The following are questions Louise Norlie and I asked ourselves after the completion of our short fiction Why I Did It, A Terrorist Manifesto. In part, we want to clarify our position on the subject of terror, terrorism, and violence. Our questions and answers are responses to unpublished comments accusing us of being hate-filled and ignorant about politics and religion, among other things. Granted, neither of us are political professionals or deeply versed in theology. The main reason these comments went unpublished is that none commented on the fiction itself, they were mere attacks on Louise and I as people. If they mentioned the story at all, they had a chance of being seen on this site; however, because they were only interested in our limitations as people, not as writers, they have been sent to the “delete permanently” Hell of the blogosphere.
All we set out to do was tell a story. Strong responses mean that we wrote something powerful.
Although titled "Why I Did It," there is relatively little description of what this character actually did; why?
Charm: The short answer is that the title is WHY, not WHAT. Although in one of the poem sections we hint at some of WHAT he did. I think that the decision to elide any kind of in depth description of his terrorist acts is in opposition to the standard writing mantra “show don’t tell.” This is a manifesto, after all. What the aim was, was to elucidate the events and reasoning behind why a person might feel driven to commit mass murder in the form of terror and not necessarily articulate those events themselves. If we want to see terror, we need only turn on any major news broadcast and wait about five minutes
L.N.: The character himself takes little interest in the unfolding of the acts themselves. Furthermore, descriptions of terrorism don’t live up to images of terrorism.
Why was so much time taken to construct this character’s biography; i.e. his childhood and parents, his early school experience, relationships, etc.?
L.N.: This part of the narrative is meant to be unsettling although not conclusive in understanding the character. He chooses to explain what he wants to remember, perhaps partly from a need to rationalize his decisions. It’s up to the reader to decide to what degree these experiences would compel such a terrorist’s actions. Certainly, many people have had similar bad experiences and did not become terrorists.
Charm: The character’s background is essential. It is lengthy because a history is being established: a history of disaster, failure, and torment. This history eventually leads up to the point when the character decides to break with his own history and become a terrorist. Breaking with history is catalysed by the event of his parent’s death; in general, it is necessary to break with one’s own history in order to change — it is also a supremely difficult thing to do. Not only is “history an erogenous zone,” it is one that structures the mass of one’s symbolic order. However, it is also evident that however much history determines, the truly human subject can choose precisely what he or she will allow history to determine.
Do you consider this character’s actions to be heroic? Cowardly?
Charm: I think that when we first started to write this story I had the idea that this character would be some kind of hero … Now, however, he seems less heroic and more nihilistically tragic. Not only is he doomed to desire evil, he is under compulsion to commit evil – while at the same time being the victim of incredible evil. His imprisonment is the triumph of evil over evil! The term “anti-heroic” seems too melodramatic and cliché to apply to a character like this; I mean, let’s face it: he is killing people for the sake of revenge and the little amount of satisfaction it affords him. I don’t necessarily consider his actions cowardly either though — it takes an extreme amount of effort and will to be able to pull off acts of terror like the ones he commits (and the ones that are committed by actual terrorists for that matter) — if they are anything, they are misguided but they are not cowards.
L.N.: Neither heroic or cowardly. Where heroism is concerned, he doesn’t fight for any cause — although he is aware of all the external motivations for terrorism — and the narrative doesn’t show whether his actions served an unintended cause. Even his puritanical aspects… “I do not drink or do drugs” … lack a sense of sacrifice. He is doomed to desire evil, but at the same time, he believes he chose it freely. He “does not want to be different”.
The character is named “Dupin,” presumably after Poe’s famous detective. The narrator mentions several authors and genres of literature he is interested in and has read. What, if any, were the major influences on you while writing this piece?
Charm: Certainly Marx’s Communist Manifesto, of which the title is a play on though the story has little or no resemblance to Marx’s work. Michel Houellebecq’s Platform was also in my mind while writing it. Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen and Slovoj Zizek’s Violence were also very important inspirational pieces. The mention of true crime novels is purely an invention on part of the character; I’ve never actually read one of these novels.
L.N.: Zizek’s Violence was key for me, although no theory from it was directly applied here. Dostoevsky was also in the back of my mind. After all, Smerdyakov (from Brothers Karamazov) can be seen as a terrorist. Smerdyakov’s childhood contains violent episodes and rejection. Smerdyakov also manages to get away with murder. The question of why he did it is the most fascinating aspect of the novel.
The character’s relationship with his mother is frequently mentioned in his childhood memories. Is she meant to be sympathetic or hostile to him?
L.N.: Neither one trusts the other on some level. He does not comprehend how she seems to have two sides. If she notices that he is having problems, she does not pursue them, or he wants to believe that she does not. Similarly, in his adulthood, he has mixed sympathy and contempt for abused women.
Charm: The relationship between the narrator and his mother, though I don’t think we intended it to “mean” anything more than what it is, is certainly two-sided. However, if we reflect on the relationship on the mother-child relationship in general and look at some of the general trends of our times, I do think that our narrator’s relationship with his mother is somewhat typical. Since the so-called sexual revolution, the Freudian dynamic between mother and child has changed. The mother’s role, according to Freud was not only to provide sustenance (the breast petit objet a) but also to provide love. Mothers still probably provide the same amount and quality of “love” to the child, but the state of subjectivity has passed from “I am hungry” (one of Freud’s subjective necessities) to “I am afraid” [this line of reasoning taken from Zizek’s Living at the End Times]. So: although the narrator does love his mother – and father, for that matter – he is equally afraid of them, their actions, their attitude toward him, the uncertainty regarding them. To take it one step further, today, we are not really afraid of losing our lives – we are more afraid of losing our livelihood, that is, the means to sate our hunger.
Also, as LN mentions, in his adulthood the character’s attitude toward women is ambiguous. On the one hand, he desires them; on the other, he conjectures that their desire is based on wanting men who are seemingly the opposite of his own person. This opposition is only on the surface because although he is neither cowardly or brutal, he intentionally commits acts of violence against large groups of people. This kind of violence is not a display of “power” per se, the kind of power brute physical force that might attract a woman. It is of a radically different order: the power to destroy without any hesitation, to kill indiscriminately without any remorse (even genocides single out a target, “kill only these, not these”).
Does your story imply, in part, that people become terrorists based on bad experiences in their lives, rather than simply for ideological reasons?
L.N. The “aesthetic of terror” does attract the so-called “disaffected,” but to oppose “ideological” with “personal” reasons is inadequate. As Zizek writes in In Living in the End Times, there may not really be pure, non-ideological reasons to begin with.
Charm: Certainly one’s life experiences affect the way one attains being in the world. However, as LN mentioned before, not everyone with similar experiences to, let’s say, our narrator, will turn out to be a terrorist. Here is where the ideological dimension intervenes, along with a purely personal application of individual will. Even if one’s ideology inclines one to terror, this does not necessarily mean one will commit acts of terror. In a sense, terror is about willing ideology as opposed to mere praxis; it takes a tremendous amount of energy to plan and execute any kind of major terrorist act.
The character, although not a religious terrorist per se, has a healthy respect / reverence for religion; however, the reasons he gives for perpetrating acts of terror are decidedly anti-religious and apolitical. Does this put him more in the category of other terrorists like the UNABOMBER? A “lone-wolf” terrorist so to speak?
Charm: Our character seemingly differentiates himself from such terrorists with the intellectual apparatus he uses to explain his actions. He is surely a lone-wolf terrorist, he himself admits to being such. However, he does acknowledge that he has “partners” right from the beginning too: those who are “in spirit” in support of his cause. Also, later on in the story, he acknowledges as his “brothers and sisters” those who are victims of the crimes of society: individuals, through no intention or fault of their own, are injured and failed by the system’s “winners.”
His interest in religion is, I would say, more of an escape from reality than anything. He is consoled by the service at mosque and by the fantastic possibility of an afterlife, even if he believes such a thing does not exist.
L.N.: But considering his respectful interest in religion, he confounds an easy classification. He acts alone, but likes to think that he is supported by others, albeit distantly. He also lacks the egotistical delusions that characterize most other lone wolves, unless his reference to those with him “in spirit” is seen as a delusion.
Is there meant to be a connection between the state-sponsored violence described by the character and the violence he personally experiences in his childhood?
Charm: There is a “trickle down” effect of violence, in that the state exercises violence upon the general population and this translates into classroom / schoolyard violence. The “bullies” and the “teachers” are both empowered in a sense that gives them a kind of “right” to use violence, even if this right is a fabrication concocted by its creators to excuse their own (mis)behavior. Violence experienced as a child is translated into the subtle, bureaucratic violence experienced as an adult. By “subtle” I mean the kind of violence we see done to victims of bad social policy, people who wait in line for years for affordable housing, individuals who are chronically “hardcore unemployable,” etc. Even though it is not anyone’s “responsibility” to care for such people, the state that ignores these problems or that delegates them to an endless chain of bureaucracy commits a slow violence, almost like torture.
Is the character doing “the wrong thing, for the right reason.”?
Charm: I do feel that there is some positivity in the act of terror if not its consequences. The positivity being simply a proof that rage is not dead. Although it is difficult to say what “the right thing” is, random terror solves nothing: it merely adds to the already disastrous heap of negativity. However, the narrator is not interested in social change, so his actions are not limited to the categories of “right” and “wrong.”
L.N.: His reasons are mixed; his personal sense of rage and his personal history of violation aren’t “right reasons” to murder innocent people. Because random terrorism only causes the state to exercise additional violence on the population in the form of controlling and intrusive security measures, his actions are counterproductive.
What do we consider to be the relationship, if any, between terror and revolution?
Charm: Historically the two have been linked. However, terror in history was always linked to movements, whereas today it seems “random.” School shootings of which there are several (e.g. Columbine, Virginia Tech., Marc Lepine in Montreal, etc.) seem to epitomize the acts of random violence that masquerade as terror. Also, the phenomena of road rage also correlates to the disintegration of mobilized and organized collective rage into individual “atomized” forms of violence. The only exception to the phenomena of terror in the form of atomized violence is the state-funded “war on terror,” and the so-called religious terror — two highly organized efforts.
L.N.: Movements hearken back to the “dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics”. “Atomized” violence — Charm has put this perfectly — does not achieve anything other than the creation of spectacles. These random, seemingly purposeless convulsions are isolated and put in their place, and the act of controlling them is likewise a spectacle. Atomized violence can be seen as the death throes of more organized revolutionary movements.
To what degree do you believe that the aesthetic of terror attracts people to its “higher causes”?
L.N. Very strongly. The character himself gives states that “religious terrorism was the ultimate rebellion and transgression”. He of course does not believe in any higher cause, but likes how the aesthetics set him apart. I do feel, however, that aesthetics will not be enough to sustain the “higher causes” in the long run.
Charm: Jihadi Cool and Not Your Father’s Taliban … these are two articles which describe the opposite sides of the aesthetics of terrorism and their supposed “higher causes.” The former article is to be taken seriously, the latter is humorous, but still onto something. I would actually call the “higher causes” of terrorism lost causes, and I think that our narrator acknowledges them as such by rejecting religion as the basis for his actions.
What are the alternatives to terrorism, if any?
L.N. There are alternatives, I believe. There have to be. I don’t see terrorism, at least in its current manifestation, as effective. The destruction of innocents is not justified by the “higher causes” of terrorism, especially considering that for reasons already cited, positive outcomes are unlikely to be achieved by terrorist actions.
Charm: I think that non-violence can only achieve so much — which is to say: very little. Perhaps assassinations would be effective, but this would only attack the place-holder of power, not the institution of power itself. Sabotage is a method of terror which does not necessarily involve injuring people or the taking of life. For example, when a “democratic election” is held, the polling station could be sabotaged in order to subvert the regime of “tyranny of the majority.”
The one form of “non-violent resistance” that I would advocate is the Bartleby style of passivity. The only problem with this approach to changing the social structure is that it relies on waiting for change, not actively creating change — or, perhaps, by actively waiting for change to happen. Kafka’s parable on Christ is here instructive: waiting for the resurrection will only ensure that it comes a day too late.