Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Charles Townshend finds a striking critique of counterterrorism sometimes goes too far

June 10, 2010

Joseba Zulaika is an anthropologist whose experience of terrorism in the Basque Country is highly personal: his mother was a passenger on a bus whose driver was shot and killed for being an informer by Eta gunmen. She and the other horrified witnesses had one question: "How can that be?" For Zulaika, this is the vital question that "counterterrorists" refuse to ask. We should, he urges, be approaching terrorists in the same way that Truman Capote approached murderers in his celebrated book In Cold Blood. Instead, we get the 9/11 inquiry, "a nebulous narrative that ends up including everything, yet nothing emerges that would explain the terrorists' decision to undertake their violent action". For Zulaika, this typifies a failure of understanding that is disastrous and deliberate. His work, a leading example of the new field of critical terrorism studies, is a fierce assault on the conventional "terrorism discourse".

Here, Zulaika sets out to prove that "counterterrorism has become self-fulfilling and is now pivotal in promoting terrorism". This striking assertion raises several questions. One is already all too familiar - just what is terrorism? But we now need to ask: what is "counterterrorism"? And what is meant by "promoting"? Can Zulaika really be suggesting that attempts to oppose terrorism actually create the very thing they are designed to eliminate, and that without counterterrorism there would be no terrorism? At times he does, indeed, almost go this far, but his central argument is a little less absolute. Not everything done to oppose terrorism is disastrous, and even the worst policies do not create terrorism from nothing. But bad policies can, and do, make it more rather than less formidable. And they create an atmosphere of insecurity that is corroding the public sphere.

He takes counterterrorism to mean a particular set of responses to terrorism espoused by certain governments and counterterrorism pundits. "The terrorism expert", he holds, "is arguably the most ironic authority figure since the inquisitor of the European witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries." Like the witch-craze, counterterrorism is a form of collective delusion. In Zulaika's text it takes on a life of its own, "thinking" or "beginning" to do something, "interested" in something else, "pretending" always to be right. But its exact content remains vague.

It is not until we reach page 201 that we are told that "a cornerstone of counterterrorist thinking is that you should never negotiate with terrorists". Another counterterrorist premise is that the forces of terrorist evil must be vanquished by whatever means. A little later he refers to "the very premises of counterterrorist culture - notions such as 'war', 'terrorism', 'insurgency', 'evil', 'secrecy', 'victory'..." Since Zulaika invokes all the errors of US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan as products of counterterrorism, the reader may have a sense that he is constructing a counter-fantasy figure to match the imaginary terrorist of what he calls "terrorism discourse".

The most crucial issues in terrorism discourse, for Zulaika, are its self-fulfilling nature and its ignorance. The mantra "not if, but when" the next attack will occur, demonstrates for him not realism about the impossibility of preventing terrorist action, but the paranoid need for an enemy. For him, counterterrorism goes looking for terrorists and inevitably finds them. But it cannot understand them - and will not. Holding that "counterterrorism's ignorance of the languages, cultures and histories of the people it purports to monitor is proverbial", he finds the explanation in a deliberate refusal to know, a "passion for ignorance". This almost mystical idea may be a step too far for some readers. Some of the examples he cites - such as the failure to grasp that Saddam Hussein was bluffing about having weapons of mass destruction - equally fit the model of good old-fashioned intelligence system failures long predating the obsession with terrorism.

This book pleads urgently for the sort of understanding delivered in Zulaika's own remarkable work, Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament (2000). But whether his hope of "shattering the very premises of counterterrorist culture" is answered will depend on whether his targets recognise themselves in it - indeed, whether they read it at all. The likelihood is, sadly, that they will not.

Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

By Joseba Zulaika

University of Chicago Press 288pp, £40.50 and £14.00

ISBN 9780226994154 and 4161

Published 4 December 2009

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