TheVisionMachine’s Sebastian Kaempf talked to Professor Richard Jackson (University of Otago, New Zealand) about his Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel, recently published by Zed Books. In this Innverview, Richard provides insights not only into his novel, but also the motivations to branch out of the conventional academic forms of writing and the challenges when writing a piece of fiction that engages with important phenomena such a terrorism.
PREFACE to Confessions of a Terrorist [Abridged] By Richard Jackson
The premise of this novel is quite simple: if you sat down face-to-face with a terrorist, what questions would you ask him or her? What would you like to know about their life, their upbringing, their reasons for taking up armed struggle, their aims and goals, their sense of morality, their feelings about what they do? This question is important, not least because terrorism seems to be everywhere these days, and yet paradoxically, we appear to know almost nothing about the people who perpetrate it. It is on our television screens and in our newspapers virtually every day, and everywhere you go there are reminders of how much efforts to prevent terrorism have fundamentally changed our way of life. In fact, there has never been so much public discussion and information about terrorism at any time in history. And yet, paradoxically, whenever a terrorist incident occurs, the first question on everyone’s lips is: why did they do it? What turned this person into a murderer? What is really going on in the mind of a terrorist? There’s another reason why this question is important: if we don’t understand what really goes on in the mind of terrorists, we will be forced to simply try and imagine it. We’ll have to just guess at what they’re thinking.
I suggest that this is actually what we have been doing for many years now: guessing, imagining, fantasizing about what goes on in the mind of a militant. And thus far, if novels, movies, television shows, and media portrayals are anything to go by, we imagine that terrorists are insane, fanatical, psychologically damaged, cruel, immoral, essentially ‘evil’, and most importantly, quite inhuman.
The problem with viewing terrorists through this veil of ignorance, with trying to understand them through the lens of our usually frightened imagination, is that ultimately we cannot help but turn them into monsters and bogeymen. They cease to be real people, human beings with a history, a childhood, feelings, life experiences, aspirations, values. They are instead reduced to what they’ve done or what they perhaps intended to do. And when this happens, they inevitably become a ‘cancer’ and a ‘scourge’, a ‘savage’, an ‘animal’, an ‘extremist’, an ‘evildoer’.
At this point, we also give permission for them to be treated as less than human. Cancer is to be eradicated, after all; scourges are to be quarantined; animals are to be hunted or tamed. In other words, it is precisely because we have failed to see the humanity of the terrorist, because we have imagined them as something other than a fellow human being, that we have tortured, rendered, imprisoned without trial, and summarily killed thousands of people we suspect or imagine to be terrorists in the past few years.
Apart from compounding the original wrong of terrorism, I would argue that this is a counter-productive and ultimately self-defeating approach. It cannot work to end or prevent further acts of terrorism; its only certain result is to create more terrorists and engender more violent retaliation. Sadly, it seems that artists, novelists, film-makers and others who write about terrorism have embraced this veil of ignorance which currently characterises our collective understanding. This is surprising, given that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of former terrorists and militants one could quite easily talk to, and hundreds of published interviews, autobiographies, and in-depth studies with them.
So what’s going on? Why do we stutter and stumble about in trying to explain their actions and motives when they are perfectly willing to explain it all, and when there is plenty of information available to understand them? I believe it is because, as anthropologists tell us, there is kind of taboo against ‘talking to terrorists’ or trying to understand them at a human level. A taboo is an unspoken prohibition that functions to maintain the limits of social behaviour and which is designed to protect society from certain culturally determined dangers. In this case, the terrorism taboo is designed to segregate terrorists and militants, and to protect society from their perceived malign influence. Talking to them, listening to their voices, hearing their arguments, trying to understand their point of view is therefore prohibited. The fear is that getting too close to a terrorist may lead to some kind of infection or contamination, and thus will the cancerous evil of terrorism spread.
This taboo is so powerful and so prevalent that you will almost never hear the real voice of a terrorist in a public forum such as the media. They are not allowed to speak for themselves. A central purpose of this novel therefore is to try and break through the taboo on ‘talking to terrorists’. As such, it treats the terrorist as a fully human being, not a stereotypical monster or an inhuman, incomprehensible fanatic. More importantly, the novel allows the terrorist to speak and have a real voice, uncensored and unrestricted, honest and intimate. Of course, the danger of taking this approach, as warned by the taboo, is that in listening to the voice of the terrorist, we will begin to comprehend their point of view. Their reasons may become understandable to us.
The key point is that understanding – or even sympathising – with the goals of the terrorist is not the same as condoning and legitimising their violent actions. I can understand the necessity of resisting oppression without accepting the need to strap on a suicide vest or leave a bomb in a train station to kill commuters. However, without understanding the mind of the terrorist in the first place, we are left with nothing but our terrified imagination as the foundation on which to construct a counter-terrorism policy.