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April 2003 · Historically Speaking1 5 Terrorism in Historical Context Michael A. Ledeen The best book on terrorism is Walter Laqueur'sA History ofTerrorism, written some twenty-odd years ago, because itputs terrorism in its proper historical context, and thus avoids an intellectual blunderverycommon nowadays: die assumption diatwe are dealingwidi somediing quite new and unique. Theword "terror" itselfgoes back to the French Revolution, and was dien taken on by various killers, anarchists, assassins , intellectuals, and leaders of large and small political and religious movements. All ofthem—from Robespierre to the 19di-century Russian anarchists, from Sorel to Yasser Arafat—believed that it was possible to frighten and mtimidate dieir enemies in order to achieve political objectives that were impossible by normal political means. So terrorism isn't new and isn't all diat rare. Laqueur also took pains to point out that terrorism was not, as it is often described, a desperate act fueled by misery and poverty. Most terrorist leaders have been well educated (widi a surprisinglyhigh percentage of medical doctors), and the September 11 killers fit die model. They came from good families widi plenty ofmoney, and they had excellent opportunities to become successful : dieywere well educated, traveled abroad, spoke foreign languages, and had no trouble finding work. As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, there is obviously an important connection between diis generationofIslamic terrorists and significant strains in European culture. Students offin de siècle France and Germany should recognize some of these strains—which run from Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse—and it's a bit disappointing diat very few scholars have noticed the connection . David Brooks had a great essay on "bourgeoisophobes" in the Weekly Standard (April 15, 2002) that delved into this fascinating and important theme, and some of George Mosse's writings on the origins of national socialism describe the transformation ofbourgeois self-hatred into a kind of spiritual revolution in die late 19th and early 20th centuries. My own book on D'Annunzio 's occupation of Fiume at die end of the FirstWorldWar, D'Amtunzio: TheFirstDuce, dealt in large partwith the phenomenon. In die 1980s German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, mulling overthe factdiat the leading German terrorists of the time (the Baader-Meinhof Gang) were children of good families, came to the conclusion that boredom was the engine of contemporary terrorism. Certainly those young men and women (nothing new about female terrorists ) were not driven by misery or even despair, unless one means a sort of existential despair, a search for meaning in a stultifying and boring world dominated by the relendess march ofscience and materialism at die expense of self-fulfillment. The terrorists found meaning and fulfillment in their violent acts. A knowledge ofhistorynot onlyhelps us understand die current crop ofjihadists, but also suggests the best way to fight them. Their ideology rests upon a specific interpretation of Islamic history, one quite close to an interpretation of Christian history offered during die Protestant Reformation. Luther sought first to explain the failure of Christianity: the millennium had not arrived; Jesus had not returned; and dieJews had not converted. Why? Because the Church was corrupt; the original vision ofJesus and die Apostles had been buried beneath Rome's quest for power and wealdi; and the faithful, seeing all this, had lost their religious passion . He argued diatifdie Church recaptured die originalvision and dius die originalvitality ofthe Christian faith, all would be well. In like manner, the Sunni terrorist preacher Osama bin Laden and his Shi'ite counterpart, Iran's revolutionaryleaderAyatollah Khomeini, bemoaned die corruption and materialism ofcontemporaryIslam, and proclaimed mat diis was die cause ofdie 300year decline in the power ofMuslims in the world. Islam once dominated die earth, both militarily and intellectually; now it was disgraced , humiliated, and enslaved bydie infidels . Both argued that if one returned to Mohammed's originalvision, dien the zeal of die faidiful and die success ofIslamic fighters would be guaranteed. Insome ofOsama's best speeches—and they are oftenveryelegant— he refers explicidyto the centuries ofhumiliation (from die defeats in Spain and France to die collapse ofdie Ottoman Empire atthe end ofdie FirstWorld War), and then recites a litany ofdie successes ofhis followers: drivingdie SovietArmyout ofAfghanistan; driving dieAmericanArmyout ofSomalia; then a long...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 15-16
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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