May 29, 2007

The Degaev Affair or the tale of the weak willed terrorist.

We often hear about the muscular morality of terrorists today and in the past. Our vision of them is as loners standing outside society and impermeable to that society- advancing without fear in a psychopathy of rage and despair the terrorist commits his crimes like a modern day Attilla against the weak and enfeebled bourgeoise. Columnists like Mark Steyn frequently argue that the West and particularly the liberal west are feeble and incapable of fighting back and project a figure of the terrorist as someone who fights until the bitter end, unchecked by remorse or any personal feelings, the ultimate Neitschean super hero- just fighting for the wrong ends.

That dystopian figure, whether endorsed by Steyn or memorialised in leftwing films like the Battle for Algiers, has a certain descriptive force to it. Terrorists tend to be lonely young men with bombs in hand waiting for the vulnerable to show them their weaker side. They tend to lack empathy for their victims, they tend to be remote from every day society. But that's not all- over the last few years the film Paradise Now has for instance alerted us to the way that a terrorist action maybe a way for someone to assert that they deserve to be part of a community, in Paradise Now the Palestinian boy whose father was an Israeli informer hopes to save his family's honour by going off to bomb a bus in Jerusalem. Richard Pipes's, emeritus Professor of History of Harvard and a noted Russian expert and cold war polemecist, account of the life of Sergei Degaev fits into the mould of accounting for terrorism using an image of the terrorist's weakness not his strength.

Sergei Degaev was a Russian young man of reasonable birth who became attracted to join one of the largest militant terrorist organisations of his day, named People's Will. Pipes beleives that Degaev was attracted into the group because he beleived it represented the future of Russian society. However much to his own rage, Degaev never became a senior member of the group- partly because he was squeemish about violence and partly because as the then leader Vera Figner beleived Degaev was not an original enough man to become a real leader of the revolution. Degaev was eventually arrested in 1881 for holding a press which published comments about the Tsarist government. Taken in and faced with the prospect of over 15 years hard labour, Degaev decided to become an agent for the state and was allowed to escape.

Over the next two years Degaev handed over hundreds of names- including Figner's- to the head of the Tsarist secret police Georgii Sudeikin. Many of these individuals were arrested and sentenced to hard labour. However in the revolutionary movement Degaev swiftly came under suspicion of being a traitor, despite the fact that thanks to his betrayels he was now the most senior agent of the People's Will left in Russia. Through him the Sudeikin was essentially running the revolutionary movement, even censoring articles published in their newspapers. The psychological pressure was too much for Degaev and twice he confessed to other senior leaders of the radical left that he was an agent of the Tsarist state- to save his own life he was told he had to kill Sudeikin. And so he summoned the head of the police to his house to supposedly give him information, shot him in the head and allowed two other revolutionaries to bludgen Sudeikin to death on his toilet floor. Degaev himself escaped days after from Russia- was expelled from the Revolutionary movement- and ended up in hiding in America- where four years later he published a PhD in mathematics- and in a bizarre twist of fate in 1891 became Professor of Mathematics at the University of South Dakota (there is still a scholarship at the University endowed in his name).

What does this say though- well firstly its worth getting rid of the image of the terrorist-hero- Degaev was no hero. More often than not he was pushed into taking the actions that he took simply to save his own skin- finding himself in a revolutionary movement and arrested, he escaped hard labour by becoming a police agent, finding himself under pressure because of the captivities of so many of his comrades, he confessed and finally finding himself under pressure to prove his revolutionary credentials, he assassinated brutally his friend and handler, Sudeikin. Every action was born out of a desire to save his own skin first and foremost- wounded pride and a sense of survival account for most of Degaev's actions. In that sense he may give us indications of the way the terrorist psyche works- rather than being opposed to life itself- terrorists may well be pushed by other things into committing acts of violence- rather than being incorruptible agents of evil, they may in reality be pathetic and fearful human beings.

Its an interesting story and Professor Pipes definitely has gathered some interesting material in his book- lastly and equally fascinatingly its worth thinking about the fact that Degaev very happily became a Professor of Mathematics called Alexander Pell in later life. For many of those within these movements one suspects like Degaev it is not the force of conviction or the force of personality that propells them, but human weakness, a desire to make a name and a desire to save themselves once they are in deeply that propells them along the destructive path. That is worth remembering when we think about how to deal with such movements.


Keith said...

First, I am very pleased I have found this blog.

To comment on the latest and very topical post, I have to say that I think the story illustrates one very important part of why lonely young men get involved in these things, but only one part.

The other, I suggest, is the desperate need that so many feel to belong in a deep sense - to be valued, understood and cared for, to surround themselves with like minds and define themselves reassuringly as like this, not like that.

The need to be part of a group brings people together in religious and political movements, but the question is why are some drawn to the most radical - hot-headed splinter groups of violent radicals and outcasts. Perhaps the answer is that some people have an (almost) pathological need for grouping and seek it in its most extreme form.

Members of fascist and street gangs have said they get a strong ‘buzz’ from membership, not least because their cohesion is powerfully reinforced by their group’s alienation from the rest of the world. Being abhorrent is a necessary condition for a group to provide the psychological needs of these members. The more radical and violent a gang becomes the better the ‘fix’ it provides.

The answer to the violently radical, then, might be to heal their psychological distress in some more positive way. Maybe they just need love.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Keith and yes I agree with you a desire to be a member of something is also present within most terrorists- obviously there are dozens of other things people might cite. I think what we both agree on though is that there are a variety of psychological reasons why someone might become a terrorist- many proceed from weakness as much as strength.