Talking to Terrorists, Robin Soans’ new verbatim drama for Out of Joint, opened at the Royal Court three days before the 7 July bombing of London. We turn to extracts from the play’s hard-hitting interviews in search of understanding.
By Editorial Staff
• 11 Jul 2005
• West End
SS1 (an ex-Secretary of State)
I got on with the terrorists on both sides ‘cause I treated them as human beings. They were mostly normal working-class men… I had an affinity with them. People said it was my gender… it wasn’t… It was my class… that’s what did it. I used to say to them, ‘Don’t call me Secretary of State, call me by my Christian name.’ I shook their hands… none of my predecessors shook their hands. I didn’t have a voice like ‘wonderful to see you.’
Taking to terrorists is the only way to beat them. I can’t understand why Tony didn’t understand that. Gerry and Martin wanted to talk; of course they’d done dreadful things, but they’ve got wives, they want to play with their kids, they’re normal family men. I wanted to appear as normal as possible…. The most important thing… I was an ear listening. You have to allow that they believe in what they’re doing.
Tony seems to have learned nothing from history. If you want them to change their minds you have to talk to them. They won’t do it very willingly because they don’t trust you, but yes, you have to talk to terrorists.
Edward (a psychologist)
It does look as if terror groups have a dynamic. They always start with a radical thinker… a dreamer, a proper intellectual with a sense of history; and a grievance. ‘Look at the year 1500. The Arab world were leaders in philosophy, astronomy, medicine, mathematics… and look how badly we’re doing now.’ It puts me in mind of Al Qutb. He formulated his radical new version of Islam on the campus of an American university. He sees all these scantily-clad cheerleaders… becomes sexually aroused. So he concludes, ‘The fundamentals of our religion have been sidetracked by Western decadence.’ People who want to cancel out a culture have to convince themselves it’s worth destroying. The 9/11 terrorists went to topless bars when they were learning to fly in Texas. … This is a very hard culture to be sexually pure in. The teenage years are hard enough, but for young Muslims in Luton it must be intolerable.
The revolutionary thinker never gets very far… but I’ve sewn a seed in one of you… a pragmatist. The dreamer, the thinker, that’s me, retires to the background as a guru. You organise the politics of the movement, select an inner group, and delegate responsibilities. A terror group is usually small… very small… you probably only need 30 activists, supported by 200 semi-activists… people to provide safe-houses and run messages… and loosely supported by 2,000 who disapprove of violence but who are generally in favour.
I can guarantee that if one of you goes out now and knocks on 100 doors, 99 people will tell you to get lost, but you’ll just happen upon someone in crisis; someone who’s bright but blocked. ... It’ll be something like joining a cult… cut their hair, give them an orange robe, you’ll convince them they are now extraordinary.
Adolescents wait a bit before they say ‘dangerous.’ This is the key time to recruit. Adolescents are such good material… they can see how things could be different, but aren’t aware of the practicalities… so they’re slightly reckless and have a strong illusion of immortality. People are more aware of status in their teenage years… ‘Where am I in the pecking order?’ Being in a committed organisation… well, you’re all winners now. It’s also a time of enormous peer pressure, particularly with sex. If you’re not very good at pulling girls, the recruiters give you a way out… Who needs girls when you’ve got status?
Terrorists certainly aren’t thinking about the day after tomorrow. They’re enjoying the moment. Even if it’s ghastly, it’s invigorating. It’s what’s called a ‘peak experience’.
The key to the ideology of violence is to see your enemy as sub-human. They’re only Jews, gays, blacks, not normal in any sense of the word.
Colonel (a British Army colonel)
My epiphany moment came much later than it should have done, perhaps. I was 28. I was in Northern Ireland. Actually it was Christmas time. I realised that if I had been born in Crossmaglen or South Armagh, I would have been a terrorist. And that’s an understanding every soldier should have. None of this is personal.
We were bowled over by American over-confidence… the idea that Iraqis would welcome us with open arms and just needed a little help from us to become the model for a Middle-Eastern democracy… all this kind of stuff, which is the Neo-Con spin in Washington. As a result they were driving the operational planning and we were just fitting in where we could. It means that the post-conflict peace… we don’t use that term any longer because it implies that there’s an end to conflict… but, but, but the peace had not been taken seriously. It’s been liked to us, you know, riding a horse with no reigns, no stirrups, no nothing… no control… and we’re just taken to, to, to wherever the horse wants to take us. And that’s literally the position we found ourselves in.
All you do is create yet more groups you don’t know and you don’t understand. Is the power and effectiveness of these groups being exaggerated by politicians? I think the answer is… er… is probably yes. As for Iraq… Catastrophic. But it’s too late now… it’s a complete disaster. I’m not saying we will, but, oooh yeah, we face strategic failure.
Rima (a journalist)
There are two groups in Iraq now… insurgents, or what you might call Freedom Fighters… and terrorists. The insurgents say they solely kidnap people who are working for the coalition; even a suicide attack must have a specific aim, an objective. Whereas the terrorists… ‘We just want to die, it… doesn’t matter… We just want martyrdom.’ These are the terrorists… they place a car bomb; it kills four Americans and 50 Iraqis. I think that’s mindless.
AAB (the ex-head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Bethlehem)
Fun? You think I can have fun? How can I have fun? But I will ask you this also. How can you judge me unless you have lived the life I have lived. Do you want me to think logically like you, my British friends… you, who gave my country to the Israeli … you who are behind all the trouble Ireland… all the trouble in South Africa… all the trouble in India? What do you know of hopelessness and despair?
Talking to Terrorists was written by Robin Soans and directed by Max Stafford-Clark after a year of interviews with people involved with or affected by terrorism. It continues at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 30 July 2005. The playtext is published by Oberon Books (priced £8.99).
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