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Alchemists of revolution: terrorism in the modern world.

Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World

Just when the entirecountry seemed to have agreed on the wisdom of bashing terrorists--and of never, ever negotiating with them--along comes a lefty professor from Antioch Law School named Richard Rubenstein to spoil the fun. He poses obnoxious questions, like: What is a "terrorist" anyway? What separates his terrorism from the presumably legitimate political violence of a "freedom fighter"? Shouldn't we try to understand the causes that motivate people to commit such extreme acts of violence? These are reasonable questions, especially in a time like this, when the nation is suffering a mild case of hysteria about the terrorism problem. These days, even posing such questions will strike many people as outrageous.

Rubenstein is right, the differencebetween the terrorist and the freedom fighter is not so obvious as the Jeanne Kirkpatricks and Benjamin Netanyahus would have us believe. Unfortunately, Alchemists of Revolution isn't much of a book.

In many ways it is outrageous,for in seeking to understand what motivates terrorists, Rubenstein loses sight of the evil they do--and of the way that terrorism destroys the fabric of societies where it takes root. Indeed, Rubenstein comes close to an "Officer Krupke" argument ("I'm depraved on account of I'm deprived"): It's really the fault of society if people become terrorists. We have a responsibility to keep young intellectuals from becoming too frustrated, he says, lest they take up the gun. And he seems almost enthusiastic at the prospect that born-again New Leftists may someday soon launch a wave of terrorism in the United States. "It seems clear that we are incubating terrorists in the United States," he writes. "For when hope does rise--and with it rage against the persistence of inequality, injustice, and war--what will prevent educated and ambitious young people from taking the terrorist road?... Even now, should some untoward event ruffle the placid surface of American politics, the probability of increased terrorism is high, if only because of the absence of alternative means of expressing hope and anger."

Egad! Yuppies, wild in thestreets.

The book also suffers from whatmight be called the "oh yeah" school of argument. As in, "You're a terrorist!" "Oh yeah? You're the terrorist!" In this case, the "oh yeah' side involves American's support for "terrorism" by our own military and allies. Rubenstein writes: "What terrorist assassination campaign compares with the CIA's 'Phoenix Program', which resulted in the liquidation of at least ten thousand suspected communists during the Vietnam war? What kidnapping operation can match the disappearances engineered since the mid-seventies by government-sponsored death squads in Guatemala, El Salvador, or Argentina?"

As this passage suggests, theauthor writes from the left, and expresses understanding and support for many leftist causes around the world. (The Cubans, for example, have "little need to export their revolution [since] there were so many willing imitators.") Rubenstein says he finds the Marxist perspective "more useful...than any of its competitors" in analyzing terrorism, and he quotes Trotsky's remark that in criticizing terrorism one must remember the "inevitability of such convulsive acts of despair and vengeance." For Rubenstein, the "inevitability" of terrorism seems almost to justify it.

What this book lacks is a moralcenter. For all Rubenstein's sympathy for the oppressed, I wonder if he has really considered what it is like to live in a place where terrorism--and the random violence it spawns--have become commonplace. He might find it instructive to visit Lebanon, where every militia--left and right, Christian and Moslem--espouses revolutionary violence, and all of them believe (with some justification) that they have legitimate grievances. After spending three years there listening to fanatics on all sides explain why their particular cause justified the mayhem they were inflicting on their country, I developed an abiding dislike for terrorists and freedom fighters alike. I suspect that Rubenstein would, too.

Terrorism is evil, whether it isMenachem Begin blowing up the King David Hotel or Yasser Arafat attacking an Israeli kibbutz. Understanding its causes is fine, so long as we reject the outcome. Love the sinner, but hate the sin.
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Author:Ignatius, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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