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  • Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh
Joseba Zulaika , Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 288 pp.

In Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Joseba Zulaika contends that a new way of talking about the world "took hold" of America during the 1970s. "The powers that be," which is Zulaika's shorthand for top office holders within the executive branch of the federal government, had not talked extensively about terrorism before then (although they spoke about assassinations, revolutionary violence, and kidnappings). At the twilight of the Cold War, they coined a new vocabulary for describing foreign conflict. They posited the existence of a subtype of human being ("the terrorist") who is defined by a total absence of normal moral restraint on his or her insatiable desire to kill and murder, who allegedly acts without any clear and viable political goal in mind, and who purportedly lacks interest in adjusting or moderating violent behavior.

This monstrous image, Zulaika argues, is largely fictitious. Consider the case of Basque political activist and former ETA member, "Yoyes." If we look closely at available biographical information, including memoirs, we [End Page 931] discover that real-world "terrorists," such as Yoyes, in fact have goals, are restrained in their use of violence, make moral decisions through painstaking reflection, and are capable of giving up the life of armed action and pursuing peaceful existence for the sake of other goals.

But empirical evidence, Zulaika argues, is no longer at issue because of the power of words. The words that humans ordinarily use, in fact, define the " reality" that they perceive and confront. Therefore, although it lacks an empirical referent, the linguistic monster " terrorism" has captured the imagination of US citizens—political leaders and political followers alike.

The term " terrorist," says Zulaika, first spread from one corner of the federal government—primarily the directors of covert operation within the Central Intelligence Agency—to other areas of the Executive Branch. It then was assimilated by members of the press, who were partly shamed, partly threatened, and, in other ways, cajoled by government officials into representing events as evidence of the presence of stereotypical terrorists. Newspapers and televisions, in turn, altered the speech and imagination of the public at large. Terrorism is now "the dominant tropic space" (18) in government, journalism, and ordinary life. A prescriptive corollary, the need to fight terrorism, has become " the central axiom of our political and ethical life" (220).

Part of the reason the new vocabulary caught the imagination of so many people is that it was fused with a longer-standing nightmare of nuclear war. Together, the two ideas create an emotionally powerful scenario about the inevitability of an apocalypse launched by intransigent terrorists with warheads at their disposal. Today, Americans assume that a large-scale attack by terrorists is inevitable. The question is not "if," but "when" (202).

The power of this scenario to scare millions of US citizens would be laughable if not for the fact that the conjoined ideas of terrorists and nuclear warheads have made almost all US citizens comfortable with the use of torture (in violation of international law), blanket bombing of civilians, and government surveillance at home. Fearful of being attacked by unprincipled terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, Americans support invasions and military occupations of other lands, assassinations of foreign leaders, and overthrows of suspicious regimes. Ironically, Zulaika argues, in the name of innocent self-protection, US citizens condone myriad cruel and unsavory actions that spawn rage toward the United States—as foreigners see their friends and family members arrested, demeaned, and mentally (if not physically) destroyed by US troops. Wishing to eliminate [End Page 932] imaginary monsters, the United States inadvertently creates the blind hatred and furious enemies that it had wanted to avoid.

Zulaika's book ends on an optimistic note. The political hole that the United States has dug for itself—with enemies multiplying on all sides and the threat of violence becoming a genuine problem—may lead opinion makers to re-examine their foundational notions. The impending international catastrophe may spur curiosity about how others live and think, and encourage a pragmatic approach to world...


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pp. 931-936
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