Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Sifting truths from the history of terrorism

The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism From the Assassination of Tsar Alexander II to Al-Qaeda
By Matthew Carr
New Press, 416 pp., $26.95

In an era when government leaders in the United States and Great Britain brand as unpatriotic those who examine terrorism logically, Matthew Carr has written a brave and wise book.

Carr, a journalist living in England, makes about as much sense of terrorism, in its historic and current permutations, as any author is likely to do.

Because one person's terrorism is another person's martyrdom, because one person's demon is another person's hero, it seems incumbent to define what Carr means by the dreaded T word before proceeding. Here is an important, and thought-provoking, paragraph:

"It is not my intention here to offer an overarching definition of terrorism to replace those that have already been put forward. Nor do I wish to enter the largely futile discussion over who constitutes the 'real' terrorists. Both states and revolutionary organizations have carried out atrocities, crimes, and acts of terror, even if the former have done so on a far greater scale. This book is largely concerned with a particular technique of revolutionary violence that first emerged in Russia and Europe in the late nineteenth century. The essence of this technique is the use of violence against symbolic targets in order to achieve a political rather than a military victory over a particular government or regime."

The history of terrorism -- not only in Great Britain and the United States but also in the Middle East, Latin America, and other regions -- is crucial to the current charged atmosphere. As Carr notes, "The current state of terror and alarm cannot entirely be attributed to nineteen hijackers armed with pocket knives and box cutters. . . . Governments have tended to present their own particular interpretation of terrorism as the 'true' version, regardless of whether there is any evidence to sustain it. Thus, George Bush has repeatedly declared that the September 11 attacks represented an attack on American 'freedom,' even though this motivation has been explicitly rejected by Osama bin Laden."

In England, Prime Minister Tony Blair labeled the July 2005 suicide bombings "an assault on 'democracy' and 'civilized' values, despite evidence that the protagonists regarded them as a response to specific Western policies in the Muslim world, and the Iraq war in particular."

Rightly, Carr exhibits no patience for government lies in the aftermath of terror, just as he exhibits no patience for killers, whether government-sanctioned or operating as independent revolutionaries. He prefers a different sort of patience -- the kind necessary to study specific actions and motives in context, to understand the mind-set of the killers and their targets, so that perhaps conflict can be reduced or eliminated. At least one certainty exists: Terrorists are fellow human beings to those who would never commit such an act, and must be understood as thoroughly as possible if the situation is likely to change.

Various sections in Carr's book examine terrorism in Algeria, Egypt, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Libya, Lebanon, Malaysia, Oklahoma City, Palestine, Russia, and elsewhere. Some of the incidents are grounded in religious differences, some are entirely secular. In fact, the best generalization is that generalizing seems impossible.

Carr says, after years of study, that "the phenomenon of terrorism is in many ways the sum of its contradictions."

Despite his failure to form the perfect theory, Carr's quest is admirable and educational. He writes well, avoiding the pedantic language so often found in terrorism tomes. This is a book for the ages, although an optimist would hope that decades from now, terrorism will be of historical interest only.

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.