Few aspects of Northern Irish political culture are as denuded as those that attempt to locate and understand the terrorist act. From the exasperation of Margaret Thatcher's outburst at the time of the Hunger Strikes that 'it is not political, it is a crime', (1) to the exhausted freedom fighter/terrorist binary opposition recently pressed back into service by Peter Mandelson, (2) terrorism has consistently been perceived as an act that defies the realm of civic discourse. Indeed, it has been the traditional role of language in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist atrocity to present itself as unable to capture the overwhelming materiality of the event itself. What, so the argument runs, can words offer in the face of such violence? Understood as such, every terrorist outrage becomes unspeakable.
A similar paralysis can be found in the realm of cultural production. When surveying the now extensive tradition of cultural representations of Northern Irish violence it is noticeable that the individual terrorist act is often identified only by the traces it leaves behind (3) or acts instead merely as the motor to drive narrative. Certainly the number of films about Northern Ireland that begin with a terrorist atrocity in order to enable other preoccupations to be articulated is remarkable. (4) In these cases, the violence operates as pure spectacle, as a material act requiring no further explication. Indeed so constricted are the possible ways of speaking about terrorism that the fact that the most significant British film about the subject, Alan Clarke's Elephant of 1989, contains practically no dialogue at all is entirely appropriate. Devoid of narrative but alive to the ways in which the terrorist act can signify in contemporary culture, Elephant fundamentally reimagined the relationship between violence and political commitment in Northern Irish society. This essay will discuss some of the reasons why the terrorist act has become shrouded in silence and consider in more detail the importance (and ultimate frustration) of Elephant's intervention. Clarke knew that his film was straying into forbidden territory. That this status remains indicates something of the manner in which cultural and political discourse in the North continues to be habitually self-censored.
It is from a similar perception that Guy Debord understood terrorism as being one of the symptomatic contradictions of modern western society. While claiming for itself the status of an act both materially and temporally resistant, a statement, if you like, of irreducible 'hereness', for Debord, terrorism's actual functioning serves only to reinscribe the power of the state it ostensibly attacks. As he observed:
Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic. (5)
It seems then that no matter what terrorism does, who it harms or why, it finds itself hopelessly enmeshed in a 'story' over which it has no control. Understood as such, terrorism becomes little more than a particularly horrendous example of alienated desire. The more it rebels against this positioning, the greater its desire to express presence, the more securely it finds itself encoded as a moment of utter irrationality, something peripheral to the great project of economic and individual improvement in which society places its implacable trust. It is for this reason that terrorism is essentially a cyclical process. Although aware of its persistent failure to imprint itself as a meaningful event, it knows of no other alternative than that of repetition and thus places its hope in ever more extreme versions of its own methodology. …