Outskirts online journal

Sue Bailey

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Volume 12, October 2005

Having a Relationship with 'Terrorism'!1

This paper has at its core an auto/ethnographic performance (Denzin, 2003). It was performed at a conference during the preliminary stages of a doctorate which is exploring how social workers are responding to terrorism. The piece, which is entitled ‘Having a relationship with terrorism’, documents my responses during the period following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001. During this period I formulated and conducted research for my PhD, a process which has been significantly affected by events such as the Bali bombings. This paper presents a reflexive examination of the piece ‘Having a relationship with terrorism’ and explores some of the phenomenological struggles which affected my attempts to construct meaning and make sense of terrorism.


All researchers begin work with some idea of where they are positioned in respect to their research/ed. As the research progresses there is often movement towards and away from the object/subject. This distance is observed and reported upon through the choice of methodology and language. Quantitative research derives its status from highlighting distance and objectivity in its approach. The answers and the truth are out there, waiting to be found. Claims to truth and of one reality are dismantled in post-structuralism; however the resultant morass of relativism can be extremely off putting to the beginning researcher. Words become loaded with genealogical complexity, and paralysis is an often reported symptom. Sometimes the only way through the paralysis is to write knowing that the language you choose is fraught with assumptions and claims to truth. This paper takes the position that reality is multiple, constructed and holistic, and accordingly this writing is an act of meaning making unique to me (Guba & Lincoln, 1985). This is an act of interpretation and the production of this text a re/presentation of this interpretation (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000, p.4).

One of the central conundrums in philosophical, sociological and psychological thought is in how to theorise the relationship between subjectivity and social structure; the structure/agency debate. This paper through the inclusion of the word relationship in the title signals its location in the fluid centre of the two. Fluidity and negotiation are a hallmark of this position and writers describe it variously as ‘praxis’ (Freire, 1970, p. 36), ‘dialogic imagination’ (Beck & Willms, 2004, p.41), ‘reciprocal conception’ (Bauman cited Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002, p.xiv), ‘social dialogue’ (Falzon, 1998), ‘resistance’ (Foucault, 1977) and ‘embodiment’ (Olesen, 1992). At the core of all these descriptions is an attempt to theorise the relationship between the self and other. How this self expands to encompass the other or shrinks to exclude it, is central to this exploration of my relationship with terrorism. The use of the word other in this piece then, is that which I interpret as sitting outside the borders of my self.

‘Problems of place and voice’ (Buzard, 2003, p.61), also cause challenges for researchers in making decisions on how to speak for/on behalf of subjects. Reflexivity2in all its varieties is one way of negotiating the distance between researcher and subject. Not only is this important where there is a ‘surplus of difference’ (Marcus, 1994, p.565) between the researcher and researched, but also where there is apparently no difference. This propinquity is signalled by the ‘I’ word where the researcher and subject are the same, and is sometimes referred to in academia as autoethnography.3 Central to autoethnography is the concept of reflexivity. The importance of reflexivity is highlighted by Geertz (cited White, 2001, p.104) below,

Confinement to experience-near concepts leaves an ethnographer awash in immediacies as well as entangled in the vernacular. Confinement to experience-distant ones leaves him (sic) stranded in abstraction and smothered in jargon.

In this paper, ‘experience near’ (the piece ‘Having a relationship with terrorism’) written in italics, and ‘experience distant’ (a reflexive examination of the writing) are woven together. The result is an interpretive exploration of my internal and external landscape. It is important to highlight that although the thesis from which this paper springs has social work at its core, responses to the presentation indicate that the phenomenological issues raised here in respect to terrorism are been grappled with at some level by many others. The structure of this paper follows a model of relationship development common in psychological literature (Bavonese & Bavonese, 2004). Key concepts are highlighted in the text in a similar fashion to hypertext and are expanded upon in following paragraphs.

Having a Relationship with ‘Terrorism’!

The Introduction

For the purposes of this paper I will use Clive Williams' (2004 p.7) definition of terrorism, “Terrorism is politically [including ideologically, religiously, or socially –but not criminally] motivated violence, directed generally against non-combatants, intended to shock and terrify to achieve a strategic outcome”. I do want to point out that this is very much a pragmatic definition and in no way captures all the complexities of the term.

My PhD topic, which explores social work responses to terrorism, was formulated as a way of finding out about and solving terrorism, as well as engaging social workers in dialogue around their own responses. I am pleased to say I have recognised that solving terrorism was a somewhat ambitious project, and have relinquished that goal.

What I present in this paper is the story of my relationship with terrorism and its impact on my research over the last three years. This paper is an amalgamation of interviews, literature, various discourses, personal journals, and my own experiences.

As I read and analysed the data I had collected, I began to theorise using proximity as an organisational concept. Proximity is ‘the fact, condition, or position of being near or close by’(Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2000), and is commonly understood as a physical phenomenon; however I extend this and include imaginings, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, spatial and temporal proximity. This provided me with a way of conceptualising my relationship with terrorism. I became conscious that non-corporeal aspects of myself would draw me closer to terrorism. For example some days I would be cynical and critical of the fear terrorism highlighted, other days I would be frightened and fearful. I theorised my proximity to terrorism was intellectual and emotional respectively.

Other more well-known concepts I use to understand my relationship with terrorism include risk and Cartesian dualism. Clearly each of these concepts has long and in-depth definitional genealogies. My capacity to give these complex terms the attention they warrant in this paper is limited by word constraints. I use risk as ‘the probabilities of physical harm due to given technological or other processes’ (Beck, 1992, p.4), and Cartesian dualism as the ‘the independent existence of a non-corporeal realm and a physical realm’ (Monroy-Nasr, 1998).

Terrorism is a concept replete with complexities and attempts to define it elusive and complicated (Anderson, 2002; Golder & Williams, 2004; Kennedy, 2005; Primoratz, 2004; Zulaika & Douglass, 1996).The United Nations continue to have difficulties with the definition. The use of Clive William’s definition was a pragmatic choice as well as an interpretative preference. It is pragmatic in that it is necessary to ‘fix’ a particular definition of terrorism in order to progress writing. In this definition terrorism is a fixed immutable concept, and is used most frequently in mainstream discourse. This objective interpretation is a seductive one, as it is easier to talk about terrorism if it is an undisputed ‘fact’. In using William’s definition my initial phenomenological approach (searching for a truth) to the research is highlighted.

Kvale’s (1996, p.3) analogy of the researcher as a miner is a useful one to use in this instance. As a conscientious and diligent post graduate, this mining expedition to find out about and solve terrorism was conducted with much gusto and a flurry of activity. Interviews, literature, various discourses, personal journals, and my own experiences were mined for the ‘truth’ about terrorism. Clearly there is a contradiction here between the stated phenomenological underpinnings of this research and my approach at various stages throughout this paper. The struggles highlighted in this paper stem from this contradiction. Attempts to move away from the compelling comfort of certainty, and accept uncertainty are at the core of this relationship with terrorism.

What is it we are doing when we theorise? Is it an act of interpretation, a reworking of new ideas into new frameworks? Or is it an act of re/visioning, where ‘new to me’ vision is re/assembled and re/organised using ways of seeing previously inscribed in time. Or is it a new way of performing the same text, except now it is an opera with a new cast and a different set design? Theorising ought to lead to moments of clarity where a crystallisation of ideas forms a unique view. And then a word, an idea, or a thought later the view changes - like a kaleidoscope (S. Young, 2005). The use of the kaleidoscope as an analogy reflects the contextual, interpretative, dynamic, and experiential process theorising represents and illustrates how it is used in this paper.

Proximity provided a way of organising the overwhelming amount of data into a manageable format. The path to proximity as an organisational framework was sparked by a journal article, A Taxonomy of Disasters and Their Victims, (Taylor, 1987). In this article Taylor attempts to classify victims according to particular categories (primary, secondary through to sesternary4, only to realise that the lived experience of individuals complicates categorising. My conceptualisation of proximity moves away from the imposition of categories and invites individuals to identify their own lived experience of proximity. Through the telling of my own personal experience and interpretation of proximity to risk, it became evident that there are multiple constructions of both proximity and risk.

The definition of risk as, “the probabilities of physical harm due to given technological or other processes” (Beck, 1992, p.4), which is used in the performance piece is again a pragmatic decision. Much of Beck’s theorising is concerned with the construction, production and distribution of risk (bads or dangers). He argues that risk is a social construction and posits that risk is superimposed onto the distribution of goods but there is an inverse relationship. “The history of risk production shows that like wealth, risks adhere to the class pattern only inversely. Wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom” (Beck, 1992, p.35). As well as highlighting the relationship between class and risk, Beck explores how the perception of risk can be amplified through the mass media and government policy decisions
(Beck, 1999; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Beck & Willms, 2004). At times it seems that these policy decisions are transparent Machiavellian strategies. The use of the discourse of terrorism is, some argue, a case in point (Anderson, 2002; Michaelsen, 2005).

Cartesian dualism is a central tenet of philosophy which springs from the Enlightenment (Plumwood, 1993). Descartes’ modernist philosophy was a response to the idea of an all knowing cosmic God and places confidence in the human minds’ capacity for reason and rational thought. In prioritising the mind, connections to the everyday world and its uncertainties are severed. The thinking self is situated beyond the reach of the messiness of the lived world and rationality prevails (Falzon, 1998). This is demonstrated in dualisms such as human/nature, mind/body, masculine/feminine, and good/evil. As I researched and listened to participants I used the concept of Cartesian dualism to understand the sense that my self was splitting into two; an enquiring mind and a helpless body. This concept supported my initial thinking and attempts to make sense of a world which appeared to have moved from benevolence to malevolence.


I have identified five key phases in my relationship with terrorism. Each of these phases was precipitated by an event, which led in some way to a change in direction in my research journey. This journey traces my own perceptions of risk and proximity.

I begin then with the pre-research phase. The best way to describe my relationship with terrorism at this stage is detached and ‘bubbled’. I did not look beyond the bubble that wrapped me in safety and ignorance. The rest of the world touched me only when it affected me personally.

My proximity was far away both physically and non-corporeally. It was a matter for ‘others’. When I read media reports of terrorist attacks I identified some non-corporeal proximity in my emotional reaction, which was compassionate, but at best it was a tenuous engagement. I had a dim awareness of terrorism through IRA activities, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the ‘Middle East’ but otherwise it was something that was happening to ‘others’ in other places. My relationship with terrorism was marked primarily by disengagement. I was bubbled, cocooned and protected.

The risk of harm through a terrorist incident had been exported away to ‘others’. (How this occurs and why, is another paper for another time eg capital roaming the world and creating social injustice). These ‘others’ were bodies that were predominantly brown, poor, fundamentalists, or oppressed.

At this point my research had not begun and so there was no impact.

Each of these phases was precipitated by an event, which led in some way to a change in direction in my research journey. Experiential learning theories provide some crystallisation here. At the core of this theoretical perspective is the interaction between the self and experience. As we experience new events the boundary around self is challenged and temporarily destabilised. The capacity to assimilate these new events into the self and emerge challenged and somehow changed is described as the experiential learning process. Kolb (1984) explains,

That this is a learning process is perhaps better illustrated by the nonlearning postures that can result from the interplay between expectation and experience. To focus so sharply on continuity and certainty that one is blinded to the shadowy penumbra of doubt and uncertainty is to risk dogmatism and rigidity, the inability to learn from new experience. (p.28)

There are seven I’s in this pre-research phase. In proofing this section this seemed a glaring indulgence and an example of what Geertz labels, ‘diary disease’ (1987, p.90). However my instinct was to leave the I’s for two reasons. The first is the sense of self absorption the I’s highlight. My willingness to engage with other was limited by my inwardness. This self absorption and ignorance extends beyond the psychological idea of a single self and to the boundaries of the nation state. In both instances, it is the capacity to explore and extend boundaries, which affect how I view the rest of the world and hence engage with other. Using I signals this deficit which was highlighted when the September 11 attacks occurred.

The second point in relation to the use of I, concerns the ‘fiercely individualist market economy’ (Saunders, 2002, p.i) which is a feature shared by most Western capitalist countries. The ideology of individualism is at the core of neoliberalism 5 and the global market place. Globalisation advantages privileged Western countries that ensure capital passes through nation state borders unfettered. In accepting the advantages of this global market place and allowing unfettered capital to enter into our world, there is a moral and ethical responsibility for individuals to ensure that sentient beings and the environment in other parts of the world are unharmed. My own failure to see beyond my own comfort and pay attention to the exporting of risk or bads is highlighted here. In severing the connection between local and global, potential relationships with others are also severed. The I is privileged and the other mostly absent, unknown and unimagined. My perception of these others is that they are predominantly brown, poor, fundamentalists, or oppressed.

The relationship begins

11-09 or 9-11
(High degree of passion and feelings. Think about them constantly)

The events of September 11 are one of those events that are seared into the consciousness of all Westerners. Most of us remember where we were and who we were with when we first heard about the attacks. I was in my bedroom watching TV when my daughter came upstairs and exclaimed in disbelief that American was under attack. At first I thought it was some sort of media stunt for a new movie. But as the images rolled on through the night, I experienced fear, disbelief, anger and curiosity. Images of Middle Eastern people celebrating confused me. Why were they celebrating? Who had done this and why? As Sarah MacDonald (2004) puts it, my bubble of safety had burst. This though was a Western bubble and we were entering a place that ‘third world countries’ (for want of a better term) have always being. All of us were closer to terrorism now ... and we all had to negotiate some type of relationship with it.

The terrorist attacks on the World trade centre were transported through the electronic media into our homes and placed the attacks in close physical proximity. Over and over again we saw the planes slamming into the towers. This constant exposure drew us spatially closer to terrorism. The images of people jumping from the burning buildings made my heart ache. It was like the Vietnam War where extensive media coverage brought the violent and bloody war home each night to every living room. Was the world mad? And how did I make meaning from all this. I had nowhere to position these images or the physical reactions I was having. For weeks afterwards I was uneasy when planes flew overhead and hyper vigilant, jumping at loud noises.

Many aspects of my non-corporeal realm were engaged and were moving in and out of close proximity with terrorism. Intellectually – I was curious, cynical, questioning and embarrassed. Emotionally I was frightened, sad, and angry. Spiritually I was looking for answers. The attacks precipitated an existential crisis. Was there life after death? I wondered about those that believed in a cause so passionately that they destroyed their selves. You can’t get much closer than that. I also thought about how the victims and the ‘terrorists’ were forever joined by that act. Always when you think of one, the other is there.

I have a sense that the risk has increased ‘boomeranged back’ as Beck (1992) would put it. And to me it makes sense, as you can’t keep exporting risk without some of it coming back. These are white Western bodies ‘like mine’, so it feels like the risk is bigger. However, I do have some sense of security as an Australian. Because these are Americans and Bush’s foreign policy has put them in the firing line.

The discourse on terrorism increases exponentially, with language like the ‘war on terror’ forcing everyone into close proximity with terrorism. The newspapers, radios and television talk of little else. In the middle of all of this Ansett has collapsed but no-one pays it much attention. I am confused with part of me feeling compelled to stop and absorb everything that is happening. And the other part of me just wants to run away and hide and pretend it hasn’t happened. And then there comes a time when I have had enough. I am saturated and overwhelmed and I want it to stop. But the words and the images continue and take us back to the horror. Every day one or another of the body’s realms goes there. It seems to be unavoidable.

My research is triggered by this event. It is central and my immediate reactions include curiosity and embarrassment at my lack of knowledge. What is terrorism? Who are they? And how come I hadn’t noticed what was going on in the world. I wondered if I was an anomaly or were other social workers as uninformed as I was? Particularly when I realised human rights were being eroded in America and Australia as a response.

And so my PhD was formulated as a result of my embarrassment at my lack of awareness of international affairs, civil liberties and terrorism. I began asking questions of the literature: What?

Why? When? How? And I found out about the other side … where America were the ‘terrorists’ and how they had got away with it for so long. I was outraged and I wanted to deconstruct the language and disempower it. I became a teller and approached interviews as an examiner. Exploring how much each participant knew about ‘terrorism’.

September 11, 2001 is a date. The words and numbers have come to be infused with much more that the labelling of a temporal fragment. The date signifies and is signifier of a mass of complex and contradictory meanings. 911 is an American signifier. An Australian arrangement 1109 does not have the same impact. The 9/11 Commission Report (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 2003) provides a succinct chronological description of the attacks which killed nearly three thousand people on September 11th, 2001. These murders were played out on prime time television over and over again. The sense of shock in my community was palpable. It is the day/event which precipitated my loss of innocence and ignorance. The date has become a sign for the beginning of a ‘new world order’ and the end of ignorance for those in the West. For those who live with risk every day 911 was just another day to survive.

The physiological and psychological reactions described above are shared by many people. One of my first responses is to look for familiarity and I search within the boundaries of my self for an explanation. ‘Trying on’ familiar ways of meaning making which help keep my benevolent world intact. The first attribution comes quickly and fits with the context - it is on television so is contrived, a media stunt. Other attributions come and go. I try them all, discarding what doesn’t fit. And then when I see the media coverage of Middle Eastern6 people celebrating I realise that there is more to it. As a social worker I am trained to consider context however another world has come rudely crashing through my boundaries. The media coverage facilitates this and shoves it in my face.

The sense of risk is amplified by both media coverage, and the way I perceive my self. The concept of proximity helps to make sense of the responses. Movies, television shows and magazines all bring America/ns into my everyday world. Americans have white Western bodies ‘like mine’ and so fall within my perception of self, so attacks on Americans feel like an attack on me. However, it is a constructed America which is imported into my world and the relationship with America/ns built on an artifice. As this artifice is shattered it creates distance and a sense of safety for my self. Anti-America sentiment bubbles to the surface and I wonder what ‘they’ did to deserve this act of terrorism, in the process othering them. American foreign policy increases the sense of distance, as years of exporting risk boomerangs back in a catastrophic way. The boundary around self is maintained and my thinking again drawn towards a polarised position.

The language of terrorism saturates the media and government policy. This language is new to me. My capacity to make sense of it all is affected by the level of fear, which is affected by the discourse, and so it goes in circles. Whilst there is a recognition of terrorism as a politicised slogan rather than a fixed immutable concept (Anderson, 2002), it is hard to let go of the certainty George Bush and John Howard offer. As all good social workers do, I look beyond the rhetoric and the discourse of terrorism. The saying, ‘One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’, offers a glimmer of how discourse works. There is an other side to all this. As Zulaika & Douglass (1996) explain:

It is the reality-making power of the discourse itself that most concerns us- its capacity to blend the media’s sensational stories, old mythical stereotypes, and a burning sense of moral wrath. Once something that is called ‘terrorism’-no matter how loosely defined it is- becomes established in the public mind, “counterterrorism” is seemingly the only prudent course of action. (p.ix)

My anxiety finds another target as anti-terrorism legislation is hastily enacted in Australia. This legislation curtails civil liberties and dismantles long held checks and balances (Michaelsen, 2005). The increased security measures give more power to the state and the carefully established balance between the state and its citizens lost in a frighteningly short time. The absence of social work voices in the groups protesting gives me cause for concern. There is nothing in my existing self which provides a framework for understanding the context of the unfolding events. My social work education has provided me with some understanding of the complexity of the world, but appears to stop at the boundaries of the nation state. My PhD research is triggered by curiosity and a search to see if other social workers were as uninformed as I am. It is at this point that my search begins to go beyond the boundary of my self and my nation. In moving beyond self there comes an active search for dialogue with other.

The relationship becomes more intimate

The Bali Bombings
(Whereupon conflicts, disappointments and hurt are exposed)

I have holidayed in Bali 5 times over the last 12 years. The attack on the nightclubs in Bali came on the 12th October 2002 and I had left Bali on the 29th September after a two-week holiday. I was shocked and numbed by the bombings. My relationship was becoming more personal and more complicated. I was closer than I had ever been and I was almost paralysed - transfixed by the glare of its power.

My late father was the first person to tell me about the Bali Bombings. So for me the bombings are intertwined with missing him and the pain of his death. It is very potent with all of me so, so close to the centre of it all – whatever terrorism is. Physically I was in the same space just 13 days away. There can be no judgment now no sense of they deserved it, because it could have been me. Same space, different time takes you right there. Kingsley, the home of the football club where seven young men who died belonged is the suburb next to mine. I attended the mass memorial for the young men who died and felt like I was grieving cynically, or cynically grieving. There were television cameras everywhere and it was beamed out across the world.

My non-corporeal realm was splitting into ribbons and streaming off in different directions. Flickering in and out of close proximity. How can I be here with my heart crying and my head sneering? There was praise for Kerry Stokes for flying the surviving footballers’ home in a private jet, everyone cheered but I just wanted to vomit. I envied the people around me crying. I wanted that. I didn’t want this complicated relationship where I split, and terrorism drew me in until I was exhausted with the thinking and the splitting and the fear. I observed that the splitting was going on all over the world. In Guantanamo Bay Cuba, bodies were physically present but legally absent.

The risk felt immediate and high. Terrorism was in my world and in my community now. These aremy people … and my place. 88 Australians were killed in Bali. The escalating
discourse amplifies the sense of risk. I am paralysed with grief and sadness. There are no degrees of separation now. It has boomeranged right back at us now.

The impact on my research was profound. I was paralysed as well as embarrassed at the arrogance with which I had approached the interviews. There is no more to say about that just a quiet apology and deep reflection.I began questioning my right to be writing about terrorism. What did I know? I was sitting on the other side of the world safely away from risk and terrorism. It was at this point that I stopped telling and started listening. I wanted to hear how others were making sense of terrorism. What frameworks were helping them understand it? Were they using feminism, Marx, Foucault, humanism, chaos theory? I began approaching the interviews with curiosity and listened and learned.

One aspect of my methodology includes a discourse analysis, but how much discourse is enough. I was overwhelmed by the amount of discourse and media coverage. My bedroom was disappearing under piles of newspaper, radio transcripts, Senate submissions and books. I was scared of missing something crucial and thought the more that I collected, the more credibility my research would have. I couldn’t work out what was valuable and what was not so I kept it all.

Six months into my research the bombs exploded at Paddy’s night club and the Sari Club in Kuta Bali. It is hard to theorise here. These are my people … and my place. Psychological explanations highlight individual trauma, sociological literature explicate context and the focus depends on the theorist whose lens you peer through. Philosophy provides ways of comprehending life. How ever you choose to make sense of something like this, at the end of the day when the curtain falls and you are alone, the tears come. And in that moment of tears, the space between life and death, man and nature, male and female closes. There is no distance; it is all connected, your breath moving the universe in and out of your body. There are no degrees of separation now.

By day it is different; the outrage and grief roar across my suburbs. Brittle hatred lies alongside paralysing grief. The responses vary but the popular political one is of outrage and a focus on tough preventive measures. My non-corporeal realm observes from a distance and Cartesian dualism provides a conceptualisation which helps make sense of the splitting. Whilst this binary thinking provides comfort it also impacts on my capacity to move beyond self. However there comes a point when a choice has to be made - to be curious and move outwards or turn inwards to rigidity and certainty. As a researcher the choice is made for me and I wretchedly turn outwards armed with gentle curiosity and start(ed) listening.

As highlighted earlier the definition of terrorism is contested and controversial. A Marxist analysis would assert that the discourse of terrorism is influenced by those who exert some control and power over the means of knowledge production-the mass media and government. Thus an important aspect of this research is a discourse analysis. In this analysis questions such as, Where are we going? Who gains, who loses, by which mechanisms of power? Is it desirable? What should be done? (Flyvberg, 2001, p.145) are directed at discourse. The overwhelming volume of discourse heightens the importance of this phase of the research, particularly as it privileges a particular view of terrorism.

Engaging with the relationship

East Timor
(The Power Struggle: Each person must learn to listen respectfully to the others’ position)

When I submitted my PhD research proposal, I recognised the importance of making sure I heard the perspectives of ‘others’. I chose East Timor because of their long history with state terrorism and because they were close to Australia. Writing a proposal and visiting a country with a long history of tragedy, destruction and poverty are two completely different things. As I prepared for my journey to East Timor, I felt like I had my hand on the doorknob of death. The travel warnings were overwhelming. I said goodbye to my family and wondered if I would ever see them again. I pondered the irony of my body being obliterated by an act of terrorism, I even visualised the headlines. It would be the ultimate fusion. Relationship eternal! I had a sense that I was placing both my physical and non-corporeal realms at ground zero.

The reality was quite different. I felt discomfort at my whiteness, my privilege and the gazes of curiosity. This was highlighted during my panicked retreats to the cool familiar café called the Tropical Bakery. This café was situated opposite the UN Obrigado Barracks and was everything travellers were urged to avoid. But I had to go, it was a sanctuary from the chaos and despair.

Whilst I was in an apparently high risk spatial proximity to terrorism, my non-corporeal proximity receded. I was less afraid in East Timor that I was in Perth. East Timorese society is not risk averse - death sits alongside life. In the street where I was staying was a coffin making business. The drone of the electric saw was ever-present, hovering just above my consciousness. My heart ached at the sight of the tiny baby coffins. One of the most poignant moments came the day I passed the workshop and saw two women chatting. I imagined they were neighbours. As they chatted, the ripened pregnant belly of one of the women was casually pressed against a coffin. The distance between life and death starkly illustrated.

During my first week in East Timor I desperately clamped my seatbelt on and was vigilant, seeing death at every corner. By the third week I had forgotten about seatbelts. I travelled on a sail boat which was constantly bailed because it leaked and was amazed at my acceptance of the risk. And throughout my time in East Timor the words terrorism and war on terror were absent until I mentioned them during interviews. My fear and sense of risk had vanished along with the discourse.

During my time in East Timor I recognized that physical proximity was only one aspect and I began theorizing using non-corporeal realms. I began thinking in terms of Cartesian dualism and extended that to the physical realm where physical bodies are present but legal and civil rights are not. I also used the concept of embodiment and struggled with the apparent contradiction between the two.

It felt like we were paranoid in Australia. Ex-patriots shook their heads and commented on the level of fear in the Australian community they observed when they returned home for visits. These observations and conversations highlighted how the media and the government’s discourse of terrorism have heightened the perception of risk.

In order to capture other views of terrorism such as state terrorism, I looked across both the boundary of my self and nation state to East Timor. Interviews with East Timorese community workers provided a powerful sense of how others were interpreting terrorism. However what was more significant in terms of the impact on my research was the absence of the discourse of terrorism. The effect of this silence was enormous and highlighted how powerful the discourse is in Australia. In recognising that physical proximity was only one aspect of my relationship with terrorism, the importance of attending to analysis of social structures is elucidated. The fluidity of the space between subjectivity and social structures is captured powerfully in a sweaty moment in a café in Dili. Again I drew upon the concept of Cartesian dualism to make sense of my experience, using risk and proximity as categories, but now I have some misgivings. These misgivings centre on the constant splitting of my self into two realms. The concept of embodiment and the idea of a lived body provides an alternative lens which crystallises and clarifies my thinking.


(Getting closer and connecting again)

I re-entered Perth with eyes coloured by poverty and chaos. What struck me the most were the lines on the road and the number of signs. In East Timor there are no addresses or street signs, just people that you ask for directions and who sometimes get it wrong, so you end up somewhere else. In Perth it’s almost like we have signs so that we don’t have to talk to each other. Everything was so ordered and I missed the pigs and the chickens that filled the streets in East Timor with life. Perth seems so anal and neat.

The discourse of terrorism continues, and we are told to ‘Be alert but not alarmed’. I keep trying but end up alarmed, so I must not be doing it right. Again the television brings the horror into my living room and I feel spatially close to it. However, my sense of risk is minimal. The discourse is disempowered through my experiencing its absence. I am so aware now of how risk averse Australians are. It has become paralysing and communities are becoming fearful and divided. Who do we trust?

I begin to try and make sense of everything I have seen. My engagement is intellectual now and I search frantically for theorists who have travelled this journey ahead of me and can provide a way of making sense of it all. I discovered Ulrich Beck’s work on Risk Society and feel that his work provides a springboard for me. My theoretical thinking is becoming crystallized through an amalgamation of proximity and risk. I am not so frightened but still had elements of emotional proximity. I am angry at our government for exacerbating the level of fear in the community.

I am back in Perth now … same place, different time with a new lens. It has a sense of circularity about it. At first I conceptualized this as a corkscrew becoming smaller and smaller but now I see that it is going the other way becoming bigger and bigger, and I don’t know where it will end.

My relationship with terrorism continues and every day my proximity to it varies. I have rearranged my thoughts and am trying new lenses on and now I see terrorism differently. I think now that my relationship is with life, death and risk. But then risk is all a matter of perception.

The discourse of terrorism continues but its impact on my lived body is less potent as I assimilate the experience of discourse silence. Some days I feel worried and some days I laugh; my lived body experiencing a range of different responses (I. M. Young, 2002, p.416). Although I still struggle with how to ‘Be alert but not alarmed’, I see terrorism differently now. There is no resolution though, the uncertainty continues but now feminists’ lenses begin to provide crystallisation and clarity. The London bombings have provided a new other, the inside other. And so the relationship continues…

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
(Eliot, 1943).


1. I would like to acknowledge Libby Lloyd, a colleague who first proposed to me the idea that all of us, in some way, have to articulate and negotiate an intimate relationship with terrorism at many levels. This includes micro, meso, macro and mega levels.

2. Reflexivity has many conceptual understandings. In this paper it is used in its broadest sense. “Reflection (reflexivity) is thus above all a question of recognizing fully the notoriously ambivalent relation of a researcher’s text to the realities studied….and turning a self-critical eye onto one’ own authority as interpreter and author (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000 p.vii).

3. This style of autoethnography is more in line with ‘autobiographical ethnography’ one of three which Reed-Danahay identifies, “…in which anthropologists interject personal experience into ethnographic writing” (Reed-Danahay, 1997 p.2).

4. Sesternary victims – “…those miscellaneous people who (a) think that but for chance events they would have been primary or secondary victims; (b) refrained from expressing a premonition to somebody who subsequently became a victim …[etc]” (Taylor, 1987, p.540).

5. "....This is a doctrine which states ' the markets and prices are the only reliable means of setting a value on anything, and further, that markets and money can always, at least in principle, deliver better outcomes than states and bureaucracies..." (Saunders, 2002, p.8).

6. When I presented this autoethnographic performance a respected academic questioned me about my assumptions in this sentence. She appeared angry and asked if I had considered that the media may have misrepresented the context in which the people were celebrating. I was mortified and tried to explain that this was a reflective piece and as such represented my initial struggle to make sense of the events put before me. As a result of this exchange I deleted the words Middle Eastern from this paper. I decided to reinsert the words with a footnote, as I considered the exchange an example of the complexities inherent in this relationship with terrorism.


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