Terrifying reality

UNR’s international expert on political violence talks about the attack that changed the way the world understands terrorism

UNR scholar Joseba Zulaika has had to rethink his theories since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

UNR scholar Joseba Zulaika has had to rethink his theories since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Terrorism isn’t his favorite subject. That’s evident from the start.

“Today, I’m teaching my class on the Basque language,” says Joseba Zulaika, director of Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I’d rather talk about the language—or the Guggenheim.”

Zulaika has written two books and dozens of articles about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. He has also written about Basque fishermen, farming and urban regeneration in the Basque country, a land that bridges parts of France and Spain.

But it’s Zulaika’s studies of political violence that earned him an international reputation he can’t escape. He’s written scores of books, articles and academic papers on ethnic nationalism, the ritualistic behavior of terrorists and the narrative of political violence.

That’s why, in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy, he’s received plenty of calls from reporters, like me, looking for perspective. But Zulaika’s point of view has changed in light of recent events. His new take on terrorism in the United States surprised me.

When I phoned Zulaika the day after the attack, he’d just missed a call from The Nation magazine. Just before our interview the next day, he was on the phone with a reporter from Chicago.

“It’s changing the whole discourse,” he said to the reporter. “I used to be skeptical of the apocalyptic view of terrorism, said it was something out of Hollywood and fiction. But now, well …”

He promised to call back, and then he turned his attention to e-mail. He had a meeting and speaking engagement in Boise the next day.

“Do you think the planes will be flying?” he asked.

Zulaika works on the second floor of UNR’s Getchell Library. His office shelves are lined with books in Spanish and English, a long row of hand-labeled manuscripts and Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. A poster from a William Blake art exhibit hangs on the wall above a child’s drawings. A folksy cross rests on the windowsill. Just down the hall is UNR’s Basque Library.

On my way to Zulaika’s office, I walked past an empty Reno Gazette-Journal rack. The card outside the rack has a photo of the 9-11 destruction. Over the photo, the word “Why?”

I’m pretty sure Zulaika can’t or won’t tell me why. When I was a student in his Basque Anthropology class in 1997, he frequently reminded the students that a person couldn’t always expect to resolve contradictory aspects of life.

“You cannot interpret murder—you can contextualize it,” the professor’s comment is scrawled in my notes. Zulaika, in that lecture, had described what he called the mythologies that comprised terrorist discourse and the differing points of view when it comes to defining political violence as terrorism.

At the end of the day, one person might look at an act of terrorism and say, “This is war,” Zulaika had said. “Another might say, ‘no, these are murders.'”

His lecture notes referred to material in one of his books, Terror and Taboo, co-authored with then-head of UNR’s Basque Studies program, William Douglass: “If practiced by a lawful state, [an act of violence] is legitimate self-defense. If practiced by a substate group, it is terrorism.”

Zulaika, who started teaching in UNR’s Basque Studies program in 1990, was born in the small village of Itziar in the province of Guipuzcoa in Spain. He spent the first 12 years of his life in the small town populated mostly by factory workers and other members of the laboring class. His father worked in a marble quarry to support the large family with seven children. Joseba was the only child to go on to seminary, which he began at the age of 12.

Zulaika earned a philosophy licentiate in 1975 from the University of Deusto in Bilbao. Anthropology wasn’t being pursued in Spain during the ‘70s, so Zulaika pursued his master’s degree at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. He received his doctorate in cultural anthropology in 1982 from Princeton University.

“For the kind of changes that were happening in Europe in the ‘60s and ‘70s, anthropology had something interesting to offer,” he says. But he didn’t imagine becoming a professor, teaching anthropology and Basque studies at a university in the Western United States.

“I was a writer first,” he says. “I went into anthropology to get knowledge and data for my own writing. Not to be a professional. … It was a discipline that could examine ideologies, mentalities and belief systems—with an emphasis on symbols.”

In 1976, he spent six months on a boat with deep-sea fishermen, writing the book Terranova based on his experiences. He then spent six months in the Mendata-Guernica region with farmers.

He wanted to continue ethnographic studies in Africa. But his graduate adviser at Princeton nudged him back to the Basque country. In 1979, Zulaika received a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct 20 months of fieldwork on Basque political violence. To write an ethnographic study of the armed Basque nationalist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), Zulaika headed to his home village of Itziar.

“I found myself studying a phenomenon that I had tried to avoid in my childhood,” he says. He began interviewing relatives and individuals that he had known while growing up.

“Several … had become local ‘heroes’ in their struggle as members of ETA,” Zulaika writes in the prologue to the ethnography, Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament. “Some had killed and some had been killed. To the Spanish media, they were terrorists.”

It’s one of those “which came first, chicken or egg” discussions.

In the late ‘70s, terrorism emerged “as a hydra-headed monster capable of fixating our imaginations and provoking intense fear,” Douglass and Zulaika write in Terror and Taboo. But very little actual violence happened during this time.

More journalists and academics were talking about terrorism than ever before. But the threat seemed mostly hypothetical. Between 1989 to 1992, there were no fatalities attributed to terrorism in the United States and 34 American deaths abroad. During those years, Douglass and Zulaika write, American libraries entered in nearly 1,500 new books in the “terrorism” and “terrorist” categories.

It took a while for reality to catch up with the media myth.

But it did.

In 1993, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center. This turned out to be the act of amateurs on a budget, albeit amateurs who earlier had been recruited by the U.S. government to rally support for Islamic guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

“They had learned our techniques, in a way,” Zulaika says. “They had been trained products of our own terrorism discourse.”

Days later, weirdness ensued at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. A 51-day siege. Governmental mistakes. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms possibly justifying its budget with a dramatic press release of action.

Then Oklahoma City.

“McVeigh learned from the mythologies of Hollywood, and The Turner Diaries pretty much scripted for him how to bomb the federal building,” Zulaika says. “He’d seen violence in the military, and with Waco, he’d seen violence in American life. He saw the government as evil, and the discourse scripted for him how to be a terrorist.”

The public’s fear of terrorism empowered Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, whose barely functional letter bombs had killed three people, to disrupt air travel and rate front-page news across the nation by calling and threatening to blow up a plane. Fear of terrorism got Kaczynski’s 35,000-word manuscript published.

"[McVeigh and Kaczynski] were, in a way, playing out these terrorism mythologies,” Zulaika says.

Terrorism as a discourse depended on the media to spin the narrative and also on counter-terrorist efforts that reified and gave validation to terrorism. Terrorism as a tool for a violent political activist with a low budget depended on bluffing, deception and continual threat.

“You grant to him real power,” Zulaika says. “He can issue just a threat and collapse your way of life.”

Zulaika had argued that terrorism as a discourse “collapses reality,” making it into something scarier and more potentially dangerous than it actually was.

“Instead of helping you see an actual political situation, [defining political violence as terrorism] simplifies the whole thing into a generalized category—equates things that are not equal.”

Now, his theories have shifted. The potential danger became actual danger. The damage incalculable. The panic and rage extensive.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Zulaika was reading the newspaper when a friend called with the news. He turned on the television and watched in horror and disbelief, as we all did.

“Now I think that the worst scenario that we saw in novels and films has become a reality,” he says. “I’ve become critical of my own previous skepticism. … Now the threat is real.”

Zulaika predicts a dramatic change in the public’s view toward groups like the ETA and the IRA. The groups already have a negative image. But it will be far, far worse.

“Now there’s a declared war between the civilized world and terrorism,” he says. “Any act of terrorism becomes part of this global war as a result of this atrocity.”

He is currently at work on an article for the Basque media that addresses some 100,000 Basque nationalists, asking them if they are still going to vote for a party that does not condemn terrorism.

Also, Zulaika believes that the United States is justified in reacting to this violence with new political and security measures.

“The atrocity of thousands of people dying from this terrorist act—obviously we have to react,” he says. “We have to find the perpetrators and punish them. And we have to really kind of restore confidence in our security here.”

There is a danger of over-reacting and adding fuel to the phenomenon. But Zulaika now says that terrorism has become an authentic enemy.

“This is more in the frame of warfare now.”

An excerpt from Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables, and Faces of Terrorism by Joseba Zulaika and William A. Douglass:
"…The terrorist has a far greater capacity to garner public attention than does the soldier. … Reality is being shattered into images, and everyday life is becoming confused with TV’s hyperreal world. … The media’s decisions regarding what constitutes news determine to a great extent the public’s perception of the facts and the threat they pose. CBS provided as much coverage to the 50 hostages held in the Teheran embassy as it did to the 150,000 American soldiers overseas during the peak of the Vietnam War in 1972. ABC’s Ted Koppel, himself a product of terrorism news, summed up the situation nicely:

"'Without television, terrorism becomes rather like the philosopher’s hypothetical tree falling in the forest: No one hears it fall, and therefore it has no reason for being. And television, without terrorism, while not deprived of all interesting things in the world, is nonetheless deprived of one of the most interesting.'"