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Book Review April 6, 2003
Fairytales for the Scared Stupid
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
I compiled 19 pages of notes on Carr's innumerable errors of fact re: Irish history, but I'll spare you; you might prefer an aspect of more general interest. Consider then the most obvious problem for this sort of book: the fact that it requires a stable, universal definition of "terrorism" -- a project which, as any second-year theory geek knows, is impossible. The word is inherently polemical; that's its purpose. It has no meaning beyond tribal disapproval. Language serves power, and power reserves pejoratives like this for its less formidable opponents. So a "terrorist" will always be an illegitimate warrior -- that is, a warrior from an inferior tribe. There's a riddle popular among linguists which makes the point nicely:

Q: What's the difference between a language and a dialect?

A: A dialect doesn't have a navy.

The distinction between "terrorism" and "war" is analogous to that between "language" and "dialect." Smart, honest intellectuals would never try to make a stable argument out of a single, polemicized noun. Unfortunately, that high-minded abstention leaves lots of room for the Caleb Carrs, who clomp in where smarter folk fear to tread, eagerly offering morally-stable Tory definitions of ye olde Goode & Eville for American kiddies of all ages, like the execrable C. S. Lewis and his dismal Narnia books.

The formula for books like this is so simple and silly that any random paragraph will show the DNA in full. Go ahead, pick a country, any country--and we'll see how Carr squeezes its history into his silly sermonette.

Start at the beginning of the alphabet: "Algeria." At first glance, Algeria certainly looks like one place where "terrorism" did win out, contrary to Carr's thesis. Didn't the Algerians run the French settlers out? I could've sworn they did. And didn't that mean terrorism worked? Hard to see what Carr could do with material like that. But Carr manages to make a moral tale of the bloody nightmare of Algerian history, though only by some rather comic mumbling and muddying: "By the middle of the [19th] century, France had received its share of humiliation in Algeria, from the legendary Abd el Kader, whose desert exploits led French troops to engage in 'scorched earth' tactics....Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting Algeria in 1846, claimed that the savage nature of the war was turning French soldiers into bloodthirsty brutes. France eventually prevailed, but, again, terror bought success in the short run, disaster in the long: Algeria was to remain a trouble spot for the French for generations, and indeed today it is home to, and training ground for, some of the world's most dangerous terrorists."

The simplemindedness of this account is almost magnificent. I was expecting Carr to deal with recent Algerian history -- specifically the horrendously blood-spattered war in which the Algerians managed to terrorize the French settlers into fleeing across the Mediterranean. There was definitely "warfare against civilians" on both sides in that conflict. In fact, civilians were the targets of choice for both sides. The Algerians won because they had nowhere else to go; the French, with a home country to flee to, fled.

It would be difficult to show how that monstrous war proved that "warfare against civilians...has always failed, and...will fail again." On the contrary: the Algerian terrorists won decisively -- not because they were kinder or gentler but precisely because they were willing to inflict and endure a level of terror which the French settlers could not stand.

Look carefully at how Carr has warped and blurred his narrative to guide a trusting American audience, utterly ignorant of world history, through this bloody mess. His account fails to mention the Algerian Revolution at all, instead using a distinction between "the short run" and "the long" without specifying what these adjectives mean. It's sheer genius! Just consider how it could sum up so many great historical narratives: "Imperialism brought Rome success in the short run, disaster in the long"; "Birth gives an organism success in the short term, disaster in the long."

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