Violent Political Messianism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

Violent Political Messianism


Byline: William Anthony Hay, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Philosophers and theologians have long grappled with the problem of evil, and terrorism casts it in a particularly vivid form. Specialists have described terrorism as the last resort of the weak, but Michael Burleigh argues, instead, that it expresses the pride and vanity of those who set themselves above any moral code.

The Duke of Gloucester lamented in King Lear that As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/they kill us for their sport, and randomly inflicting pain and despair offers the allure of conferring power on those thwarted by their rage.

Mr. Burleigh picks up themes from his earlier works on the connection between religion and politics in Blood and Rage where he traces a cultural history of terrorism from the 19th century through the present day. Political messianism - the impulse to realize perfection on Earth by whatever means necessary - marks a common thread, along with the struggle between religion and secular ideologies that mimic it. But ideology provides the spark for materials in place as Feodor Dostoevski and Joseph Conrad saw among terrorists of their own day.

Irish Fenians were the first recognizably modern terrorist group, and their story prefigures later developments. The transition from rural poverty to urban ghettos fostered militant nostalgia for an imagined past expressed in anti-British sentiment. Americans overlooked or romanticized Irish terrorism, and the government's culpable neglect allowed Fenians to use the United States as a base for fundraising and planning operations.

Dynamite, invented in the 1860s, provided the means to inflict massive damage. When attempts at organizing a mass revolt in Ireland failed, Fenians used bombings to force change despite their countrymen's indifference. Careful policing driven by public outrage defeated the Fenians by 1890, but their influence persisted. Mr. Burleigh notes that their successors choreographed the 1916 Easter Rising as a form of blood sacrifice witnessing the birth of a nation. Its aftermath won undeserved sympathy that allowed terrorists to play public sentiment against the authorities.

Russian nihilists embraced terrorism to break the political deadlock that inhibited reform. Admiration for bandits and criminals often lay beneath the surface, while contempt for authorities drew fellow travelers. If displaced or disappointed idealism drew many to terrorism, Mr. Burleigh emphasizes the corruption violence brought. Killing became addictive, and the thrill played to a megalomaniac and sadistic desire to dominate others. Enforcing order within terrorist cells offered an outlet along with depredations against others.

Achieving revolution gave way to the obsession with revolutionary violence that the Bolshevik Revolution would institutionalize. Nineteenth-century anarchist terrorists combined the theory of revolutionary violence with banditry. Murdering politicians, royalty and heads of state - including President William McKinley - and arbitrary bombings to instill random terror sparked a climate of fear now forgotten. The resentful desire to inflict random destruction on ordinary people as an end in itself shows the underlying psychology.

Colonial liberation struggles kept terrorism alive into the 20th century, and Middle Eastern conflicts affected the West. …

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