Conventional Wisdom Won’t Do

From the First World War to the rise of radical Islam, catastrophes cannot be treated like ordinary problems

Screen TV
Niall Ferguson: Flashy and amoral?

“What has that [truth] got to do with it?” Irwin, a cynical teacher, asks a pupil in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys. “What has that got to do with anything?”
Irwin believes that historians must cut a dash and make a splash with the shock of a new idea. If his pupils want to win an Oxbridge place, they should say something — anything — that will make dons prefer them to the dull applicants who repeat accepted truths. If the examiners tell them to discuss 1914, they should say, “Nothing in it for us. Better to stand back and let Germany and Russia fight it out while we take the imperial pickings.”  
Niall Ferguson admitted to experiencing a shock himself when he heard these lines at what he had assumed would be a pleasant evening’s entertainment at the National Theatre. Irwin was repeating his published views on why Britain should have stayed out of the First World War. Alan Bennett had based the flashy, amoral Irwin, the historian with no concern for truth, on . . . well, on him.
The BBC’s thoughtful programmes to mark the centenary of the war included as comprehensive an attack on the Irwin/Ferguson school of history as I have seen. Max Hastings, looking more like an Edwardian headmaster as each year passes, boomed for an hour on how Britain had to defend the balance of power in Europe and stop control of the Channel ports falling under German control. Every argument he made was good and every fact he gave us was true. 
Niall Ferguson replied in an extended programme, but I wonder if he was grateful for the schedulers’ generosity. His fellow historians then questioned him. Or rather, they committed the academic equivalent of assault and battery. They pummelled Ferguson’s belief that a German-dominated Europe in 1914 would not have been so different from today’s EU — that Kaiser Wilhelm was little more than Angela Merkel with an imperial moustache. They laughed at his notion that Asquith could take Britain to war only because Lloyd George abandoned his opposition to militarism for no better reason than to stop the Conservatives regaining power.
Ninety-nine times out of 100 I am on their side, and the side of all those who struggle to get the facts right. I prefer journalists to artists and well-informed bores to electrifying poseurs. Yet when confronted with a catastrophe as great as a world war, whose resolution was such a failure we had to fight it all over again, ordinary narratives fail. Conventional thinking is hopeless at dealing with catastrophic events because, by definition, they are beyond everyday explanations. No one can reasonably compare the First World War to the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The barbarism was too great, the failure of the peace too disastrous, to treat it as a standard struggle to protect or alter the European balance of power.
Ferguson at least recognised a catastrophe for what it was and tried to imagine how the British might have avoided it. His critics’ complaints sounded as strange as A.J.P. Taylor’s belief that Hitler exploited opportunities when they came like an ordinary statesman from an ordinary great power-an argument which was also true as far as it went, but did not begin to explain Nazism.

Path of Blood, a documentary about the modern totalitarianism of radical Islam, which with luck will be on general release soon, makes my point for me. Jonathan Hacker, the director, just shows al-Qaeda as it is. He offers the audience no characters to follow, no easy morals to draw and, above all, no explanations. “This is what terrorists and the police who fight them are like,” he seems to say. “What more do you need to know?”
He is able to work with confidence because his executive producers, Abdulrahman Alrashed and Adel Alabulkarim, are what admiring reporters call brilliant blaggers. When Saudi special forces raided the hideouts of al-Qaeda terrorists, they seized hundreds of hours of footage — home movies, in effect, although the content was far from homely. The Saudi authorities had their own crime-scene footage of their troops fighting back. Alabulkarim and Alrashed somehow persuaded them to hand over both sets of tapes. 
We see shots of happy paramilitaries laughing with their friends and playing games. It takes a while to realise that they are happy because they are about to kill themselves and anyone else they can reach. We see scenes of men torturing and murdering an American hostage in an al-Qaeda safe house, while across the room a father teaches his little boys how to be soldiers of God. And we hear religion everywhere, from “scholars” telling their followers to emulate Muhammad’s massacres of the Jews, to men thanking Allah for giving them the opportunity to kill. 
Admittedly, the film is a corrective to those in the West who insist that religious violence has nothing to do with religion. It is a god-soaked as much as a blood-soaked documentary. But Hacker is not interested in why extremists turn to a gruesome strain of Islam. He just shows them murdering and the Saudis retaliating by killing or “re-educating” them. 
I have read thousands of articles and seen thousands of television news reports on radical Islam. The rationalist fallacy has hobbled most of their authors. They believe that irrational movements must be a response to sensible or at least explicable grievances, which men and women of good will can address. Their examination of the evidence may be level-headed. Their willingness to balance competing opinions may be praiseworthy. But they never stop to think that educated Westerners may be unable by temperament and training to accept that unhinged sectarianism will not be stopped by concessions.
Usually, the rational explanation they offer is that violence is a reaction to some crime of the West. But it does not matter what the “root cause” on offer is: the gap between comprehensible grievances and the violence inflicted by a psychotic global movement or indeed a psychotic global war is too great for reason to bridge. Like Niall Ferguson, you can say you should stay out of its way, which may be impossible. Like the Saudi monarchy, you can say you have no choice but to fight it, which may be a mistake too. But to pretend that catastrophic events or movements are no different from the world’s ordinary troubles is to make the biggest mistake of all.