Terrorism, Torture, and the Problem of Evil in Our Time

31 Dec

Reading Confessions of a Terrorist: a novel by Richard Jackson (published by Zed Books, London & New York, 2014, $24.95, £16.99)


Richard Jackson, a professor of peace studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, has written a probing political essay that takes the form of an imagined dialogue between a British interrogator and an Egyptian terrorist who is apparently thought at the time of their conversation to be the mastermind of an imminent attack on Great Britain. Jackson is a well-regarded expert on the politics and tactics of terrorism and counterterrorism.


The novel complicates our understanding of such fundamental questions as ‘what is terrorism?’ ‘who are the terrorists?’ ‘when is violence justified?’ ‘is torture ever justified?’ ‘what is the proper balance between resistance and violence against the innocent?’ ‘is there an effective alternative to violence in conditions of foreign occupation? The motivation of those who choose violent resistance against various forms of oppression are depicted in a balanced and perceptive way, as well as the life choices made by individuals who forsake ‘normalcy’ to pursue radical political goals are sensitively explored.


There is a narrative line that keeps the reader engaged, and slightly disoriented. The text of the novel is presented to the reader in the format of an official government transcript replete with redactions and occasional italicized comments made by a higher ranking bureaucrat who recommends various deletions so as to avoid causing adverse impressions on politicians and public opinion. The interrogator acknowledges from time to time the validity of his captive’s arguments, but by contrast the commentary by the bureaucrat is totally devoid of affect, concerned only with saving face in the event of exposure, and has recourse to various devices to cover up any disclosures in the transcript that could prove awkward if exposed.


Part of what makes Confessions such an effective book is its non-judgmental tone that accepts this role-playing dynamic in which the two characters largely choose their respective ‘careers’ on the basis of their distinct social locations and individual experience. Neither is presented as morally superior to the other. Above all, morality and legality are sidelined by according priority to the higher callings of ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ by both characters—by the interrogating official and by the terrorist (addressed as ‘professor’ because he had been a professor economics in Egypt before joining the struggle). There is a spirit of mutual recognition, which occasionally lapses into an attitude of appreciation. Each person is responding to a challenging situation in an understandable manner, and yet each at the same time passes judgment on the dirty work of his counterpart. The interrogator is dragged through the counterterrorist mud by ‘the professor’ while the terrorist is humanized by linking his violent behavior to his deep experience of intolerable realities of inequality and oppression. In the end both men seem to coexist on a plane of ethical equivalence, with each destined to play out their part as if entrapped in a tragic drama. The tone of Confessions contrasts with American neocon Manicheanism, epitomized by the simplistic language of George W. Bush who insists that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ (and good) while their victims were ‘terrorists’ (and evil).


Jackson leaves readers on their own to contemplate the carnage and suffering caused by the actual encounters taking place in the real world, inevitably raising concerns as to whether there might be a better way to organize the collective life of the planet. In other words, can the characters in the novel escape from their assigned roles?


With nuclear weapons under the control of as many as nine governments and trends toward global warming showing few signs of abatement, the hegemonic and militarized dynamics of control and resistance seem dangerously precarious compulsions, threatening future catastrophe, and maybe even species annihilation. It seems to me that the sub-text of Confessions, if I am not (mis)reading is the question that haunted many of Jacques Derrida’s later reflections: are societies capable of finding ways to live together in peace and harmony? Not just to get along or cohabit, but to enjoy the reality of the other in sustainable and mutually satisfying ways. Even positing such an aspiration amid the turmoil and strife of our lifeworld strikes an irresponsibly utopian note. Perhaps, Jackson doesn’t want us to go there at all, but to stop short, and be content to decode what these archetypal adversaries of contemporary state/society relations are really saying and doing. If this is indeed the intention, we can thank Jackson for bestowing an excellent pedagogical tool that can serve us well in classrooms and life circumstances.


While the dialogue proceeds, there is also a drama of sorts mysteriously unfolding. It becomes unclear toward the end who is the prisoner of whom, and the entire plot thickens, raising the broad question as to which side has the upper hand in these titanic struggles of our time. In effect, is there ‘a right side’ of history that will eventually prevail, or are we forever doomed to be afflicted by the toxic dialectics of violence? The collapse of European colonialism suggests one kind of answer, but the rise of neoliberalcapitalism suggests another. These larger concerns are not addressed directly by this fundamental interplay between violence from below and violence from above, which is what our preoccupation with whether such a struggle can be restrained within limits (respecting prohibitions on torture, refraining from targeting schools and hospitals) or is inevitably controlled by revolutionary absolutes.


The decision to have the interrogator be British, not American, seems odd at first, appearing to divert attention from the core global encounter, but on further thought, there is a supporting rationale. The colonial background of Britain in the Middle East may be a more valid perspective than the more conventional focus on the post-colonial role being played by the United States throughout the world.


Whatever else, Jackson has written a page-turning and thought-provoking book, which is highly recommended to anyone perplexed by this incurable scourge of violence. Although its characters are invented and the dialogue imagined, the reading experience is uncomfortably closer to non-fiction than fiction. In this instance, the imagined world is the real world! You can get a fuller sense of Richard Jackson’s thinking by visiting his consistently intelligent blog <richardjacksonterrorismblog.wordpress.com> The foreign offices and intelligence services of the world should have been required to read his posts on ISIS, which might have encouraged some thinking outside the militarist box, which is long overdue.


20 Responses to “Terrorism, Torture, and the Problem of Evil in Our Time”

  1. rehmat1 December 31, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Different interested groups have different definition of “terrorism”. The common western definition is “whosoever wage an armed resistance to an occupation, is a terrorist”. IRA, ANC, Irgun, Hamas, Hizbullah, etc. all have been called “terrorists” in the beginning but some of them became “honorable guests” in the western world later on.

    John Feffer is a co-director of ‘Foreign Policy in Focus’, a US think tank. In his August 6, 2009 article titled “Their Martyrs and Our Heroes” wrote: “We have our suicide bombers – we call them heroes. We have our culture of indoctrination – we call it basic training. We kill civilians, we call it collatoral damage….We have been indoctrinated to view the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a legitimate military target and 9/11 as a heinous crime against humanity. We have been trained to see acts like the attack in Tripoli as American heroism and attack at USS Cole as rank barbarism (though carried out by Israeli agents). Explosive vest is a sign of exremism; Predator missiles, of advanced sensibility….. Remove the occupying force and the suicide missions would disappear. It is not a stretch, then, to conclude that we, the occupiers (the US, Russia, Israel), through our actions, have played a significant part in formenting the very suicide missions that we now find so alien and comprehensible in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine, Lebanon, and elsewhere…..The fact is: Were we to end our occupation policies, we would go a long way toward eliminating “their” suicide bombers. But when and how will we end our own cult of martyrdom?”

    Though John Feffer tried to paint the Zionist entity, Hamas and Hizb’Allah with same brush – the fact is that the great majority of suicide bombing on ‘ Israeli civilian targets’ – were Israeli false-flag operations to dehumanize Islamic resistance groups fighting Zionist fascism.

    Now let us read what Israeli scholar Rueven Paz wrote about West’s “Islamic terrorist organization”, Hamas, – for the most powerful pro-Israel think tank, ‘Council for Foreign Relations’ (CFR), published January 7, 2009: “Hamas devotes 90% of its work to providing social, cultural, and educational services. It has a reputation for honesty that distinguishes it from its main political rival, Fatah.”


    • Richard Falk January 1, 2015 at 8:18 am #

      Thanks for this important, instructive comment. HNY to you and others who active in
      this blog community.

      • Leopold Lovelace January 1, 2015 at 9:01 pm #

        Mr Rehmat1’s passionate criticism is understandable in terms of the different conflict and policy dimensions of this immense problem of world politics and world order, but it is also critically important to be precise on the terms of reference; the most authoritative definition of terrorism –not only at the international system level, but at the national systems level, where this definition is generally adopted, at least by democratic legal systems– is provided in Article 2 of the 1997 International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings [EIF May 23, 2001; with party states including Algeria, Brazil, China, Cuba, India, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela, Vietnam, besides most industrial democracies, incl. U.S., per Senate’s ratification of June 26, 2002]: “1. Any person commits an offense within the meaning of this Convention [a terrorist bombing] if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility: (a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or (b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss”. The negotiation of this provision was long and detailed, the aim was to address the issue with as little ideological interference as possible; the characteristics of the political systems and cultures of the nation states parties to the Convention show significant convergence on this goal, in some way a direct reflection of the general fundamental thrust of the contemporary body of jus in bello, or international humanitarian law, to reject the claims that the nature of the cause justifies the choice of means in conflict situations. I think this is one of the necessary ways forward to transform the value components of violence in the cultures of the world as well as in the emergent global culture of human rights.

      • Richard Falk January 2, 2015 at 10:41 am #

        A useful clarifying comment, but the approved definition if I read it correctly, excluded ‘state terrorism,’
        which misleading confers the high moral and legal ground to sovereign states.

      • Kata Fisher January 2, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

        I have a reflection:

        I understand that that particular part of the Law is then also partial and does not include another form(s) of terrorism (corporate forms), in essence. As terorisam can be individual and corporate, in essence.

        If so, then this Law is subject to modification (update) in order to meet current world-requirements when comes to the need for the individuals and /or states to lawfully defend them selfs from “state terrorism”. Killing of scientist, for an example, is also “state terrorism”.

        I heard people saying that Nicola Tesla was killed by US (CIA/secret agency’s), and his research and work was stolen by US-government…and somewhat returned (in form of papers) to wherever Nicola Tesla came from (he would have come from my people tribes / former Yugoslavia).

        If this is the case, US will be liable to be sued by the current governments of the former state from which Nicola Tesla immigrated. Was he American citizen, as well?

        And so would be the case with other scientists. With that, the governments who killed scientist would have to repair damages to the families, and also to the nation that lost human capital that was vested in the forms of expert-competencies.

        That is, ‎ the lost research and development of those scientists that individual governments either hog on for themselves, – or cut of for other governments.

        These are things that can be brought to ICC, as well between nations. Are they already — or there is a collective nose-stiff about it, and it does not happen? I do wonder.

        I do not celebrate too many of holidays — but I hope all of you will have “Ein Gutes Rutsch” into the History that is / Year 2015.


      • Kata Fisher January 2, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

        I just remembered what Monalisa has said — that former Nazis of Hitler were immigrated by US to US, for benefits to the state…such as scientist (or not even scientists?)

        Something likes that she has said elsewhere. I can’t fully recall it.

        But indeed, I do wonder what benefits did US get from Hitlers Nazi?

        When we think about “long-term” benefits to the state, in essence? Is this where all current nonsense is to be pinpointed from?

        If we exclude Azusa Street charismatic-disorder from the context (if at all this would be possible possible to dismiss religious satanism from the context of the specific historical problems?) I do not know that is.

      • Kata Fisher January 2, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

        I have another reflection:

        What is to be excluded from penalties of International Laws? Nazism?

        What are the errors of International Law’s in essence? Nazism?

        Am I wrong?

      • Kata Fisher January 2, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

        I have another Reflection:

        Call the evil by its name: Bloodline Nazism.

        It has tainted and penetrated everything, even the International Law.

  2. Brewer January 1, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

    Seasons greetings and best wishes for 2015.
    The journey that begins with the recognition that all is not as one has been led to believe in the Israel/Palestine conflict is long and leads to some unforseen destinations. As I reflect on my own journey during the past 30 years I find I have been forced to re-assess great swathes of History I had not previously questioned, re-define concepts I had previously thought fully resolved.
    John Le Carré’s novel “The little drummer girl” inspired my journey – a scenario in which the formerly incomprehensible suddenly becomes easily understood, even empathized with can turn History upside down. These days, when I read or hear the term “terrorism” I immediately treat the writer with healthy skepticism for, if there exist acts inspired by terror for its own sake, I have yet to know of one.
    Thirty years on there is little I find incomprehensible about the behaviour of the protagonists except perhaps the ability of Israel to hold ethnic cleansing, occupation mishpat (“justice”), tzedakah (“righteousness”), hesed (“kindness”), and rahamim (“compassion”) within the same moral scheme.
    Great writing is a potent force. Thanks for another signpost – I will now read Jackson (with special pride as a fellow Kiwi).

  3. rehmat1 January 2, 2015 at 5:36 pm #

    @ Kata Fisher

    Israel hasbara too had a reflection on Mona Lisa not long ago.

    On July 29, 2014, The Irish Times reported that Israeli embassy in Dublin has superimposed several of its paintings including Mona Lisa and Molly Malone with weaponry and tradition Muslim headscarves to justify Israeli bloodshed in Gaza Strip.

    Mona Lisa’s photo shows wearing Muslim “hijab” while holding Hamas rocket with Israeli warning: “Israel Now, Paris Next“.

    Molly Malone was shown as a Palestinian scarf-wearing “jihadi” with warning “Israel Now, Dublin Next“.


    • Kata Fisher January 2, 2015 at 6:43 pm #


      I never heard about hazbara or zionizam prior to showing up here. I do not know such things existed. It must be fiction.

      I was referring to Ms. Monalisa, a non-fiction character and an actual person that wrote about things here on this web-site. She mentioned things that I was reflecting on — just earlier.

      I am aware that different governments / states use different tactics — and quite frankly sick things to their sustainability.

      My actual name is not Kata Fisher –that name it’s actually a legal fiction. About legal fiction…

      My actual name is Kata Rosic — so I was born, and will remain.

      You see — you cant change who you are just by some legal fiction…so it is with hazbara or zionizam — whatever that is.

  4. Kata Fisher January 2, 2015 at 7:46 pm #


    I have a reflection about that article:

    This person from Saudi Arabia is in eternal existence of hell, and he will remain there unless he receives Baptism in God’s Spirit by ministry of celibate and Charismatic priest from Church in Rome. Send him a nuncio before he dies.

    This is why — he followed parts of the things in Holy Quran that were from the mind of a “False Prophet” — he applied (in works) undiscerned prophesy to himself, and with that has followed false things that were written down by someone else but Prophet Muhammed. In fact, things that were written down by a “false prophet”, and not Prophet Muhammed.

    Also, where are his daughters? Are they alive?

  5. Gene Schulman January 3, 2015 at 7:17 am #

    I would like to have commented on the novel based on Prof. Falk’s review, but it’s hard to get in a word edgewise, when Kata continues to occupy all the space. If I count correctly, seven out of the thirteen comments posted on this subject, so far, are by Kata, and they are the longest. She could save herself a lot of time and effort if she would just say that terrorism is in the eye of the beholder, torture is just plain wrong! Evil is the opposite of good.

    Nevertheless, a Happy New Year to all.

    • Kata Fisher January 3, 2015 at 10:15 am #

      Dear Gene,

      You will enjoy the year free of me 😀

      I just read this

      I had no reception earlier; I was in the mountains — B.G. and B.G. demands, Ishahhh

      I just got on to the running track this morning when my easy-going weekend / or timeless mess was messed up. B.G. & B.G mess — but I just can’t stop hearing things on and on and on..

      About time:

      I want to tell you a story about The Road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and I am exquisite at it. I write awesome stories about the Road from Jerusalem to Jericho – but writing about that here for you would be a waste of my time.

      You and B.G. sure know how to enjoy your

  6. Kata Fisher January 3, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    Intersting article:

    I hope to have a real good interpretation of this article — for I will claim not to understand it.


  7. Leopold Lovelace January 9, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    Dear Prof. Falk, the provision in Article 2 of the 1997 Convention focuses on personal responsibility for the commission of terrorist acts, and it is arguable, in a literal interpretation, that it does apply to acts committed by individuals even when acting under the color of law. Acts of ‘war’ as a function of governments’ decisions to use force could not be the subject of this Convention addressing the individual level; the collective context of responsibility is rather centrally at stake in the ILC 1996 Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind, which remains in the mode of strong disagreements; there is little doubt that a nuclear bombing would be a large variation of terror, v. 1996 ICJ Legality of Nuclear Weapons; approaching the questions of the status in international law of ‘targeted killings”, and generally ‘drone attacks’ is clearly a top priority of the discipline and the practice.

    • Kata Fisher January 9, 2015 at 5:51 pm #

      I am adding this to my last post that I made on the first blog article:

      This is just one example of the problem that you just do not have diverse, legitimate, and applicable ‘problem’- solution — you just lack all level expert-essence in the form of legitimate application that comes from expert power in application). This means, in fact, not one individual.

      Again that diverse legitimate essence, that boils down to nothing else but 0 (Zero) in the time and the space — and then you, have a thing such as tangent that whacks it into existence.

      • Kata Fisher January 9, 2015 at 6:10 pm #

        Another reflection — one certainly can’t solve the problems when we have restrictions and selection of information that flows in order to solve the problems. The flow of information should be totally free for academic areas and academic purposes. Academic flow of information should not be coerced by anyone within academic organisations or by application of non-academic coercion. That is not accademic. Unless, accademic is conected with Faith issues, and thise two do clash — then there should be a legitiomate council to solve that.

        I earlier have posted an article here and computer ate it…automatically (twice). Now, there is issue if the legitimate information for a particular problem solving is subjugated, and can’t be available. We would ask then: please declassify the information–or is the information not for a public purpose and what are the rules and valid regulation for that? I mean, we can rat-stack a bunch of stuff that is out of even while way and mind — just pure evil, still no use for all that. I mean not legitimate use, at least…

        Let’s reason with those who have none? Or is all their reason in fear? OMG! “Fear, fear, fear!!!!” and never get real?


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