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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 191-199

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Reflections and Reports

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Counterterrorism

Joseba Zulaika

In the 1980s Brian Jenkins, the doyen of terrorism experts, predicted that "we could see a doubling of terrorism by the end of the decade." 1 As it happened, during the four years from 1989 to 1992, terrorism did not cause a single fatality in the United States. The more remarkable fact was, however, that during those four years with no single terrorism case, American libraries catalogued, according to the OCLC WorldCat Database, 1322 new book titles under the rubric "terrorism" and 121 under "terrorist." The obvious question at the time was: How could a discursive machine provide the ammunition necessary to sustain an entire industry based on a phenomenon that was both the ultimate threat to civilization and statistically almost absent? What amount of self-fulfilling prophecy was required for the real thing to make its appearance in the United States?

Let us not forget that, regarding terrorism, those blissful 1980s—can anyone remember one single terrorist event in the United States during the entire decade?—were also the years in which the Reagan administration labeled terrorism its major international problem. At times, over 80 percent of Americans regarded terrorism as an "extreme" danger. In April of 1986, a national survey showed that terrorism was "the number one concern" for Americans. 2 Nobody remembers who they were, but statistics say that during the period from 1980 to 1985, acts of terrorism killed seventeen people in the United States. These fewer than three terrorist fatalities a year proved, of course, far more threatening to national security than the 25,000 "ordinary" murders occurring annually during the same years. Now one [End Page 191] might say that terrorism during the Reagan period was "a sideshow got up as major theater," to use the words of John Le Carré applied to espionage after the end of the cold war. Yet even at that time terrorism was perceived as the ultimate threat. Such power assigned to terrorism's "reality effect" recalls the "referential illusion" of modernist literature's realist aesthetics, by which "the very absence of the signified . . . becomes the very signifier of realism." 3

But the true reality effect would finally come in 1993 with the bombing of the World Trade Center (WTC). "Is this a new day in American politics?" Dan Rather asked on the CBS Evening News to the politician on camera, followed by the commentary, "For the first time, we are vulnerable to foreign terrorists." In 1995 the Oklahoma City bombing further dispelled any doubts as to whether terrorism in the United States was for real. Oh, yes, the experts had been prescient all along. Terrorists were always lurking there in the dark.

But were they? To put it bluntly, were Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman and Timothy McVeigh our natural-born, archterrorist enemies, or were they rather, to a significant degree, the products of our own counterterrorism practices? It is no secret, for a start, that Sheik Omar was recruited by the CIA and came to this country with visas repeatedly provided by the agency. Robert Friedman reached the following conclusion in an article entitled "The CIA's Jihad": "The CIA has inadvertently managed to do something that America's enemies have been unable to: give terrorism a foothold in the United States." 4 Sheik Omar was confined to a New York prison on conspiracy charges, which, according to a New York Times editorial, "only required [the government] to prove the intention to wage a terror campaign" and in which "only the sketchiest connections [were] established between Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and the alleged mastermind of that crime, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef." 5

As for the lone McVeigh, not only does the nature of his terrorism not fit any classical definition of the phenomenon (typically, a member of an armed group practicing psychological terror for the sake of furthering some political agenda), but more important, the basic references of his plot were all provided by the dominant terrorism discourse in the United States. His shooting targets...


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pp. 191-199
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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