Matthew Carr's "The Infernal Machine" has an approval blurb from Mike Davis on the back, and that is an accolade not lightly ignored. And for good reason: the book is an excellent and well-balanced history of terrorism, understood as a specific method (or range of methods) for political movements to achieve their goals. Carr's history ranges from the assassinations of Czarist officials in 19th-century Russia and the infamous anarchists of the fin-de-siècle to the Rote Armee Fraktion and Al-Qaeda, giving a systematic and balanced overview of the various terrorist campaigns that have gripped the attention of the world, whether briefly or during prolongued conflicts. The author's narratives of the different terrorist campaigns and the major individuals involved in them is engaging and exciting, which is all the more impressive because of the balanced approach he has towards terrorism as a method of achieving political aims. Although it has throughout the age been condemned as the height of immorality and as Satanic nihilism, and though rejected as political practice by Marx and Lenin both, Carr shows that more often than not terrorism is a method used in cases of despair, by groups that have much conviction but are politically and militarily weak. Often the figures involved are themselves hardly enthousiastic about the means used and only rely on methods of assassination and indirect warfare because of the enormous difference in strength between them and their opponent.
In this context, it is interesting to note how Carr makes a thorough comparison between the 'traditional' terrorism, actions by individuals or small groups to assassinate major figures in order to provoke repression and/or revolt, and the more common post-war method of the 'urban guerrilla'. To the latter category belong groups like the Brigate Rosse and the Rote Armee Fraktion, but also the many attempts in Latin and Central America to overthrow hated dictatorhips through insurrection in urban areas. Carr does away with much mythologizing in this respect, emphasizing that despite the reputation of such groups, urban guerrilla movements have failed utterly to achieve their political aims far more often than they have succeeded, barely getting beyond the romantic ineffectiveness of the anarchists' "propaganda of the deed". Yet that is not to say that all such movements were futile, or that the propaganda of the deed does not exist. Although the author sometimes balances on the edge of cynicism, it is still better to have fought and lost than not to have fought at all (if one may paraphrase a common saying) in many of these cases, even if the losses are horrendous - after all, unchallenged dictatorships are no less ferocious for having little effective opposition. Also, as Carr shows very well in his work, opposition in one part of the world can inspire opposition in another, with many a 'terrorist' movement having taken inspiration from another and even copied their tactics. The recently defeated LTTE in Sri Lanka, for example, had been using suicide bombings long before these became a familiar part of the Intifada in the 1990s, and the romanticism of the European left-wing urban terrorists in turn inspired 'urban guerrillas' in Latin America and vice versa.
Very wisely Matthew Carr does not neglect to study the methods and history of counter-insurgency either. He shows the hypocritical responses of repressive regimes, whether 'true' dictatorships or liberal ones like the Western governments, to the methods of terrorists which they forever decry as the deepest immorality and the vilest murder while they leave the groups they oppress little other choice through their overwhelming superiority of conventional arms. Such regular militaries kill far more people in every single conflict than terrorism and terrorist methods ever have, but because they favor the already powerful as tactic, they are not considered as criminal as the methods of insurgencies. As Carr emphasizes besides, counter-terrorism forces and the further repression by regimes from Algeria to Uzbekistan in the name of 'war on terror' have also been far more deadly than all modern terrorism combined. That is not to say that terrorism by religious fanatics or romantic fantasists is not to be taken seriously at all - as Marx pointed out after a Fenian group blew up a prison and killed many passersby, however sympathetic one can be to a particular movement, one cannot expect people to just sit still and let themselves be blown up for another's cause. But Carr underlines that we cannot allow an inanity like the 'war on terror' to frighten us into allowing our own governments endless more leeway in militarist, warlike responses at home or abroad, especially since they kill more people than terrorism does and thereby create whole generations worth of new terrorists, as proven in the case of the American support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
The only disappointments of the book are that Carr's vignettes on the individual protagonists of various urban terorrist groups sometimes veer towards character assassination rather than useful analysis of terrorism as a method; it would have been preferable had he spent more time analyzing more different types of such insurgencies using terrorist methods and building more definite conclusions about their utility rather than their morality. Also, the last chapter somewhat pointlessly indulges various conspiratorial theories about the terrorist attacks on major US targets on the 11th of September, 2001. Speculation of this sort never does anyone any good, especially since it encourages people to think in terms of individual actions and spectacular events rather than effective strategies of resistance, whether they include terrorist methods or not, as his book should be concluding with. But other than that, this is a truly accessible and engaging history of terrorism and free of either the usual over-romanticizing or the usual excessive moralizing about the subject.