Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism

by Michael Burleigh, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2009, $29.99

The details of the grisly detritus left since the mid–19th century by terrorists in pursuit of extremist political and religious goals described so comprehensively in Michael Burleigh’s brilliant cultural history of terrorism, Blood and Rage, on first read make it difficult to eagerly accept his sensible conclusion that eradicating Islamic terrorism, the current leading world scourge, demands a broad-based campaign of reforming captured terrorists, strategically communicating to the wider Islamic world the benefits of Western ideals of freedom and discreet assistance on poverty eradication—all in tandem with careful police and antiterrorism work—and that all this is more effective and preferable to simply finding and killing terrorists.

It’s not that Burleigh fails to convince us of the need for a more collaborative approach to countering the worldwide Islamic insurgency that the “flourishing of Western modernity” triggered in Egypt in the 1920s. On the contrary, the author credits the holistic approach for the absence of major terrorist incidents in Indonesia since 2005 and the improving security situation in still-restive Iraq. He also notes that repression alone can contain terrorist violence in the short term, but that such efforts can also devolve into civil rights abuses and torture.

But in the process of telling his tale, which focuses on terrorists themselves rather than on their ideologies, the eminent British historian spends many of the first 479 pages of his finely researched book focused on one senseless killing after another. Burleigh shows rather than tells, and the results are both compelling and stomach-churning. The impulse to vicariously trade an eye for an eye is therefore nearly impossible for any law-abiding person to avoid.

Burleigh often helps satisfy that impulse, however, with suitably sardonic observations on the often illogical or sophomoric rationales espoused by terrorists, particularly those he disdains as “armchair revolutionaries.”

“The poet Laurent Tailharde shocked a literary supper when he exclaimed, `What do the victims matter, as long as the gesture is beautiful?’—a view he probably revised when a random anarchist bomb took out one of his eyes in a restaurant,” Burleigh writes of 1890s France.

And while the author advocates reaching out to the “convertible,” he rejects the utility of doing so with the most incorrigible terrorists, writing, “The idea that it is ‘always good to talk’ has become folkloric in some circles, with the credulous imagining that dialogue is possible with al Qaeda.”

Whether writing about terrorists in the United Kingdom, Italy, Algeria, Spain, South Africa or Ireland, Burleigh makes clear that their methods of operation, their often disparate organizations and their means of achieving their strategic aims have changed very little over the past 150 years.

“Dynamite terrorism was the tactic of the weak in an otherwise impossible conflict,” Burleigh writes of 19th century Fenian extremists, whose indiscriminant bomb attacks were not aimed at high-profile targets but designed “to spread fear and panic.” The 1881 suicide bomb attack on Tsar Alexander II presaged attacks by bomb vest–wearing insurgents during the ongoing NATO campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not history for novices. Burleigh’s rich and well-paced manuscript assumes the reader has some familiarity with the Irish “Troubles,” Russian nihilism and other terrorist movements; readers lacking same may sometimes find themselves scrambling for an outside reference. Ultimately, Blood and Rage deftly brings history alive, raises our understanding of terrorism in the process and is well worth the effort.


Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here