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Sinn & Terror

By Dan Rubinstein

A cunning, vengeful terrorist, his eyes cold and hard, his facial features chiselled, won't relent until he kills a CIA agent and his family ... A charming, handsome Irish immigrant is welcomed no-questions-asked into the home of an Irish-American family in New York, but despite the generosity he's shown there are dark secrets he won't reveal ...

Sound familiar?

Not only are these the characters depicted, respectively, by Harrison Ford-hunting Sean Bean in Hollywood blockbuster Patriot Games and Brad Pitt in The Devil's Own, they're also well-worn stereotypes of the typical Irish terrorist. Indeed, simply mention the term "Irish terrorist" or "Irish Republican Army" and most people will conjure up the same image: a rugged man clad in nondescript jeans and boots with an impenetrable gaze and unyielding determination.

Say "Irish terrorist" to U of English associate professor Heather Zwicker, '88 BA, however, and she won't concern herself with telling you what a so-called "Irish terrorist"—and she always uses the scare quotes—is supposed to look and behave like.

Instead, Zwicker is interested in how these stereotypical representations have been created. She's studying the various visions of Irish terrorists presented in American and Northern Irish popular culture, from film to fiction to mass media. She wants to learn how these stereotypcs actually work—and, accordingly, how language can be used to help diffuse dangerous patterns of thought.

"We get nowhere by subscribing to this facile, media-constructed image of the terrorist," says Zwicker, whose PhD focused on women's writing about the troubles in Northern Ireland. "If we're serious about understanding the violence, and maybe putting an end to the violence, it means not buying into these simplistic visions."

Zwicker tumbled into this realm of research back in 1995. A departmental colleague, Stephen Slemon, examination of colonial and postcolonial stereotypes. Zwicker's was devising an graduate seminar interdisciplinary a rooted in contribution was a four-week unit on Irish terrorists. She was well versed in the subject, but it was essentially just her case study, a portal into the bigger picture.

Initially, Zwicker envisioned a 5,000-word article. But it wasn't long before her suspicions were confirmed: there was too much meat for one paper. "So I abandoned that article," she chuckles, "and cleared some other research off my desk."

The project has evolved into a book-in-progress, which Zwicker hopes to complete by next fall. She's alreadv presented papers in Australia, New York, and Galway, Ireland. She's also made several productive trips to Belfast's Linen Hall Library, which boasts an invaluable resource: its political Collection. Non-sectarian, the collection was founded by Robert Bell in 1969 when somebody in a pub handed him a leaflet for an IRA rally. Bell realized there were literally thousands of texts that nobody was archiving.

"All these `terrorists,' they write," exclaims Zwicker, who's currently immersed in the canon of Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein (the IRA's political arm). Although Adams is regarded as a politician, he's also the author of nine books, from novels to a prison memoir to a short story collection. Not only do his works in each of these genres contain traces of Republican philosophy, Adams also finds meaning by deploying precise language. "That's enchanting to me as an English professor," says Zwicker, "a statesman who believes in the virtues of the written word." (She hasn't attempted to interview Adams, though—"he's got bigger things to do right now.")

From her initial research, Zwicker developed a working hypothesis. A common notion, she says, is that information about a particular subject will kill the surrounding stereotypes. Perhaps that's true, but she believes it's easier for a stereotype to take on a different tack than die. Despite available statistics showing otherwise, some people still consider women inferior drivers, she offers as an example. "Having more or better information," she says, "doesn't actually kill the stereotype."

Unleashing the "terrorist" label to describe the IRA, according to Zwicker, allows people to decontextualize violence. "It's a way of delegitimizing political violence," she says. Ultimately, her research is rooted in a common yet crucial concept—that we can only understand our world through the language we use to describe it. This "Irish terrorist" case study, therefore, could open up a new way of contemplating how stereotypes work.

"With a better understanding," says Zwicker, "we'll have the tools to change the most dangerous effects of stereotypical representations. Words have meaning. Pictures have meaning. I think we take language and images for granted all the time. At some level, we have to—it's a complicated world and we're all busy people. But we need a place where we can stand back and look critically at what those words and images arc. It's basic research, and I don't think anything could be more basic than looking at how language constructs the world we inhabit."

Published Autumn 2001.

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