In her recent book, Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (Praeger, 2010), Anna Geifman, a professor at Boston and Bar-Ilan universities traces the universal patterns of twentieth- and early twenty-first century terrorist movements through a psychohistorical lens that yields some surprising conclusions. She begins by arguing, for instance, that Russia is the birthplace of modern terrorism.
Defining contemporary terrorism as a tactic marked by indiscriminate acts of violence perpetrated by non-state actors in the name of subversive ideologies, Geifman commences her survey at the dawn of the twentieth century. Just within its first decade, she notes, 17,000 Russians were butchered in acts of political violence. Extremists strapped on bombs and blew up cafes, train stations, and government offices; they attempted to drop explosives on the Winter Palace of Czar Nicholas II. Quotes from government officials, witnesses, and perpetrators show how the Russian subversives serve as the eerie forerunners to groups like al-Qaeda who threaten international security today.
Over time, terrorists’ “objectives mutated from punishment of high officials for specific deeds or policy to indiscriminate brutality carried out en masse.” The perpetrators called it “motiveless terror,” which required no justification. Russian extremism, serving as a blueprint, reveals the approach of terrorists across the globe throughout the next century.
Yet, in a development few scholars or policy makers foresaw, terrorists worldwide took violence to a new level after 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center was the apex of organized symbolic murder, where “terrorists strike for the sake of the devastating emotional effect on the eyewitnesses physically unaffected by bloodshed.” With the terrorist act still being “a means of communication with larger audiences, not a tactic to obtain a specific goal,” the perpetrators redefined their primary targets, to aim at the last absolute and unquestionable value in a postmodernist society—the inviolability of children. Not accidentally, the first major terrorist act after 9/11 was the massacre of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia.
Why this upsurge in brutality? Geifman devotes significant attention to the reoccurring phenomenon psychiatrist Robert Lifton calls “historical dislocation.” The process entails a breakdown of traditions, values, and communal norms as a key precondition for the rise of modern terrorism. The book describes the psychological trauma experienced by individuals who suddenly find themselves uprooted and thrust into the periphery of an urban environment as a result of rapid modernization. The first victims of terrorism are the perpetrators themselves, who “suffered from an array of life-undermining symptoms, such as emptiness, angst, and hopelessness.” Recruiters then lured them from their confused, solitary paths to join a new subversive collective that would supply meaning to their lives. Like the Russian extremists of a century ago, their Muslim counterparts have lost the communal Islam of the countryside. But whereas the Russian radicals directed their grievances against the political system of their own country, the jihadists project their hatred onto the West.
Dark and unsettling, the latter part of the book brings the reader into the realm of “Death Culture,” the quasi-religion that worships death and offers human sacrifice as means of salvation from the life terrorists come to despise. Arab intellectuals admit, privately, that they “live in a culture of death,” while extremists in Gaza preach: “We desire death, as you desire life.” Death Orders depicts individuals who, having already contemplated taking their lives, have gratefully seized the opportunity to “camouflage” their suicide with political or religious martyrdom. It is true today as much as it has been for the Russian terrorist Lidia Sture, who “liked to repeat that if she had not been able to enter a terrorist group, she would have killed herself.” The modern cult of death-worship, or thanatophilia, and the hatred not only for the enemies but for life itself, lies at the core of what drives terrorists to perpetual, unmitigated destruction dressed up as sacrifice.
Economic inequality, imperialism, or nationalism do not provoke terrorism, Geifman argues. Terrorists are not seeking policy change, and their political platforms and religious slogans are merely superficial wrappings for their ambitions. Terrorists, from Russia to Lebanon, share a common psychology, and, whatever the specific ideology, come to embrace the same mindset that ignites their proclivity to kill: “militants are driven not by a final ideological aspiration but by the struggle itself.”
Geifman's theory is validated by the fact that terrorist organizations with diverging ideologies will nevertheless form alliances based on a common destructive goal (for example, the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who together executed the Lod Airport massacre in 1972). Terrorists, once in power, build on what they did to get there to establish a terror-based state. Terrorists do not seek to build a new order, or even to give new regimentation to life, but rather nihilistically seek to destroy the current one.
It is unfortunate that Death Orders does not address specifically the issue of how an effective counterterrorism strategy might be formulated in light of its central thesis, however Geifman does offer a striking prediction about the terrorists we currently face. By its very nature, she claims, contemporary terrorism is unsustainable: “all past death cults have been destroyed or self-destroyed.” When they are no longer able to propel death outside, they are “claimed and consumed by their own venomous inner void.”
Ariella Charny is a student at Tufts University.
Anna Geifman, Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.