Walter Laqueur's new book is a puzzle. It has an interesting thesis -- that terrorism has moved from the political left to the right and is moving toward millennial nihilism -- and it makes a careful, sober case that the danger that terrorists will acquire and use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction is growing. Furthermore, the erudition for which Laqueur is justly famous is on prominent display.
It isn't enough. The New Terrorism starts out strongly and finishes well but fatally loses its way in the middle.
What Laqueur intends as a systematic survey of the forest of terrorism often degenerates into an endless ramble from tree to tree, and the reader sometimes cannot tell why certain trees merit detailed description but others do not. Things get particularly confusing in the Latin American neck of the woods. Laqueur discusses left-wing terrorism in Cold War Latin America in loving detail but chooses not to analyze -- in most cases, not even to mention -- the widespread and rampant Cold War terrorism on the right. The anti-Castro terrorist activities of exile Cuban groups don't rate a mention in what purports to be a comprehensive study; neither do the death squads of El Salvador and Guatemala.
The omission is inexplicable. One of Laqueur's major intellectual claims is that terrorism has shifted from a predominantly left-wing phenomenon to a right-wing phenomenon since the end of the Cold War. The widespread use of terror tactics by depraved elements of the Latin American right during the Cold War challenges this thesis head on. Perhaps left-wing terrorism has died out, while right-wing terrorism has simply chugged merrily along. Laqueur's failure to address this problem leaves a distressing impression of, at best, sloppy thinking.
This is not, alas, the only such moment in this well-meaning book. The treatment of "militias" and other violent right-wing fringe groups in the United States doesn't fully engage the long history of American terrorism based on squirrelly political ideas and religiously justified notions of white supremacy. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have a long record of using terror as a political weapon; thousands of African Americans were lynched in this country. This was surely terrorism: the illegal use of extreme violence to inspire fear to achieve a political goal (in the case of the lynch mobs, to enforce white supremacy). On the one hand, Laqueur seems unwilling or unable to grasp just how deeply embedded terrorism has been in American political history. On the other, his failure to fully assess the long-term decline in this detestable violence leads him to overstate the importance of right-wing terror in America today. Yes, it exists and must of course be fought, but we have come a long way from the days when lynching was common and openly racist and terrorist members of Congress successfully blocked anti-lynching laws.
Outside the United States, another form of "Christian" terrorism gets extremely short shrift: the attacks on civilians by paramilitary organizations in the former Yugoslavia. A book on contemporary terrorism that doesn't deal with Arkan is like a book on Lincoln that leaves out the Gettysburg Address. Laqueur's silence is particularly unfortunate since he argues in several places that fanatical Islam may be the principal wellspring of political terrorism in our time. Maybe so, but in the Balkans at least Muslims have been primarily the victims rather than the perpetrators of some of the nastiest and most widespread terrorist attacks of the age.
While distancing himself from indiscriminate Islam-bashing in several places (and giving careful, even-handed treatment to some of the thorny issues raised by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), Laqueur slips more than once into regrettable hyperbole about the Faith of the Prophet. "On the philosophical-religious level, there is no room for nonbelievers in the Islamic system," he says, "even if minorities are temporarily tolerated."
Wrong. On precisely the "philosophical-religious" level, Islam acknowledges Christianity and Judaism as legitimate if misguided religions and asserts more clearly than Christian orthodoxy ever has that sincere believers in competing faiths will be saved by a merciful God. As for "temporary toleration" of minorities, look at the Jews. Laqueur acknowledges that Jews were occasionally treated well in the Muslim world; what he needs to understand is that from the 7th century to modern times, Jews were consistently and routinely treated better throughout the Muslim world than in Christendom.
Terrorism is too important a subject for this kind of writing. When Laqueur's formidable intellect is at its full strength, it illuminates his subject like the beam of a lighthouse. It is too bad that in this book the light is so intermittent and the darkness so pervasive and, sometimes, so thick.
Walter Russell Mead is senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company