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The Funny Thing About… Terrorism?

American writer Lionel Shriver stunned the literary establishment with her breakthrough novel. Now she’s rolling out a new book with a surprising premise: is terrorism … funny? By REBECCA HODES.

Lionel Shriver’s breakthrough book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, is a novel about a teenage boy capable of terrible acts. The novel’s brilliance lies in the tension it holds between opposing origins of Kevin’s psychopathy. Does he turn bad because his mother doesn’t love him, or because his genetic makeup and social circumstances annihilated his empathy for others, and inspired him to seek infamy through Burgessian acts of ultraviolence? And does his mother not love him because she was inveigled into childbearing to prop up the happiness of her partner, or because Kevin’s nature has trumped all the nurturing she can muster as a sclerotic career woman?

Shriver’s exploration of the interior architecture of violence struck a chord with millions of readers. The success of the book propelled her to bestseller lists across the globe, and enabled the publication of her most recent novel, The New Republic. This book was written in 1998, but kept on ice by its publishers because one of its key themes – terrorism – was regarded as generally uninteresting for the global fiction market. After 9/11, the issue of terrorism became much more interesting to readers, but Shriver’s irreverent treatment of the subject meant even more reticence from her publishers.

The book has now been published to scathing reviews, not the least because of its treatment of terrorism as a subject worthy of humour and wry derision. In Shriver’s discussions of the book at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, as well as at other events in Johannesburg , she contextualized her treatment of terrorism within her experience as a journalist living in Ireland in the mid-1980s. Here she experienced firsthand the terrorist tactics of the Irish Republican Army, whose leaders she described to her Cape Town audience as “arrogant bullies.” From Shriver’s perspective, living conditions in Northern Ireland simply had not justified the killing of civilians in IRA attacks.

These remarks elicited strong reactions from audience members who objected to Shriver’s treatment of terrorists as too “hard-line” and condemnatory. An audience member in Cape Town challenged Shriver on the morality of terrorism, citing the example of the African National Congress as a “terrorist” movement that had brought about the fall of Apartheid. In her response, Shriver acknowledged that, if ever there were a case to justify terrorism, the objective to end Apartheid was one. She went on to acknowledge the problem inherent in cherry-picking scenarios in which terrorism would be justified, in light of the near-universal notions of collective oppression and grievance.

In the revealing exchange between Shriver and a Cape Town audience member, the crucial issue of perception was elided. The ANC may have been perceived as a terrorist movement by its political opponents, but the historical record shows that its strategies construed as terrorist were focused on the destruction of edifices of state power and property, not, as in the case of terrorist movements such as Al Qaeda, on the killing of civilians. In the instances in which civilians were killed as the result of acts of anti-Apartheid terrorism – the St. James massacre, the bombing of shopping malls and churches – these were portrayed by leaders of the anti-Apartheid struggle as mistakes and aberrations, deviations from their resistance protocols which were based primarily on broad-based organisation that emphasized non-violence, debate, accountability and consensus.

Terrorism did not bring about the demise of the Apartheid state. Rather, as Tom Lodge has shown in his extensive analyses of ANC politics, it was a combination of popular participation in the United Democratic Front (principally in the form of non-violent protest), the organization of the trade unions and South Africa’s fiscal crisis that led ultimately to Apartheid’s fall.

In explaining her treatment of terrorism in The New Republic, Shriver argued for the importance of laughter and ridicule as means of opposing tyranny — because things become a lot less scary when they are funny.

“Terrorism works,” Shriver said, because our imaginations comply with our fears. It is for this reason that terrorists target public places – a beach resort in Kenya, a nightclub in Jakarta, a train in Madrid. The ubiquity of the threat renders our fear perpetual and their demands immediate and all-consuming. How are we to remain safe? By complying with what the terrorists demand, chief among which (as with the response of Islamist fundamentalists to the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed) is not to be mocked. 

There are two aspects to the public response to Shriver’s treatment of terrorism in her latest novel, as conveyed by numerous remarks from her South African audiences and her newspaper critics, that are jarring. The first is a sense from the audience that, in some cases, terrorism is justified. The second is that terrorists should never be made fun of, that their work is outside of the realms of irony, parody and ridicule, which pushes it into the sphere of the sacred and unimpeachable.

In the first case, proponents would argue that the “collateral damage” resulting from certain acts of terrorism, that is, the killing of civilians, is justified in the pursuit of certain political aims. The central question here, as addressed by Shriver in her discussion, is: at which point would the line for the justification of terrorism be drawn? If a few innocent lives are lost in the making of an important political point, is this sufficient justification? Are those lives adequately expendable to justify their loss, if a wider aim of an organization of oppressed persons is realized? If we condone certain terrorist acts because we believe they are committed on behalf of a cause that is just and right, are we not merely condoning a message which is the principal tenet of authoritarianism, that those who control the means of force in a society, are those who wield ultimate power?

In the second instance, a question is posed about the role of satire in opposing fundamentalism. Evidence here remains anecdotal. In the mid 1930s Charlie Chaplin made a film that parodied Hitler. His histrionic mockery was relished by audiences across the Atlantic, but the film was never screened in Germany to audiences in the early thrall of Nazi tyranny. Had the film been shown to these audiences, what potential impact could they have had on loosening the Nazi stranglehold on German society?

Similarly within the context of South Africa during the 1980s, the effect of Pieter Dirk Uys’s mockery of P. W. Botha’s finger-toting demagogy may be impossible to measure in terms of its impact on discrediting the National Party, but surely this performance did damage to Botha’s gravitas as a public figure?

There is a tendency in public commentary in South Africa, evident in the responses of audience members to Shriver’s discussion of terrorism, to give too much credence to the supposed revelatory powers of violence. That people have been humiliated is interpreted, after Fanon and Sartre, as an adequate justification for vengeance. Violent actions, terrorism even, help to destroy the oppressed and the people they oppress at the same time – to birth a new generation of freedom fighters. According to this argument, political violence becomes easy to justify, with terrorism as an extreme form, perhaps its purest incarnation. This argument has found a comfortable resting place within South African public discourse due to our awareness and opposition to neocolonialism in Africa. It has been become fused with a widespread mistrust of U.S. foreign policy and opposition to the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what this leads to inexorably in our public discourse is a knee-jerk defense of violence and, in its extreme form, terrorism.

Instead of becoming locked into arguments on the morality of terrorism, we should be searching for new ways of asserting human value and subverting tyranny – including through the devices of humour and ridicule. Rather than calls for greater or less condemnation of violence and terrorism, the focus should be on the complex ways in which violence dehumanizes both victims and perpetrators. DM

Rebecca Hodes is a historian based at the Institute for the Humanities in Africa and a research associate at the Centre for Social Science Research, University of Cape Town.


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