History: it’s just one bloody thing after another

Having jettisoned political and historical frameworks, Michael Burleigh's story of terrorism combines a lack of insight with excessive prejudice about curry-eating loyalists and headbutting Glaswegians.

Bill Durodié

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In a recent interview for the Guardian’s education supplement, historian and writer Michael Burleigh suggested that his decision to leave academia five years ago, after stints, amongst others, at New College Oxford and the London School of Economics, was driven by a determination not to ‘become a guru-like figure’, ‘who surrounded himself with cronies’ and ended up creating ‘clones’ (1).

Judging by his latest book, Blood and Rage – A Cultural History of Terrorism, a more likely explanation is that such is the impoverished nature of his arguments that the only people who were prepared to listen were either cronies or clones. So, while describing women in burqas as ‘black sacks’, or suggesting that ‘headbutting one another’ is ‘a national (sic) pastime in Glasgow’, may appeal to a certain juvenile sense of humour, it is unlikely to endear him to those, as yet un-cloned, constituencies he might wish or need to influence.

One can only presume that he does not care. Over the course of 486 pages on the emergence and development of terrorism, which begins with nineteenth-century Fenians, Nihilists and Anarchists, ends with al-Qaeda, and takes in Italy’s Red Brigades and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang on the way, there is very little in the way of analysis. Indeed, he openly declares a desire to focus on ‘actions rather than theories’. But in the absence of analysis, his bombastic and belligerent asides become not just tedious – they encourage suspicion as to his reading of events.

It makes for a grating experience. Reading Blood and Rage reminded me of the great Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield’s famous aphorism – memorably adapted by Alan Bennett in his 2004 play The History Boys – that history is ‘just one bloody thing after another’. Sounding like a breathless and overexcited child who has just come back from a school trip, Burleigh delivers to the reader an un-insightful and somewhat random list of things that happened. Nowhere, other than in a short passage by Nelson Mandela, is there any attempt to explain how ideas and events may be shaped by context or will.

What really betrays Burleigh’s approach is the subtitle to his book: ‘A Cultural History of Terrorism’. That is, it’s history with the society and politics taken out. With no attempt to engage with the ideas and aspirations that motivated his assorted protagonists, be it the Basque ETA or Algeria’s FLN, or any attempt to appreciate the circumstances in which groupings found themselves, it is little wonder that Burleigh’s narration appears as a sequence of inexplicable events. Burleigh is left instead with just their actions to describe – mysterious, dangerous and impenetrable.

Annoyingly, this also means that even a reactionary like Burleigh effectively lets those who resort to acts of terror off the hook. To him they have become addicted to violence or, as he dubiously proposes, ‘are morally insane’, in which case they can hardly be held culpable.

With less sophistication and reason than the succession of mediocrities occupying the role of British home secretary, his rant continues, page after page after page. In the Daily Telegraph he continued his moan: ‘there are people in this country …who despise our way of life and seek to change it for all time.’ (2) But which people and what way of life?

Like many others, his prejudices encourage him to see such forces as largely emanating from far-flung places and foreign outlooks, in other words, ‘over there’. Yet closer scrutiny of his own invective would reveal to him the vast list of domestic enemies that exist among the ‘liberal elites’. These are variously castigated as ‘fervent human rights lawyers’, ‘loathsome academic[s]’, ‘fanciful journalists’, ‘celebrity useful idiots’ and other ‘well-to-do apologists’. He may have a point, but unable to engage with the breadth and depth of this cultural conflict on the homefront, he simply dismisses it and comes across as a grumpy old man.

At every turn, whether it is in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, Germany or the UK, he resorts to the tired and trite notion that the roots of terror lie in the rapid expansion of higher education without a concomitant development of employment opportunities. This growth may well have presented him with students less sympathetic to his cheap caricatures of Northern Ireland’s loyalists as people whose ‘idea of an exotic meal was to add curry sauce to a bag of chips, while venturing as far as Tenerife for their first overseas holiday’. But this supposed explanation is unlikely to be ‘the actual source of anger on the part of young Muslims’, as he suggests on his website (3).

Almost inevitably, amidst so much manure, the odd flower of insight blooms. But his apercus could have resulted in a 20-page essay rather than a 500-page book. One of the most useful bits, stemming from his rampant, yet oddly anachronistic anti-left wing prejudices, is a useful section – unusual to books covering Islamist terrorism – detailing the role and barbarity of the Mujahideen in Bosnia, as well as how their actions were supported or ignored by Western radicals.

Elsewhere, he astutely describes terrorists as ‘juvenile fantasists’ and ‘self-styled victims’ whose ‘misdirected or frustrated altruism’ makes them ‘too eager to repudiate themselves’ through their actions, hoping thereby to ‘overcome the boredom and purposelessness of their own lives’.

He also usefully debunks many illusions as to the supposed uniqueness of the threats we face today – simultaneous attacks, suicide bombings, bomb-making manuals, training camps and the targeting of information networks – as well as the overreaction of the authorities to these threats. His detailing of the sheer number and intensity of terrorist attacks in the not too distant past also acts as a reality check.

Yet, despite seeing through Islamism as a pose, he is still driven, through his refusal to see the origins and parallels for this within the West, to describe the contemporary crop of self-styled Islamist losers, plotting terrorist outrages from their bedrooms in east London, as somehow presenting ‘an existential threat to the whole of civilisation’. This seems like a tall order, but one somehow befitting a former academic left howling to the barking of Barking.

Senior figures in the world of national security today call for a new narrative of resilience to be developed in the face of these supposed threats. It is possible that Burleigh may seem to them to offer a little of what they need. But while history is always contested, his story is simply a fanciful myth, unable to engage or captivate a broader community, as real resilience and proper history would.

In the end, Burleigh abdicates all responsibility by suggesting that ‘the battle with jihadism will only be won by Muslims themselves’. In fact, he laments that ‘it is difficult to see how things can be rectified’, comparing contemporary counterterrorism initiatives to an endless game of ‘whack a mole’. Unable to engage in, let alone win, the battle of ideas, as has happened before, Burleigh will simply be left alone with his cronies and his clones.

Dr Bill Durodié is an Associate Fellow in the International Security Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House in London.

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, by Michael Burleigh is published by Harper Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

(1) Michael Burleigh: The reluctant guru, Guardian, 11 March 2008

(2) See Michael Burleigh’s website here.

(3) Actions speak loudest to terrorists, Mr Brown , Telegraph, 15 November 2007

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