader and Ensslin visited Heidelberg where they met some of the radicalized patients. In the following years, about twelve of the latter, including Gerhard Muller, Siegfried Hausner, Sieglinde Hofmann, Lutz Taufner and others became the second generation of RAF terrorists, initially under the slogan “Crazies to Arms”.

Blood and Rage makes for a grim read, with the recurring pattern of terrorism and counterterrorist response erupting to demoralize societies until the terrorists in question are either dead, imprisoned or mellowed by paunchy middle-age and political irrelevance as the times pass their maniacal political passions by. Only in a few instances, notably South Africa and Northern Ireland are political settlements a more feasible option than methodical police and intelligence work followed by tough-minded prosecution and a steely societal rejection of grandiose moral claims of terrorists and their fellow-travelling left-wing lawyer-advocates. Burleigh also makes clear his disdain for militarized CT and multiculturalist enablement alike.

The weakness of Blood and Rage, unlike some of Burleigh’s other works, is a lack of a strong analytical theme, focus or grand theory to explain and unite the relentless and gory march of geographically diverse case studies in terrorism, though an intelligent reader should be able to discern patterns present well enough for themselves. Given Burleigh’s stature as a scholar, one can envision him having taken the ball further down field for a deeper level of analysis of terrorism as a societal phenomena. Burleigh would probably reply that such is not the proper job of a historian, which while true enough, still leaves me wishing he had.

As a popular history, Blood and Rage makes a page turner out of rancorous destruction.

2 Responses to “Blood and Rage by Burleigh”

  1. Lorri Says:

    Paul Berman offers the theme you might be looking for in his "Terror and Liberalism." Burleigh’s book sounds interesting – I’ve put it on my wish list for the next library or Amazon expedition.

    One thing that Berman noted is that many of us in the West, coming from a background of liberalism, will fail to accept or understand that terrorist activities are indeed insane, and therefore will continue to try to understand and even justify why these poor souls would go to such terrible lengths.   I will offer another idea, which is that when there is bad behavior on the part of one group of extremists, the Nazis, for example, the instinctual reaction of many people is to run, horrified, to the opposite extreme, and voila! you have all those people back in the early part of the 20th century who ran blindly into supporting communism because it was — apparently — the opposite of fascism.  But I think we need to change our thinking here, and instead of running to polar opposites and falling into the same trap, recognize that the opposite of extreme evil isn’t another extreme, but instead it is getting back to a sane and moderate balance in the center.   I see this as the struggle going on today in the world of Islam, by the way, and have nothing but admiration for groups like Khudi Pakistan and individuals who are trying to lead the way back to sanity.  /end of tangent 🙂

  2. Eddie Says:

    I loved this book for the wit alone. You are spot-on about its downfall being its lack of an organizing theme/point, though again, for sheer detail and analytical quality, its hard to beat.

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