The Lessons of Terror
By Caleb Carr
Random House 2002
I can smell what a book's going to be like in one quick sniff. It's no great boast; anyone can do it, given time. All it takes is an aversion to people and a convenient public library in which to cringe. And time, years and years in a reading trance. Mongols know horses; Dyaks know blowguns; stereo salesmen know bad classic rock; and I know books. From the second I spotted The Lessons of Terror sitting smugly on the shelf of a Kuznetskii Most bookstore, I knew exactly what it would be like. I knew it would be a facile, opportunistic and untenable definitional/moral argument against "terrorism." And I knew it would enrage me.
All the signs were there on the cover. The cover photo: that famous image of the WTC's steel mesh standing like corporate sculpture in the ruins; the title, "The Lessons of Terror," a clear warning that there'd be a glib moral lesson scooped from quick, shallow dips in a few familiar historical periods. Worst of all was the subtitle: "A History of Warfare against Civilians -- Why It Has Always Failed, and Why It Will Fail Again."
A subtitle as sermonic and silly as that, comrades, is honesty of a sort. Truth in advertising, if not content. That any educated human being could assert, in a work from a major press, that attacks on civilians have always failed and always will fail, inspired something like awe. Are you allowed to tell ANY comforting lie in America these days, no matter how absurd?
Fight this ignoble pabulum, comrades! Slap yourself awake and think! Name some tribes which have been simply wiped out! --the Tasmanians, hunted for sport by British colonists who then turned the whole island into sheep pasture; the (pre-Germanic) Prussians -- wiped out the same way for the same reason by proto-Junkers.
Want something more Classical? Take Carthage--if you can find the ruins. Or Gaul: Rome weni, widi, wici, genocidi the Gauls. Moving west, we have all the AmerIndian tribes, a real triumph of "warfare against civilians": 90% of those tribes were wiped out in a 300-year rolling genocide that moved roughly East to West, starting with the Penobscot and ending with poor Ishi, "last of his tribe." If warfare against civilians doesn't work, what happened to Ishi's kin? And if killing civilians always boomerangs, how come the Sioux haven't swept across the Plains like avenging angels?
So we see, with a few invigorating moments of intellectual deep-breathing, that this book's central premise, that "warfare against civilians has always failed, and...will fail again," is a silly, crypto-Christian lie. The history of human civilization is a series of successful genocides. To pretend otherwise, one would have to have a mind clenched tighter than Nicole Kidman's neck-sinews--a mental state is summed up by the title of an Ernest movie: "Scared Stupid."
This book is designed for those who are scared very stupid. Like many of these post-9/ll inspirational volumes, The Lessons of Terror is obviously a rush job, with big type and triple-spaced lines--a sure sign that it's really just an essay puffed up to book size. Carr's ideology was just what I'd expected: dumbed-down recent history from a neo-Tory, Paul Johnson perspective--ie, the entire twentieth century (a) was a horrible mistake, and (b) didn't happen at all.
But what really made me dread reading this thing is that I knew, before even opening the book, that Carr would use a demonized history of Irish revolutionary politics to make his point. I'm not sure how I knew that, but I did. And I was right. Jesus, I'm sick of being right. Reminds me of that wonderful line of Nietzsche's: "What does it matter that I am right? I am much too right already!"
Anyway, it turned out that almost HALF of the book is devoted to a childish attack on Irish revolutionaries, particularly Michael Collins, whom Carr seems to hate with as much passion as a prig can feel for anyone. I knew that Spectator hacks never tire of retelling the story of the Tan War so they win -- an eccentric, risible obsession, like Lord Emsworth's pig. But I'd never seen it done for a US audience till now.