Surrealpolitik: Terror and Taboo

Authors: William A. Douglass, Joseba Zulaika

London: Routledge (1996)

Quick Summary

Examines the "fakeness" of terrorism, e.g., the complicity of governments, the media, the arts, academia, and violent activists themselves in constituting terrorism as a substitute for genuine political debate. Also, it contests the rigidness of terrorism discourse, in terms of the broadness of the experience that gets tossed into it, thereby reified and simplified, and in terms of how it excludes and delegitimizes other approaches to study and narrative.


There are 32 quotes currently associated with this book.

We are baffled by the use and abuse of terrorism discourse; we voice our skepticism. After many years of writing on the issues of political violence, our misgivings about the intellectual and moral values of the concept of terrorism have only increased. We are bothered by the referential invalidity, the rhetorical circularity that is all too characteristic of much that goes on under the rubric of "terrorism." It is the reality-making power of the discourse itself that most concerns us -- its capacity to blend the media's sensational stories, old mythical stereotypes, and a burning sense of moral wrath. Once something that is called "terrorism" -- no matter how loosely it is defined -- becomes established in the public mind, "counterterrorism" is seemingly the only prudent course of action. Indeed, at present there is a veritable counterterrorism industry that encompasses the media, the arts, academia, and to be sure, the policy makers of most of the world's governments. (page ix)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Myth, Media]
While we can all agree that we must try to prevent bombings, what is lacking is a serious investigation of the extent to which the discourse itself might be partly responsible for them. (page x)
Tags: [Terror]
It is one of the tenets of counterterrorism that any interaction with the terrorist "Other" is violation of a taboo...Yet it is the very strategy of "tabooing" subjects one has never spoken with or contemplated face-to-face that we will question on both intellectual and moral grounds. Besides, if talking to a terrorist is so contaminating, how is it that governments readily do so? What can we make of the fact that terrorism has become such a shifty category that yesterday's terrorists are today's Nobel Peace Prize winners. Sean McBride, Menachem Begin, Yassir Arafat, and Nelson Mandela have all been so honored...How do we manage to produce apocalyptic madmen who are later considered to be paragons of peace and virtue.? (page x)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror]
Our text is a mythography of Terror, particularly as experienced by the American and European publics through images of both near and distant terrorists. We treat this terrorism discourse as an enabling fiction -- the monster is there, but what are its features?

We write not as terrorism experts producing a "study," but rather as essayists perplexed by the terrorist phantasmagoria. We have elsewhere described the evolution of "terrorism" within the specific political context of Basque society. Although our locus standi is the ethnographic encounter, this essay is not intended as an ethnography. Rather, it deals centrally with the academic fashioning, media consumption, and political manipulation of terrorism discourse.

Do we perhaps, beyond its fables and follies, pretend to know what terrorism is? No. Indeed, we question the very possibility of defining, and thereby giving a satisfactory account of, the facts categorized as terrorism. Our goal is not to elaborate yet another typology, but rather to redirect the study of terrorism into an examination of the very discourse in which it is couched. As is the case with other discourses of the postmodern world we inhabit, the terrorist signifiers are free-floating, and their meanings derive from language itself. The connections between discourse and reality therefore become open to question. The challenge is not to learn the ultimate "truth" about terrorism, but to delve into the rhetorical bases of its powerful representations; not to insist that myths are often used to "fool" audiences, but rather to scrutinize the concrete discursive practices whereby this transpires. (page x-xi)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Myth]
Our conceptual strategy is to dissolve the phenomenon into its ritual and imaginative bases, which are poles apart from the ongoing academic and governmental efforts to constitute it further. In our view, nothing feeds the growth of the phenomenon itself more than the inability of terrorism discourse to distinguish actual combat from ritual bluff, real violence from imaginary terror. By questioning the conceptual grounds of the discourse of "terrorism" itself and neutralizing the taboo surrounding it, we seek to gain ironic distance. Instead of staging a frontal campaign against the mills of terrorism, it is our purpose, by concentrating on what has been labeled "the politics of epistemic murk and the fiction of the real," to subvert terrorism discourse by undermining its credibility and efficacy for actors, victims, and witnesses alike. Our text is therefore intended as exorcism. We further demand, by questioning not only others but ourselves, that it have a redemptive quality. (page xi)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror]
Thriller writers, who are ever searching for plots of intrigue and characters worthy of the trumpeted New World Order, increasingly invoke terrorism as a substitute for espionage...This is all fiction, we know, but what about that other discourse on terrorism, the starkly factual one, the one invoked by politicians, journalists, and scholars, the one we hear and read about daily in the media? The credibility of the political thriller would imply that the non-fictional discourse must be deadly real. The definitive evidence of its truth has been presumably provided by the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City explosions; terrorism experts have never been so firmly on the side of seemingly unquestionable "reality." (page 3)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror]
There is no need to deny or diminish by one iota the atrociousness of these chilling events. What we call into question here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutist framework within which terrorism discourse casts its characters and networks, i.e., its assumptions of all-encompassing discursive coherence. The exaggerated and conspiratorial style of terrorism rhetoric itself should be a warning that we are dealing with political pathology. As Richard Hofstadter noted, "What distinguishes the paranoid style is not...the absence of verifiable facts...but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events." We believe that regarding terrorism, the brandishing of stark facts goes hand in hand with great leaps into discursive fantasy. The present intellectual world is, after all, one of self-referential illusions and postmodern self-parodies, of crimes perpetrated in real life whose public significance is far greater in terms of their commercial value for increasing TV ratings, a world in which the boundaries between the real and the make-believe are increasingly blurred. We therefore question to what extent all discourse on terrorism must conform to and borrow from some form of fictionalization. By "fictional" we "do not mean their feigned elements, but rather, using the other and broader sense of the root word fingere, their forming, shaping, and molding elements: the crafting of a narrative." [latter quote is from Natalie Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, Stanford University Press] (page 4)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion]
Brute facts in their speechless horror are the very substance of serious terrorism discourse...As if to dispel any doubts regarding terrorism's compelling reality, it is routine for writers to begin their journalistic reports or scholarly papers with...dreadful statistics about the innocent victims. These are indeed the hardest of facts, and who can doubt their validity?

It is difficult to transcend the initial shock over such numbers in order to contemplate the reality behind them. The reporting of innocent travelers killed in the bombing of an airplane is so brutally factual that no possible explanation makes sense; indeed it is so "real" that it requires no frame, so "true" that no interpretation is necessary, so "concrete" that no meaning need be inferred. Its reality appears to belong more to nature than to society. This is discourse so overwhelmed by the "reality effect" of the facts that the very suggestion that it authenticate itself appears ridiculous. (page 5)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror, Rationality, Myth]
What is the mystique of something that, while statistically less fatal than choking to death on one's lunch, has been perceived as one of the greatest public threats? What are the cultural premises and discursive strategies that provide terrorism with its rhetorical power? Why do America's few domestic "terrorist" murders annually arouse a fear that, annually, 25,000 "ordinary" murders cannot? As in the "referential illusion" of the realist aesthetic of modern literature, "the very absence of the signified...becomes the very signifier of realism." [Latter quote from Barthes, The Rustle of Language, p. 148] (page 6)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Propaganda, Culture, Rationality]
Furthermore, the terrorist has a far greater capacity to garner public attention than does the soldier. It is a particularly salient confirmation of the common perception in postmodern discourse that reality is being shattered into images and that everyday life is becoming confused with TV's hyperreal world. (page 6-7)
Tags: [Everyday Life, Postmodernism, Terror]
Still, was the post-Gulf War terrorist threat real or hocus-pocus? That we cannot know; that is the very essence of the phenomenon, call it threat, play, bluff, or terrorism. It is, of course, in the very nature of such behavior that one wishes to keep one's opponent guessing and that success in doing so translates into leverage/power. The perception of threat, in particular, is notoriously subjective. Once again, the very absence of concrete denotation turns into the most doom-ridden foreboding -- if we at least knew their intentions; if there was perhaps an explanation for their villainy, a clear grievance that could be redressed; if they would show themselves and fight face-to-face, if only...There is the news -- later proven to be false -- that terrorists have placed a bomb somewhere. This time, but only this time, the public is spared the burden of contemplating an orchestrated atrocity. However, the reasons for being terrified were, after all, "real." (page 8)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror]
It is worth noting that the reality effect in terms of terrorism's costs has been staggering to the American taxpayer...Yet such expenditures failed to prevent either the World Trade Center or the Oklahoma City bombing. (page 9)
Tags: [Terror]
The catastrophic results of such discursive connections -- i.e., the tragic clash between the apocalyptic philosophy of the Branch Davidians and the apocalyptic response of the law enforcement authorities, followed by a commemorative reenactment of Waco in Oklahoma City, mediated by a Hollywood movie and Pierce's paranoid, antigovernment tale that in turn was informed by earlier anti-Communist narratives -- lend special urgency to Vico's dictum that mythology is the first science. (page 10)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Myth]
Recent developments in literary criticism and historiography have made it easier for us to assume that, rather than viewing fiction as the antithesis of fact, they share a porous boundary. A perspective closer to Vico's philosophy [e.g. mythology as the first science] would argue that there is a generic consciousness that combines both the literally true and the fictive; such a view regards "the true and the fabulous as simply different ways of signifying the relationship of the human consciousness to the world." Yet the discourse on terrorism is so traumatized by brutal events that any postulation of continuity between fact and fable regarding it may appear frivolously scandalous. Is the attempt to do so a denial of atrocity? Hardly. Nevertheless, to our minds the really challenging issues have more to do with the ways in which the popular media, scholarly treatises, and official reports employ narrative strategies to anticipate, relate, and interpret such events. Once having contemplated the horror of the mute fact, whether real or anticipated, it is essential to realize that its true impact, far beyond the shattered bodies or buildings, resonates in the halls of the collective imagination. (page 10-11)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Myth, Taboo]
Even literal acts such as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 are surrounded by vast doses of nonfactual guesswork, scholarly interpretation, political manipulation, and judicial indictments. As a result, when, on November 14, 1991, the U.S. accused two Libyan officials of the Lockerbie massacre, most family members and journalists who had followed the three-year investigation remained skeptical. Experts were quick to dispute, on various technical grounds, the theory that a simple microchip timer recovered from the wreckage set off the explosion, and reiterated the existence of contradictions and evidence pointing to other culprits now exculpated in a clear case of skewing raw data for political ends...Whether "blood feud" or "international terrorism" means little to the victims of Lockerbie, the difference in political rhetorics is critical for the rest of us. The monster is there, but what are its qualities? (page 11)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Rationality]
By now we have been sensitized by the media to accept the existence of a bizarre club of nations, the so-called sponsors of terrorism. What is most striking about the blacklisted is not their sinister vocation but rather the shiftiness in club membership. A country which is today an "evil empire" tomorrow becomes a close partner, or a ruler with whom we have been doing business as usual commits an act of bloody aggression and is suddenly a new Hitler, a nation such as Syria, catalogued for years as a supporter of terrorism, becomes a friendly ally by siding with the West against Iraq, which in turn had been removed from the blacklist for fighting against Iran...A cursory look at the ways that Iraq, Iran, and Syria were dropped from or included in the State Department's list of terrorism's sponsors (depending on the U.S. Administration's policy interests) demonstrates the extent to which blacklisting is indeed a "terrorism spectacle."...

Academics may object to the erratic changes and other inconsistencies, but they do so in vain since once the Secretary of State decides who is or is not a "terrorist," that becomes an established fact in the U.S. media and its political discourse. Thus, a Pentagon report in 1988 listed Mandela's African National Congress as one of the world's "more notorious terrorist groups," whereas pro-South African government RENAMO, which the same reports admits killed over 100,000 civilians in Mozambique between 1986 and 1988, is identified merely as an "indigenous insurgent group." (page 12)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror]
As a premise, terrorism tends to be about the Other; i.e., one's country, one's class, one's creed, one's president, oneself can hardly be a terrorist...Accordingly, a cursory examination of how news is produced reveals the decisive import of one's own government's perspective in journalistic reporting. The example Cooper adduces is the bombing of La Belle Disco Club in West Berlin on April 5, 1986, which Soviet media described as engineered by the CIA and the Mossad, whereas the U.S. media attributed it to Libyan-sponsored terrorists. The counterposed stories ignored the other side's version, did not grant equal time to neutral spokespersons, and failed to reveal their sources. Rather, they constituted mutually irreconcilable "accounts" of the same events. (page 13)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror, Media]
And it is no secret that , during the initial period of their mandate, Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig, William Casey, and other high officials read and praised Claire Sterling's book The Terror Network, only to later discover to their embarrassment that it was based essentially on CIA disinformation "blown back." (page 14)
Tags: [Terror, Disinformation]
Even if it is obvious that U.S. administrations have "played politics with the fight against terrorism," ideology and politics per se are not our main concerns but rather what Hayden White has labeled the "fictions of factual representation." [Note: see White's Tropics of Discourse] When we examine the epistemic status of the category itself and the shifting meanings that it holds for various audiences, we realize the radical extent to which terrorism discourse constitutes its object. This is also true of the position of some critics who, on the basis of the obvious double standard concerning the definitions and rhetorics of terrorism, simply redirect the term to argue that Washington inflicts a deliberate policy of wholesale terrorism on Third World countries, which are subsequently demonized for their own retail brand. There is certainly ample evidence of terror inflicted by Washington, but we object to rendering it as discourse that further recreates and reifies the terrorism paradigm instead of undermining its fictions. (page 16)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror]
In our view, terrorism's "reality" is intrinsic to certain kinds of behavior -- play, threat, ritual, dreaming, art -- characterized by a radical semantic gap between concrete action and that which it would ordinarily denote...Moreover, the capacity of terroristic activities to have an impact is largely contingent upon their being played out on the hyperreal screens of the electronic mass media. Hence, the quest for some definitive distinction between the real and the unreal is futile. (page 16-17)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Media]
The political mockery of dismissing entire countries as "terrorists" or "terrorist sympathizers" -- by abolishing their long and rich histories, by debasing their languages, by stigmatizing their representatives, by sheer self-deception -- is premised on the intellectual banality of constructing a discourse around a word that inevitably imposes conceptual reification within a tabooed context. (page 23-24)
Tags: [Propaganda, Terror, Myth, Taboo]
The most typical mode of terrorism discourse in the United States has been, indeed, one of Waiting for Terror...Now that we are told "nothing happened" during the period, Beckett's drama of aborted metaphysics and absurdity, with its intolerable emphasis on waiting turned into a kind of art, becomes an apt parable. That which captivates every mind is something so meaningless that it may never happen, yet we are forced to compulsively talk about it while awaiting its arrival. In the theater of the absurd, "non significance" becomes the only significance...When something does happen, after decades during which the absent horror has been omnipresent through the theater of waiting, the event becomes anecdotal evidence to corroborate what was intuited all along -- the by-now permanent catastrophe of autonomous Terror consisting of the waiting for terror. (page 26)
Tags: [Politics & Theatre, Surrealism & Politics, Everyday Life, Terror, Dada, Realism]
But, more importantly, the arrested suspects had been under close police surveillance since 1989...As extensively documented by Robert Friedman in his article "The CIA's Jihad," the CIA's involvement with the World Trade Bombers "is far greater than previously known." The CIA campaigned to set up several jihad (holy war) offices across the United States. The most important was called Alkifah -- Arabic for "the struggle" -- and was established in Brooklyn where the sheik had settled. One of the visitors to Alkifah was a Green Beret from the US Special forces at Fort Bragg, Ali Mohammed. He came regularly from North Carolina to train the sheik's followers in the use of weapons, as well as tactical, reconnaissance, and survival techniques. The sheik's followers fought in a war that cost the United States $10 billion.

After examining the evidence it is hard not to conclude that "the CIA has inadvertently managed to do something that America's enemies have been unable to: give terrorism a foothold in the United States." [emphasis added] (page 26-27)
Tags: [Backlash, Truth & Real, Terror, Conspiracy, Taboo]
In his paper, "Fearing Fictions," Kendall Walton proposes the notion of "quasi-fear" for that fright experienced when contemplating on a movie or TV screen agents (such as a terrible green slime or the creature from the Black Lagoon) that the viewer knows for certain are only fictional. Then there is the fear of a person afraid of a nonexistent ghost or burglar who are nonetheless "real" since the person believes that they are present. Fear of terrorism is never solely fictional, as in the first case, but is rather of the second type. Still, faced with the extraordinary fact that during one single month 10 million Americans decided to stay at home rather than take an airplane reportedly because of a terrorist threat issued several thousands miles away by a beleaguered dictator, one questions whether they were dissuaded by real feelings of terror or were engaging in some sort of make-believe in which they acted "as if" the threats posed real danger to their lives...

Terrorism discourse is characterized by the confusion of sign and context provoked by the deadly atrocity of apparently random acts, the impossibility of discriminating reality from make-believe, and text from reader. These strange processes and their mix make terrorism a queer phenomenon. Emptying the sign of its deadly messages seem to be, following Barthes's advice, the best antidote to the experience of terror. And nothing appears to be more damaging to the ghosts and myths of terrorism (for audience and actors alike) than fictionalizing them further to the point that fear dissolves into "as-if" terror.

The discourse's victory, then, derives from imposing a literal frame of "this is real war," "this is global threat," "this is total terror." Its defeat derives from writing "this is an as-if war," "this is an as-if global threat," "this is make-believe total terror." (page 28-29)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Rationality, Myth, Taboo]
The manipulation of frames for purposes of creating collective terror has to be directed to the imagination. There is no sense of the "untrue" or "unreal" when one is submerged in dream or fantasy. (page 30)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Dreams]
There is also a sense in which the framing of the journalistic report is beyond the individual reporter's control. Public officials and government policy set the parameters. "The State Department stated today that terrorists kidnapped an American professor in Beirut" can be modified slightly by the skeptical journalist, e.g., "The State Department alleged today," but only within strict limits. It is therefore virtually impossible for the journalistic account to begin "The State Department's questionable [or deceptive or false] claim today..." (page 45)
Tags: [Propaganda, Media]
In such fashion there is blurring of the line between fact and fiction in ostensibly objective journalistic reporting, particularly since it is the very nature of covert operations and intergovernmental confidentiality to place a premium more upon "deniability" -- a fancy expression for mendacity -- than upon veracity. Hence the novel's plot of intrigue and the journalist's political discourse collapse into the monolithic frame that we have labeled contemporary terrorism discourse.

This blurring of genres is further exacerbated by the propensity of some journalists and counterterrorism specialists to author terrorism novels (e.g., Robert Moss, Arnaud de Borchgrave, William Buckley Jr., Brian Crozier). Thus, at terrorism conferences it is not uncommon for the experts to discuss their next fiction project! (page 48)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Myth, Conspiracy, Media]
Once published by an "expert," such findings become part of the scientific discourse and recur throughout the terrorism literature. Nor are such conclusions devoid of political significance when they are recycled as unquestionable dogma by counterterrorism officials. This was the case with Paul Bremer III, Ambassador at Large for Counterterrorism, who recapitulated Post's skewed data about the Basques before the Norwegian Atlantic Committee in Oslo, Norway, February 4, 1988. Thus, the highest-ranking US counterterrorism official, in an address ironically entitled "Terrorism: Myths and Reality," employed data that anyone familiar with the Basque case knew to be utterly erroneous. Such a deceptive metaterrorism game, by which experts are allegedly capable of sorting out "reality" from "myth," is an integral part of the entire discourse's strategy of self-authorization. (page 55)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror, Myth, Media, Realism, Disinformation]
In this chapter we have considered various ways of writing "Basque terrorism" -- whether as "patriotic cause" (ETA's Documentos), "ethnography" (Douglass), "entertainment" (Shed and Trevanian), "news" (the Basque and Spanish presses), counterterrorist "intelligence" and "expertise" (Sterling, Post, the panel of international specialists), and "sociology" (Wieviorka). Each, as we have seen, is more than simply a different perspective of the same reality; rather each produces its own separate reality. Terrorism writing aims at constituting these various texts into a single field of discourse. (page 60-61)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror]
As we know from personal experience, "terrorism" possesses such great power that the terrorism writer must be prepared to "be written" by the discourse. Any claim of neutrality for one's own writing appears most illusory when dealing with a topic that evokes such apocalyptic fears. The author's original context cannot be but a distant reference lost within the discourse's own phantasmagoria.

The very act of describing in any fashion those communities plagued with "terrorism," or writing about events that can be construed in "terrorist" terms, runs the risks of intellectual and moral contamination. Far from being a passive agent, terrorism discourse casts its powerful rhetoric of "contagion" over those who get too close to it. Its mutational powers transform academicians and journalists into experts, experts into novelists, and novelists into journalists. (page 61)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror]
In short, the very act of writing an ethnography of political violence outside of conventional terrorism discourse can become in itself a major act of transgression of the policy of tabooing the violent actors. (page 62)
Tags: [Taboo]
There is a point at which the lives of madmen and murderers become so bizarre that we question whether the discourse about them "starts to function in a field where it qualifies as literature." Oedipus with his crimes or Faust with his devilish pact remain as emblematic literary figures of their times; "The Terrorist" and his apocalyptic threat might perhaps endure as an archetype of the late twentieth century's postmodern military simulacrum. [Quoted part is from Alexander Neill's 1991 "Fear, Fiction, and Make-Believe", The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49:47-56. (page 63)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, The Other, Simulacra/Illusion, Myth]