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  • Terrorism for the Sake of Counterterrorism:Undercover Policing and the Specter of the Agent Provocateur in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent
  • Michael C. Frank (bio)


Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, The Secret Agent became “one of the three works of literature most frequently cited in the American media” (Shulevitz). In the face of a seemingly incomprehensible occurrence, for which no precedent existed in the historical memory of the American nation, journalists and critics turned to literature, and Joseph Conrad’s classic novel was, perhaps, an obvious choice, given its canonical status. The rise in interest in The Secret Agent was not limited to the United States. While the attention of the world public remained focused on international terrorism and the wars launched to fight it, The Secret Agent acquired “a kind of cult status as the classic novel for the post-9/11 age,” as The New York Times observed (Reiss). In a 2005 survey of international English-language newspapers and magazines published since 9/11, Peter Mallios counted over one hundred references to The Secret Agent, many of which emphasized the novel’s prophetic qualities and topicality. “Such are the good fortunes of a novel,” Mallios commented, “whose plot to bomb the Greenwich Observatory and ‘terroristic’ cast of characters have offered themselves so suggestively to the post-World Trade Center global imaginary” (155).

In the present article, I want to argue that The Secret Agent has indeed gained new relevance, but that this relevance goes beyond the fact that the novel features a (failed) attack on a symbolically significant target, a motif that may already be found in Robert Louis and Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson’s little-discussed The Dynamiter (1885) as well as in a host of other “dynamite novels” of the turn of the century (Melchiori; Frank; Ó Donghaile). Joseph Conrad was not alone among contemporaries to explore terrorist mentalities, tactics, and objectives, and several lesser-known texts display far more striking analogies with the [End Page 151] events of 9/11 than does his novel. The most arresting illustration of this is the frontispiece to E. Douglas Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City (1893), which shows the tumbling of Big Ben, “the great tower” (144), after the Palace of Westminster has been bombed (from the air!) by a band of pan-European anarchists. What distinguishes Conrad’s fictionalization of terrorism from such other, more spectacular scenarios is the fact that it exploits the imaginative potential of counterterrorism. While Conrad acknowledges the destabilizing effects of terrorism on British society, his novel implies that the true source of these effects is not the threat of terrorism per se; it is the way that threat undermines the status quo by eliciting new, formerly illegal measures in the name of counterterrorism. When the alleged protectors of the social order begin to operate clandestinely, deliberately pushing the limits of legality, then their actions have more damaging consequences than any dynamite explosion.

One of the great narrative ironies of Conrad’s novel is that the Greenwich bombing is supposed to look like an act of terrorism, but that it really is a perverse act of counterterrorism instigated by state actors. The irony was lost on several American commentators in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. On September 12, 2001, a fiercely patriotic editorial by the conservative National Review explained that the 9/11 attacks were an act of war, motivated solely by the fact that the United States “are powerful, rich, and good,” and that military retaliation was the only appropriate response (“At War”). For reasons known only to themselves, the authors were reminded of the invasion of the Roman Empire by Gothic tribes as well as the plot of Conrad’s novel:

Like the temples of Rome sacked by the barbarians, or the Greenwich Observatory that was the target of anarchists in Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, our national headquarters and totems excite the fear and wrath of those in the world who feel themselves shortchanged.

(“At War”)

As Judith Shulevitz noted two weeks later, this is an almost comic instance of “Conrad-mangling.” The National...


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pp. 151-177
Launched on MUSE
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