Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

In 2011, I started writing a novel about terrorism. I did so because although I had read literally hundreds of novels about terrorism, I had yet to find one which I could in all good conscience recommend to my students as a useful supplement to the academic literature. There did not seem to be any novels which gave an authentic account of why someone would join a terrorist group or choose the life of militant. I also wrote it because I knew that Critical Terrorism Studies needed to find new ways to communicate its ideas to the public. It was not going to be enough to write more academic books and articles; we needed more affective and interesting ways of writing about terrorism.

I am happy to report that in May 2014 my novel, Confessions of a Terrorist, will be published by Zed Books. Below is an abridged version of the Preface to the novel. It explains in more detail why I wrote the novel and what its premise is.

9781783600021

PREFACE to Confessions of a Terrorist: 

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.

If you want to read more, you can pre-order the book at any of the following websites:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Confessions-Terrorist-Richard-Jackson/dp/1783600020

http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Terrorist-Richard-Jackson/dp/1783600020

http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Confessions-of-Terrorist-Richard-Jackson/9781783600021

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/richard+jackson/confessions+of+a+terrorist/10093546/

 

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About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently the Deputy Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.
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8 Responses to Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

  1. dolly B says:

    I got the book from the library but am going to buy the book to pass along to friends.. its something all should read. I did not know that there were people as informed as Jackson.

  2. Reblogged this on richardjacksonterrorismblog and commented:

    I am reblogging this because there’s been a lot of talk in the media about why people go over to Iraq to join Islamic State. Since the West started bombing them, thousands of new recruits have gone to join IS. Is this a sudden outbreak of religious extremism, or is there something else at work? Based on all the research which suggests that individuals join these groups for political reasons based on grievances, I suspect that IS’s popularity is due not to their extreme violence or the particular brand of religion they espouse, but because they are seen as successfully fighting against imperialism and oppression. They represent the most powerful and coherent anti-imperialist movement today. Just as young people joined left-wing movements in the 1960s and 1970s in order to fight imperialism, so they are joining IS today. In my novel, I try and explore this theme and explain why someone would choose to fight the West’s self-serving and imperialistic actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. I believe that if you want to better understand why people are joining IS, there might be some clues in my novel.

  3. Brewer says:

    Congratulations on publication. Just read about you on Richard’s blog. Heartening to know there are fellow Kiwis with (un)common sense.
    Keep up the good work.

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