We know from 9/11 and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, that not all Islamic bombers are impoverished no-hopers from Palestinian refugee camps.
The people who planned, co-ordinated and carried out those attacks were mostly college or university educated, who had also spent time in terrorist training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan learning how to murder and maim civilians. Some of them were married with young families. Others were popular in their local community.
Whatever prompted them to step over the line between civilisation and barbarism has been attributed to a range of reasons and causes, from anger at the plight of the Palestinians to opposition to British and American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Any case may be argued, but only one thing is certain: this strain of terrorism, of megalomania, masquerading as selfless commitment to an historic cause is not new.
Western writers have been describing its symptoms in one form or another ever since Edmund Burke, Tom Paine and William Wordsworth wrote in their own ways about the ramifications of the French Revolution. In 1861, Ivan Turgenev’s greatest novel, Fathers and Sons, was published in Russia. The two main protagonists in this slim volume are Pavel Petrovich, a landed aristocrat of limited means who enjoys thinking of himself as a liberal, and Yevgeny Bazarov, a young university friend of Pavel Petrovich’s nephew. Bazarov is a doctor who says the cure for society’s social and economic ills is its complete destruction. Bazarov is a nihilist. The older generation reels back in bewilderment as Bazarov casually dimisses as irrelevant their cherished beliefs in art, philosophy, political reform, music and aesthetics. While they throw up their hands in consternation, Bazarov devotes himself to dissecting frogs. The empiricism of rigorous, unemotional scientific inquiry is the only useful tool that modern man has got, he says. But Bazarov is not an unconscionable monster: he is perhaps the last of the Romantic figures in 19th century European literature, a Byronic character unsuited to the ruthless epoch that he predicts as inevitable. Bazarov, impaled on his own human contradictions, dies while trying to save the life of a woman with whom he has fallen in love. What Turgenev shows so brilliantly is the way in which the Russian liberal intelligentsia, mistaking novelty for originality, fastened on to the latest political trend, as though it were a fashion, to make themselves more interesting. The novelist was attacked for being unsympathetic to nihilists.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky goes deeper and further into the psychology of the monomaniac. His novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils or The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov explore the extremes of delusional behaviour. To take two of them, Crime and Punishment and The Devils: in the first Raskolnikov, an impoverished young student of good but poor family, becomes fixated by Napoleon. He dreams of all the good he could do in the world if only he had the courage, like Napoleon, to ignore his conscience and take a gigantic step over the normal constraints and proprieties of life. The end, he convinces himself, is justified by the means providing that good triumphs over evil. Raskolnikov argues himself into the necessary state of mind and murders his miserly landlady, hitting her on the back of the head with the haft of an axe. Unfortunately he is interrupted by another woman and is obliged to kill her too. Driven demented by his crimes, he ultimately confesses to his crimes, redeemed from damnation by the selfless Christian love of Sonia. She is as poor as Raskolnikov. To feed her family she takes up prostitution; but, unlike Raskolinov, is uncorrupted. Raskolnikov serves as a blueprint for other dangerous characters. One Russian critic’s description of Raskolnikov as “a demon embodied in a humanist” could equally apply to the four Muslims, among them a cricket-lover, who exploded nail bombs on three London underground trains and one double-decker bus in the summer of 2005, killing fifty-six and injuring and maiming seven hundred.
Dostoyevsky’s most sinister terrorist, Nikolai Stavrogin, can be found in The Devils, published in 1871/72. Again, the Russian intelligentsia were outraged by the “harsh depiction of ruthless radicals”. Intellectuals then, as they would be later, were fascinated by young idealists willing to give up life for the sake of the cause of political freedom. The myth of revolution has always been breath-taking to the credulous and the supine. The life-denying force of nihilism was the antecedent to the anti-democratic force of Bolshevism, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, as preached by Lenin and carried out with unconscionable ruthlessness by Stalin – Machiavelli’s modern political autocrat.
In 1907, two years after Russia’s first revolution and ten years before its decisive one, Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent introduced the English-speaking public to the idea of terrorist bombing. In this book, though, the plot is thickened by the fact that Mr Verloc, the angel of destruction, is an agent provocateur working for the authorities. To provoke a backlash against London’s anarchists, led by Michaelis, Mr Verloc plans to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. But he sends his half-witted nephew Stevie to do the job. The bomb explodes prematurely as Stevie carries it across London, blowing him to pieces. Winnie Verloc revenges herself for the loss of her brother by killing her husband. She then goes off with Comrade Ossipon, who later deserts her. Michaelis is jailed, but in prison he writes his memoirs and is supported by Lady Mabel, his patroness. Conrad’s fictional bomber, Verloc, appears to anticipate the real Muslim bombers of 2005:-
He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable – and terrible in the simplicity of his idea of calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in a street full of men.
In the late 20th century Czech writer Milan Kundera used the Prague Spring of 1968 and the subsequent invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces as the focus for his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Kundera differentiates between patriotism of the heart and political idealism, which is depicted as a kind of mental aberration. The former is embodied in various ways by the three central characters, Tomas, Teresa and Sabina – a doctor, a photographer and an artist. Political idealism is embodied by Franz, a Swiss academic, whom Sabina meets in Geneva. She interrupts his eulogy about marching for freedom by expressing the hope that he is not going to be boring. Franz is carried away by the idea of “the grand march of History”, a disembodied ideal that steps over all objections and obstacles in much the same way that Raskolnikov imagined Napoleon stepping over the lives of men sent to oppose his political ambitions. Kundera, like Turgenev, has a sharp eye for those who are easily duped by what the British philosopher Karl Popper called “historicism”.
In November 1978, the world was horrified to see television pictures beamed in from Guyana in South America which showed the bodies of the followers of American evangelist Jim Jones.
Up to 900 men, women and children had committed suicide en masse in the muddy compounds of Jonestown. There is a recording of Jones speaking to them, encouraging them to drink the Kool Aid juice laced with poison. The forces of oppression were gathering, he said. On the airstrip outside Jonestown five people lay dead from gunshots, among them a US Senator.
Novelist and writer Shiva Naipaul went to Guyana. His subsequent book, Black &White, published in 1981, traced the influence of Jones back to ideas that had germinated in California in the 1960s: Black Power, self actualisation, ecology, direct action against State oppression – the ultimate form of this being Vietnam. These ideas bubbled heatedly in the cauldron that the United States became from President John Kennedy’s murder on Elm Street, Dallas, in 1963, to President Richard Nixon’s historic resignation in 1975. Twelve years of mayhem which had included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr, Senator Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X.
Into the cauldron went many preconceived ideas of race, marriage, family, the raising and education of children – de-schooling was an idea of American educational radicals – patriotism, careers, civil rights, political rights. Lots of rights, few obligations. It all proved too much for poor little rich girl Patty Hearst, an heiress whose ‘gangster period’ of personal development, included a spell with real gangsters, an urban guerrilla group which planned to redistribute wealth by robbing banks.
A crazy time for people driven crazy by the feeling that they had no control over anything; but a cool time for Weathermen, Yippees, the Black Panthers, Elijah Mohammad and his Black Muslims. What was a little street violence in Los Angeles and Chicago compared to America’s corporate terror in Vietnam? The ruins of a dream was what Naipaul found in the ruins of Jonestown.
In Western Europe, Left-leaning radicals eagerly embraced the dream of revolution. Coincidentally, 1978 was the year in which Jillian Becker’s study of the Baader-Meinhof gang, Hitler’s Children, was published.
Calling itself the Red Army Faktion, after a similarly-named Japanese organisation, the gang was the first in West Germany to organise itself into an underground urban guerrilla body. Shortly after this took place in 1970, the gang made world headlines with bank raids and street gun-battles. Later it was to dabble in bombings, both inside and outside the borders of the German Federal Republic.
Similar terrorist groups existed in Italy (the Red Brigade kidnapped and murdered former prime Minister Aldo Moro), the United States, England, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Most of them grew out of student protest movements in the late 1960s, the most radical of which shared the same ideological aim: the overthrow of capitalism. Capitalism was likened to fascism, imperialism, the exploitation of the worker. Becker explained:-
The chief characteristic of the student movements and the new left everywhere was a morally ambitious identification by affluent rebels with the poor, the victimized, and the socially outcast, and especially with the people of Vietnam, on whose behalf they protested that the United States was waging aggressive war against them…The West German movement had a special antagonism to what it called ‘authoritarianism’. All authority, without distinction, was considered ‘fascist’ by the German rebels.
International links with other groups and with the Palestinians were funded in a variety of ways including donations by West Germany’s middle class intelligentsia, whose economic fortunes had blossomed since the 1950s. They were eager to distance themselves from any association with authoritarianism, which meant fascism. Baader-Meinhof (Andreas Baader was a thief converted to Marxism, Ulrike Meinhof was a well-known magazine journalist married to a rich publisher) represented the ultimate romantic fantasy. Jillian Becker again:-
It (the gang) had the romantic, aesthetic, and even erotic fascination for many people which bandit gangs always had – especially and predictably, though not exclusively, for the young.
Those not so young but old enough to know better were also stimulated vicariously by acts of violence and murder. Jean-Paul Sartre, whose influence on the young and the educators of the young in Europe and America should not be under-estimated, visited Ulrike Meinhof in prison. He also visited the China of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and gave it his stamp of approval – just as he had visited post-Stalinist Russia in 1954 and subsequently wrote an article full of untruths, as he later admitted.
Sartre did not invent the European climate in which terrorism flourished as a romantic alternative to dull bourgeois conformity; but to flatter his reputation as the leading avant-garde thinker of the day, he did much to encourage it. In part, says Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals, to excuse his lack of real activity, and to bolster his waning reputation as a radical. He rushed about offering his support to all Leftist alternatives and idealogues such as Franz Fanon, the black African, whose 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth showed the way for black African racism to go, says Johnson.
This was an updating of existentialism: self-liberation through murder. It was Sartre who invented the verbal technique (culled from German philosophy) of identifying the existing order as ‘violent’ (e.g. ‘institutionalised violence’) thus justifying killing to overthrow it. He asserted: ‘For me the essential problem is to reject the theory according to which the left ought not to answer violence with violence.’…He thus became the academic godfather to many terrorist movements which began to oppress society from the late 1960s onwards. What he did not foresee, and what a wiser man would have foreseen, was that most of the violence to which he gave philosophical encouragement would be inflicted by blacks not on whites but on other blacks.
The same can be said about every justification of armed and militant Islam. Al Qa’ida’s cadres kill more Muslims, just as the Provisional IRA killed more Irish Catholics than their respective enemies. Sartre’s support of Maoism made him a natural ideological influence for Poll Pot’s Khmer Rouge leadership in Cambodia (renamed, temporarily, Kampuchea). Johnson says the eight leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the ‘Higher Organisation’, had been educated in France where they belong to the Communist Party and had absorbed Sartre’s doctrines of philosophical activism and ‘necessary violence’. These mass murderers were his ideological children.
France, it should be remembered, was the chosen base for the Ayatollah Khomeini. French intellectuals of the Left abased themselves at the feet of what they regarded as a desert prophet, a kind of Islamic Ezekiel or Elijah, come to rid the corrupted land of Iran of the reign of its Shah.
The French Government of Jacques Chirac banned Muslims from wearing the veil; but from 1977 to 1979, following the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khomeini and his followers were feted. In Britain too, the Shah of Iran was attacked by the Left as a stooge of the United States and British imperialism. The public, liberated by the second Enlightenment of the Swinging Sixties, applauded. Paul Johnson identifies three post-war influences on mass culture in the West:-
Agnosticism or atheism
A fascination with violence
Friday, 2 May 2008
We know from 9/11 and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, that not all Islamic bombers are impoverished no-hopers from Palestinian refugee camps.