Book Review: Terrorism and the Arrogance of Ignorance

Matthew Carr, The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism from the Assasination of Tsar Alexander II to Al-Qaeda (The New Press, 2007, 410 pages)

The roots of modern day terrorism first exploded on the political stage when the shadowy Russian group the People’s Will, inspired by la terreur of the French Revolution, assassinated Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881.

In The Infernal Machine, author Matthew Carr’s recounting of the political context that gave rise to the People’s Will is as chilling as it is compelling. Born out of disillusionment with Russian liberalism and the tsar’s vague promises to ease conditions for the Russian serfs, a futile movement to liberate the Russian serfs began in the 1870s. Thousands of middle and upper class activists moved into the countryside only to be met with repression by the tsarist state which responded by indefinitely jailing and torturing hundreds of activists. The possibilities of reform crushed, the People’s Will emerged in a state of despair armed with a new technology called dynamite invented by Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel for whom we ironically now equate with peacemaking.

The People’s Will campaign of assassination, bombings and other "propaganda by the deed" not only provoked the wrath of the tsarist regime but ignited a spiral of armed political conflict and repression that resonated for decades. Direct lines can be drawn to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 that ignited WWI and the Russian Revolution over the decades that followed. Even the 1886 Haymarket massacre and systematic repression of American socialists, anarchists and Wobblies through the 1920s was driven by an overwhelming irrational fear of bomb wielding, mostly Russian, immigrants.

A common critique of the so-called "Global War on Terror" is that terrorism is but a mere tactic against which one cannot declare war. That misses the mark by ceding valuable ground. For Carr, terrorism is but a word used to describe a tactic of inflicting instability by either a government or non-state actors. Osama bin Laden’s threat to continue "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy" in Iraq can be traced back to People’s Will theorist Sergei Kravchinsky who explained that "the strong is vanquished, not by the arms of his adversary, but by the continuous tension of his own strength, which exhausts him, at last, more than he would be exhausted by defeats." This is a lesson Russia would eventually relearn at the hands of the US funded mujahadeen in Afghanistan and has blown back to haunt the US in Iraq.

Carr’s recounting of the history of the People’s Will underlies what I call the "trajectory theory of terrorism." Blocking efforts at lawful reform encourages an escalation of tactics from civil disobedience to militancy to terrorism. One need only turn to Carr’s depiction of guerrilla conflicts and counter-insurgency/terrorism in Ireland, Israel, Algeria, Latin America, and Palestine to find concrete examples of this process. As Carr reminds us, "For all its political justifications, the decision to kill Tsar Alexander II was born of desperation, after a painful political journey in which the People’s Will had seen the best hopes of its generation wrecked."

Here Carr is not so far out of step with more conservative terrorism "experts" like Rand Corporation’s antiterrorism guru Bruce Hoffman. The classic cases of Ireland, Crete, Israel, Kenya and Palestine inevitably lead to the conclusion that non-state terrorism is the outgrowth not of moral deficiency or depravity but cold rational tactical and strategic thinking.

Scanning the horizon of previously failed or crushed efforts at reform, bombings, armed confrontation, hijackings and kidnappings became the tactics of choice not with the expectation of immediate victory but as a tool in a war of attrition. In this scenario, the state is the giant falling to his death down the beanstalk while chasing after Jack after having already been gradually shorn of his riches.

Carr’s starting point by focusing on the rise and fall of the People’s Will is both the strength and weakness of his book. He provides an intriguing blend of autobiographies, novels, films and academic literature on armed struggle and terrorism that provides a fertile and passionate overview of the relatively short history of terrorism.

Inexplicably, Carr abandons this approach in the third and final part "The Terrorist Decades" which brings us to the present. This section lacks the groundbreaking mix of references from which he draws in other areas of the book. As if paralyzed by the urgency of the moment, this last section is all breadth without depth. His coverage of homegrown American neo-nazi christian terrorists and the events leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have been better examined elsewhere. The contemporary survey is rushed and lacking in the rich detail found earlier in the book.

Despite its disappointments, Carr’s stunning history of terrorism has inevitable consequences for how we understand that the US "Global War on Terror" is hardly a unique response to an "unprecendented" threat. "Its rhetoric, its assumptions, and many of its methods have been borrowed from previous counter-terrorist crusades," Carr reminds the reader. Whether it be the People’s Will, the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army in the US, the Red Brigades in Italy or armed insurgencies in Latin America in the 1970s, the response from the state parroted a time tested model of arrogance, violence and an eventual persecution of the entire population.

"The counter-terrorist campaign," Carr writes, discussing the state response to the RAF in Germany, "had effectively transformed the relationship between the state and its citizens, fostering an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia in which any political opposition or dissent could be interpreted as support for terrorism." Through Carr’s historical lens, the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Immigration Acts, 2001 PATRIOT Act, the 2006 Military Commissions Act, Guantanomo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the CIA prisons, the abolition of habeas corpus and posse comitatus, consolidation of presidential power, domestic spying, and the post September 11, 2001 attack on immigrants and activists are hardly unprecedented.

The inevitable conclusion brings us to a place outside the purview of Infernal Machine. In the end, Israeli, Kenyan and Irish terrorists drove out the British, a revolution toppled the czar and mass uprisings flushed the French from Algeria and overturned Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil and even El Salvador. What may at first appear to be an effective counter-terrorism policy eventually proves illusory. As military historian Robert Asprey warned in his monumental two volume history of armed guerrilla warfare War in the Shadows written in the post Vietnam era "here again we find plentiful examples of an arrogance of ignorance compounded by arrogance of power, with resulting misery and frequently loss of kingdom and even empire."

[Robert Ovetz, PhD teaches political science, including the course Understanding Terrorism, at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. He can be reached at]