“A subtle fear has entered Tasmanian life; it stifles dissent and is conducive to the abuse of power. To question or to comment is to invite the possibility of ostracism and unemployment.” These remarks by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan would prove to be true after they appeared in an April 21, 2004 article in the British paper The Guardian. The article, about the clear cutting of forests on Flanagan’s home island, criticized the close ties between the government and the Gunns corporation, Australia’s largest logging company holding a monopoly in Tasmania. Flanagan did not anticipate the backlash he would receive from the Tasmanian Premier, Parliament, and the local media that were all critical of his opinion being voiced in a foreign venue that brought local politics to international attention. In remarks made later, Flanagan describes how he realized at that point the power of the media to create an image of a person that has nothing to do with reality. The false identity amounts to an ad homonym attack foreclosing the point of criticism and stifling dissent.
Flanagan’s latest novel, The Unknown Terrorist, derives from the context of the writer’s personal controversy to explore the way the media capitalizes on public concerns about terrorism to construct a story and a new identity of one woman as a terrorist that has no basis in reality. I argue the media construction amounts to a spectacle that forecloses identity based on fear and allows terrorism to succeed because transnational terrorism is a media spectacle. Flanagan attempts to engage this issue by going beyond the media spectacle and beyond the spectacle of terrorism by asking the questions regarding fear and terror that make readers “question and comment” in ways that engage the issues rather than buy into an emotional reaction perpetuated by the government and the media. The text is Flanagan’s means of fighting against “the politicians and the security forces and the journalists, who, instead of protecting people, also betrayed them” (Unknown Terrorist 186).
Set in Sydney, the novel explores the nuances of how the fear of transnational terrorism dominates the local imagination. Even though Australia has been relatively secure, fear becomes the primary mechanism through which the people view the world and is used to define every aspect of those around them. “People like fear. We all want to be frightened and we all want somebody to tell us how to live” (Unknown Terrorist 166). Fear is the means through which the unknown becomes palpable in a time of uncertainty, and when societal forces capitalize on fear, art needs to go beyond the recognition the media spectacle provides to critically engage the topic and bring about an ethical solution.