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Questions of Identity

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Mandarin, London, 1987
price: £2.99; 208 pages

The blurb on the back:

A leading bacteriologist is seized by Red Brigade terrorists who demand a highly sinister and deadly ransom deal. The CIA have just one lead to the kidnappers - the bright and radical student, Monica Venuti - but she is protected by her influential family connections. So it is left to Michael Wyman, Monica's Philosophy Professor and ex M16 to probe her philosophical beliefs and to alert the anti-terrorist squad the moment his pupil is ready to leap from ideological theory to revolutionary practice. But the CIA are impatient. Raiding Monica's apartment, they attempt to seize her, but are in for a nasty surprise...

opening lines:
It was hot. In an arid field fifty kilometres north-east of Rome, two men stood by a grey Lancia.

This is a rare beast indeed: a decent, intelligent novel about terrorism. Itís a thriller in formal terms, but it has pretensions beyond that, and the action is interspersed with accounts of a university philosophy class that explores the nature of society and the rights and responsibilities of concerned citizens to effect change. Thereís also a nice little potted history of the origins and development of the Red Brigades, and an exposition of a theory that a single terrorist act could, if it is sufficiently devastating in scale, provoke a population into revolution: the primary task of a government is to protect the people, therefore a massive attack that exposes an inability to provide that protection will render the concept of a government meaningless. A small nuclear bomb detonated in a city centre, for example, might do the trick.

Iím not convinced that the theory holds water, but on the other hand Iím writing this just weeks after the 2004 Madrid bombings appeared to change the outcome of the Spanish general election, so - while revolution may not be on the agenda - the issue of security may well prove to be the Achilles Heel of liberal democracy.

Of course this is the 1980s, long before the modern obsession with terrorism as the single biggest threat to the world (which, incidentally, it isnít), and the danger here comes from commies rather than Muslims, but thereís much that still resonates. Here, for example, is a CIA man reflecting on the limitations of his political masters:

íThe trouble is, we have an administration in Washington that thinks it owns the world. They've got this idea fixed in their pea-sized brains that they can just crap all over any country they like without asking for permission.
íSure, we've always been arrogant bastards, but it used to be different. When Kissinger wanted to play rough, he'd consult Bismarck, Machiavelli, or maybe Clausewitz. Nowadays, our foreign policy is inspired by John Wayne movies. If the President wants a few ideas, he puts on a video of The Green Berets, and his aides explain the difficult bits to him.í (p.148)

By no means a classic, it is nonetheless a book you can enjoy. And you canít say that about every bit of terrorist fiction.


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Alan Burns
The Angry Brigade