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John Utz

Terrorism in Literature

Not just the usual suspects.

Terrorist is among the most vital keywords of our day, and among the most fiercely contested. One culture's murderer is another's martyr; revolutionaries may also be freedom fighters. Experts debate where one should place the dividing line between "legitimate" acts of war, even those that harm noncombatants, and acts of terrorism, which are by definition illegitimate. An often cited definition was proposed by Thomas Perry Thornton in 1964: terrorism entails "a symbolic act designed to influence political behavior by extranormal means, entailing the use or threat of violence."1 The immediate damage wrought by such acts matters less than the effect they have upon the imagination of the people who witness them, especially through the media.

Given this dependence upon imagination and representation, it should come as no surprise that terrorism has served as a ready topic for fiction. The 19th century was a fertile ground for violence intended to effect political change, and dime-novels about Irish secret societies, Russian anarchists, and other prototypical terrorists proliferated as the century waned. In the 150 years since, there have been countless thrillers in which terrorists play the villain. Their secrecy, their remorseless tactics, their irrational desire to unmake our very world—all this conduces to our horrified fascination, and the straightforward use of terrorist-as-ultimate-menace remains quite popular today in the work of such writers as Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum (whose franchise continues to flourish under new management).

Alongside this robust tradition runs a parallel vein of fiction about terrorists in which suspense and violence are subordinated to larger political, philosophical, and aesthetic issues. Some novelists have focused on the social conditions that give rise to terrorists as a group, others have focused on the cultural and political systems that terrorists claim to oppose; some try to get inside an individual terrorist's head, either ...

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