"Talk to a McVeigh?"
Joseba Zulaika and William A. Douglass
Zulaika and Douglass are Professors in the Department of Basque Studies, University of Nevada at Reno and the authors of Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables, and Faces of Terrorism (Routledge, 1996). Zulaika received an HFG grant for research on Basque violence.
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On April 21, 1995, a Friday, we were at the Carter Center in Atlanta in the company of the coordinator of the Basque pacifist group Elkarri. After months of waiting, the Conflict Resolution team had decided to grant us a meeting. The issue: the possibility that the Carter Center might play a mediating role facilitating negotiations between the Basque separatist group ETA and the Spanish government. After a two-hour-long meeting it seemed that we were being taken seriously. We were, after all, self-appointed representatives of a minority group, the Basques, whose conflict was insignificant in comparison to the ones that the Carter Center had dealt with during the previous year--North Korea, Haiti, Bosnia. Still, we were getting a serious hearing, and we were elated.

As we left the meeting, the center's receptionist handed us a fax. It was from a major university press, where our manuscript on the discourse of terrorism was pending final editorial-board approval. After a four-year-long review and revision process, it had finally satisfied the demands of the critical readers, and publication had been deemed by the editor to be virtually certain. Yet now he was worried and his fax forecast trouble in the editorial board's impending meeting.

The Oklahoma City bombing had occurred two days earlier and emotions were running high. The board meeting could not have come at a worse time. The editor was correct, since the editorial board, after a heated discussion, decided to defer its decision until its next monthly meeting. In the interim each member was to read a chapter of the troublesome manuscript. When they convened a month later, nine of the twelve board members voted against publication. Kaput!

The editor, saddened by the most unusual rejection, informed us of the reasoning of the board members. One charge stood out: the final chapter ("Faces of Terror and Laughter"), where we talk of torture and the need to contemplate the face of the Other, was particularly problematic for the board members. In this chapter, in line with our relentless assault upon tabooing terrorism, we present the ethnographic instance of a town meeting in which a community of "terrorists" had openly debated their differences concerning Basque violence and had taken responsibility for the killings in their neighborhood; by espousing Levinas's radical ethics, we confront the reader with the killer's face and the absolute alterity of the Other. The board members ridiculed our approach with the scornful comment: "Talk to a McVeigh?" The very thought that one might find some legitimacy for talking to a McVeigh was apparently an unthinkable aberration for the members of the editorial board.

This refusal to buy into such a preposterous proposal by two anthropologists was obviously done in the name of high standards of ethical and intellectual responsibility. The board decided that we were contaminated by our interaction with terrorists, that we showed "solidarity" with them, that we even had a "political agenda." By denying publication to our manuscript they were performing an act of moral integrity. Yet we want to suggest that the opposite argument can be made: that behind the board's moral zeal and self-claimed objectivity one can observe all the dangerous pitfalls of a deep-seated mythology.

If the board members' judgment was fair and just, then it is equally relevant to proclaim "Talk to ETA?" to be both preposterous and immoral. Consequently, by logical extension, our initiative at the Carter Center, which sought to effect a negotiated (i.e., "talked out") settlement between ETA and its adversaries, was ill-advised, erroneous, even immoral. "Talk to ETA, indeed!" Since the manuscript presented to the press provides the intellectual and moral grounds for de-tabooing terrorism, as well as for our practical guidance in the peace-making initiative with the Carter Center, the inference is that both our theory and our practice are correspondingly erroneous. The moral alternative is obvious: either it is immoral for us to talk to terrorists or for our critics to refuse to do so.

Our book is precisely about the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the very policy of tabooization implied by the scornful question "Talk to a McVeigh?" We should ask what is so wrong about talking to McVeigh. Shouldn't his lawyer, for instance, talk to him? Were the media transgressing legitimate moral or legal bounds when they interviewed him? Shouldn't the police talk to McVeigh? The startling fact is that the board members were falling into the worst intellectual binds of the inquisitorial world view which seeks to demonize the Other so evident in the history of witchcraft and paranoid conspiracies such as McCarthyism. It is a perspective in which taboo and censorship are substituted for inquiry and dialogue in the name of superior morality. (Fortunately for us, the book contract we were unable to get from the university press in four years was offered by Routledge in four weeks.)

This policy of "not talking" with terrorists is not unique to editorial boards. Whether it is "the terrorist" Yasir Arafat or "the terrorist" Gerry Adams, the key approach of established governments has always been that no legitimacy (no access to dialogue) should be granted to them--that is, of course, until they are received at the White House by the president himself. Furthermore, the practice of "not talking" and demonization can lead to tragic consequences: witness Waco and Ruby Ridge--two events later invoked by McVeigh for his own actions. The counterterrorism agenda has always buttressed its discourse with large doses of moral indignation, yet it is abundantly clear that the very governments that are zealously engaged in eradicating the scourge of terrorism--Spain, Great Britain, Israel, Peru--have themselves engaged in actions which, according to their own definitions, fall clearly under the rubric of "terrorism." In typical irony, the Israeli arch-counterterrorist Netanyahu warned in an op-ed article in the New York Times, "Act Now Against the Terror Network," that "the West must confront the latest threat," published on the very day on which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by, as the columnist Thomas Friedman remarked, "a gunman whose politics are virtually identical with that of Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party and its allies in the Orthodox Jewish right."

In general, then, it is the policy of demonizing the Other for the sake of one's superior morality and truth that is the classic error leading to such disasters. They are chilling instances of the immorality of moralism. That the board members of a major university press could fail to see such connections and even scornfully rally around the slogan "Talk to a McVeigh?" is astonishing; their adherence to their own terrorist mythology could not be more apparent.

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