Terror scholar explores a dark fictional world

By Andrew Stone

Professor of peace studies uses character called the Professor to question West's reaction to terrorism.

In Richard Jackson's book about a terrorist, sections of text are covered by heavy black lines. Annotations are written in page margins and translations of Egyptian colloquialisms appear as footnotes.

The format is deliberate: the novel, an interrogation by a British Army captain - a spook with MI5 - of an Egyptian suspected terrorist known as the Professor, takes the form of a classified transcription prepared for a public inquiry into a terror plot. It is presented as a raw, redacted draft document, replete with high-level instructions of what may or may not be permitted to see daylight.

So on page 78 of Confessions of a Terrorist, someone with the initials GH complains: "I hate reading this - laying out all his dirty linen - like he's talking to a damn shrink ... does it really need to be included in the public record? Can we get away with expunging it?"

Author Jackson says: "It's meant to replicate the record of a formal interview. In many ways it reflects my experience of living in the UK and talking to counter-terrorist officials.

They're aware of the slipperiness of things they say about terrorists and that public appearance is very important.

"Part of the conceit of the novel is that it takes the form of a document that is going to be released to an inquiry," Jackson explains. "So they are being careful to massage its contents to create the right impression. The entire legitimacy of the counter-terrorism effort depends on this maintenance of public support, and they're (the mysterious GM and his colleagues) worried that the Professor's unmediated explanation of his motivation might overturn public support for the policy."

In his day job, Jackson, 47, is a professor of peace studies at Otago University. He has written academic books about terrorism and more than 50 journal articles. His novel, published in May, is his first fictional account of the world of terror.

Professor Richard Jackson.
Professor Richard Jackson.

So why the jump from scholarly inquiry to the imaginary sphere? Partly, explains Jackson, because he couldn't find an account to recommend to his Dunedin students at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, where he directs research. But he had deeper reasons, too.

"As academics we're locked into communicating through peer review, journal articles, specialist research. I wanted a way to convey what I've learned about terrorism, the motivations which drive it, the reasons they do it in a way that would grab people."

He adds: "A story can be much more affecting than a statistic."

The Professor in Jackson's novel spends much of his interrogation goading his British captors about the West's policies towards the Middle East and the Third World, arguing that politics - and not religion, ideology or some innate evil - drives militancy and terror reprisals. One challenge sets up the trajectory of Jackson's novel, with the Professor taunting his inquisitor: "Who is the real terrorist in this room?"

Jackson says the English-speaking world is bombarded "with the idea that terrorism is pure evil ... that it is incomprehensible and pointless violence, that it lacks any ethical or moral basis [and is] the opposite of the kind of violence we do."

So pervasive is the narrative, Jackson argues, that the West has accepted with little dissent the need to torture terror suspects, to use drones against enemy targets, to detain individuals without trial and to seize people against their will and take them to secret destinations in the process known as rendering.

"We accept it because we're conditioned to believe that terrorists are truly evil people ... it's impossible to imagine that they may have valid reasons to fight back against us."

Jackson considers terrorists are in a way the flip-side of Greenpeace activists. While their methods differ, their approaches often are illegal, confrontational and direct. What they shared were political objectives.

In the course of his career, Jackson says he has interviewed a number of terrorists, besides rubbing shoulders with those expected to lock them up.

One was former IRA member Patrick Magee, convicted for his part in the deadly 1984 Brighton bombing in the UK. Magee was sentenced to eight life sentences for the atrocity, but freed under the Good Friday Agreement in 1999. Magee now advocates reconciliation with Jo Berry, whose father died in the Brighton blast.

Jackson says the rhetoric of the Professor in his novel reflects what he heard.

"When you talk to terrorists you find they are not fanatically irrational disturbed people. They're actually idealists. We may disagree with their methods and the life they've chosen and their belief in the necessity of violence but they don't do that unthinkingly."

"With my character [the Professor], it's not so much does he exist as could he exist? And if he could, then what does that say about Western policy and the so-called war on terror?"

A pacifist, Jackson was born in Livingstone, a town in Zambia beside the Victoria Falls, where his father was a missionary. Across the border lay what was then Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe - where a war of independence was raging. As a teenager Jackson says he was dragged from a bus at a military roadblock and feared he would be executed. At that point he says he experienced "the moral abyss of war" where there was no law, rules or protection, just arbitrary violence.

Jackson edits a UK-based journal dedicated to researching terrorism and influencing public debate. He admits it has fallen short of its goal, even though he senses a public scepticism about terror policies. "That's dispiriting and in a way it's what drove me to take this approach. If politicians are not prepared to take a more nuanced view then perhaps we should go more directly to the public to reach a wider audience."

Confessions of a Terrorist, by Richard Jackson (Zed Books, May publication)

- NZ Herald

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