Australian novelist Richard Flanagan’s novel The Unknown Terrorist tells the story of Doll, a pole dancer, who spends the night with a man who is later suspected of being a terrorist and then finds herself pursued by the authorities as a suspected accomplice. Though it is never made clear whether the man, Tariq, is in fact a terrorist or merely a petty criminal, the novel explores the way in which our world is built upon scapegoating, and illustrates powerfully how this mechanism works.
In its exploration of the way in which news stories take on a life of their own, with the media condemning an innocent woman for an unknowing liaison with a suspected terrorist, Flanagan’s novel has similarities with German novelist Heinrich Boll’s 1974 novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. But Flanagan’s novel goes further than Boll.
Whereas Boll is centrally concerned with the way in which, in certain hands at least, news stories take on a life of their own, Flanagan is also concerned with the way in which societies scapegoat.
It is quite by chance that Doll encounters Richard Cody, the journalist who was to later prove her downfall, and it seems quite by chance that he latches onto the idea that she might be a terrorist, but the consequences of this judgment turn out to be fatal both for him and for Doll.
Once she is aware that she is wanted by the authorities, Doll seems to become aware of what is going on, and of how she has herself participated in the process of scapegoating in the past. Watching a TV programme about the discovery of the body of a 3000 year old ritual murder victim, Doll finds that everything begins to make sense to her:
A cable station was showing the perfectly preserved body of a three-thousand-year-old woman. … The fossil woman had been drowned, weighed down with stones tied to a noose round her neck. Her head had been shaved. A ritual death … for some crime that no one could now know.(Flanagan, pp. 205, 206)
As the Doll watched the documentary, she felt other women would have been mixed up with it … because they were scared … that if they didn’t accuse someone else, someone else might accuse them. There would have been some kind of crime, of course there would, just like she was called a terrorist now, and maybe back then she’d have been called a witch, but it was all untrue.
She could almost hear them … And the worst thing was that the Doll knew she would have been one of those accusing women …
But maybe, there was some need people had to hurt others, some horrible need, that hurting one woman in some way might make others feel safe and good and happy.
As the story continues to unfold it becomes clear that it is not going to end well for Doll. Caught in a hailstorm she tastes blood as a hailstone cuts her head, and it is then that she realises that ‘Blood had to be spilt’. She realises, too, that there is no reason for this:
It was a need, that’s all. Everyone felt it. No one these days wanted to admit to it, but that was simply part of the deceit of the age.(Flanagan, p. 307)
At the end of the novel, in her final moments, Doll’s thoughts return to the 3000 year old woman in the swamp as she senses ‘the relief on the other women’s faces as she took their guilt …’(Flanagan, p. 318)
Since the work of French philosopher Rene Girard, the concept of scapegoating and the way in which (according to Girard) Jesus of Nazareth in his crucifixion unveils the scapegoating mechanism, has become an important way in to understanding the death of Christ. For Girard, and those who stand in his wake, scapegoating is a way in which groups reinforce both their identity and their solidarity by identifying an “other” whom they unite against. For the Nazis Jews were the scapegoat. For many UK citizens in 2016 the EU, or migrants, were the scapegoat. Families, too, have scapegoats. For Girard, Jesus was the pre-eminent scapegoat, unique because he was totally innocent of any charges levelled against him, and it is his death as recorded in the gospels which sets out the scapegoat mechanism in all its horror.
Not everyone would agree with Girard that Jesus was innocent of all charges. Many, in fact, would say that, in his life and teaching, he posed a very real threat to the powers that be. But, Jesus’ innocence or guilt aside, it is clear that the gospels raise questions about our perennial practise of scapegoating and its cost to both victims and perpetrators.
What Flanagan’s novel does very powerfully is link twenty first century scapegoating to the witch hunts and ritual deaths of past history and pose the question as to whether we are any different to our ancestors of 3000 years ago.
There are many academic discussions of the scapegoat mechanism in practise. One that I have found particularly helpful comes from the North American scholar Ted Peters. Peters identifies two types of scapegoating, external-visible and internal-invisible. Both serve to unite societies or nations, but the difference is whether the focus lies without or within. As Peters writes of the former:
The victims of the scapegoat mechanism are visible, but the perpetrators render their own violence invisible by telling themselves a lie. The lie is this: by ascribing goodness to ourselves—the modern equivalent of medieval merit—we justify perpetrating violence against a scapegoat, thereby repudiating the very goodness we had claimed to embody. This mechanism works only if it is silent, hidden, unexposed.(Ted Peters, ‘Covenant, Blood, and Violence: America at War With Itself’, Dialog, 58:1, March 2019, p. 43)
By contrast, the internal scapegoat is invisible, albeit in plain sight. Peters suggests, in a North America context, that the internal scapegoat is, in fact, the soldier:
The U.S. soldier is the invisible scapegoat whom we sacrifice, declare sacred, and around whom we secure national unity. The sacrifice of the U.S. soldier binds American society into a unity while blinding Americans to the mechanism by which we justify ourselves.(Peters, p. 307)
For Peters, external-visible scapegoats are the nation’s enemies and the internal-invisible scapegoats are the military who are ranged against them. However for the soldier, this role is not one that even they are aware of. His / her
invisible role as an accomplice in patriotism, nationalism, and jingoism is unknown to himself, to his commander in chief, and to the American people.(Peters, p. 47)
The question Peters poses at the end of his article asks about the consequences of revealing the truth about this lie we tell ourselves. Once the truth is out, the invisible scapegoat loses its power to hold everyone together. As the article’s abstract puts it:
The haunting question becomes this: should the prophetic public theologian expose the lie on which American religious nationalism is built and risk sundering human community ?(Peters, p. 39)
Does the public theologian dare risk revealing the lies we tell ourselves to keep our society going ? What would be the consequences of such an act ? For Flanagan, the scapegoat mechanism is ‘part of the deceit of the age’ (Flanagan, p. 307) and elsewhere in the novel he observes that ‘People don’t want the truth, People want an exalting illusion … ‘ (Flanagan, p. 32)
So, in unveiling the lies and deceptions upon which so much in society is based, we risk causing an upset akin to the discovery that the emperor is indeed naked or that there is in fact no Wizard of Oz.
And so, I am left with a number of questions concerning how this relates to the current situation in the UK. How does the scapegoat mechanism manifest itself in this rather different context ? Who are the visible and invisible scapegoats in the UK today ? And, once we have identified them, is it the role of the public theologian to name them ?
Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education.
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