Is this man a terrorist?
I've taught Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta a couple of times--I'm teaching it again this week--and I'm surprised at how rarely that question comes up. Its absence wasn't so surprising back in 2000, when the subject of terrorism was safely remote for American readers and unlikely to surface in our class discussions. (Since the comic was written during a peak time for terrorist attacks on British soil, I suppose the events of September 2001 have only brought us a little closer to its original context.) But one of the most remarkable things about the post-2001 discussions is how little they deviate from that first time. This is a comic whose hero runs around London blowing up its landmarks and assassinating England's leaders, and we're reading it in a time when our own leaders suggest that merely questioning their wisdom lends aid to terrorists. And yet the question never comes up. That's too bad, since the answers the text offers are both surprising and troubling.
The word has been part of the text from the beginning. England's leaders call V a terrorist, but then their judgment is already suspect; they are, after all, Nazis in all but name, and V's mission to end their reign should not be unsympathetic. But terrorism denotes a methodology, not an ideology, and a sympathetic goal doesn't excuse it.
Part of the problem with pinning V down may be that there's so little agreement as to what constitutes terrorism. However, this Wikipedia article collects the major criteria of most official definitions. They are: the use of violence; civilian targets; an objective of terrifying or intimidating a target audience; a political motive; non-governmental perpetrators; and unlawful acts. Does V fit the bill?
Violence. Oh most certainly yes.
Civilian targets. Questionable. Britain's fascist government appears to have a military separate from its police apparatus--they're glimpsed only briefly in the "Interface" episode in Book 2, Chapter 3, "Video." None of V's victims appear to be members of the military. However, they are almost all agents or officials of the police state, and as such are not exactly "civilians," either. Killing them makes V an assassin, but does it make him a terrorist? Would we call Claus von Stauffenberg or Dietrich Bonhoeffer terrorists?
But how many true civilians die as a result of V's actions? Even if we rule out the officials he assassinates; and the Fingermen and other guards like Bishop Lilliman's assistant, Dennis, who die in the process of his assassinations; or the Fingermen he catches and kills in the act of attempted rape or murder of innocents; or really just the Fingermen in general; he's still blowing up an awful lot of buildings, isn't he?
V begins by destroying his targets in the dead of night, when occupants are likely to be minimal or nonexistent. In fact, Parliament and the Old Bailey may be abandoned: the narrator in Book One chapter 1 tells us "there was power here once," implying it resides there no more, and the Norsefire government shows no evidence having a legislature or even a judicial system. So these structures may be deserted.
That is a pretty big "maybe," though, and if even one squatter is caught in those blasts then V has killed an innocent. Attempting to minimize civilian casualties by bombing in the dead of night wouldn't preclude V from being a terrorist. Conveniently, though, Moore and Lloyd never mention any collateral casualties of these early bombings; these early chapters follow the logic of comic books and action movies, in which only the bad guys die and any other fatalities are discreetly glossed over.
At the beginning of Book 3, V destroys two unequivocably occupied buildings, the P.O. Tower and Jordan Tower. These are the headquarters of the Eye, the Ear, and the Mouth, key structures in the government's intimidation and control of its populace, but destroying occupied buildings escalates V's crimes above the assassination of select officials and demolition of purely symbolic structures. Were the janitors and cafeteria staff on duty at the time so complicit in their government's crimes that they were political and not civilian targets? (Yes, I realize this is a "contractors on the Death Star" type of question.)
Finally, V manipulates Fate to create food shortages and blackouts, triggering, in conjunction with his destruction of the Eye and the Ear, arson, looting, and rioting. Civilians unquestionably die in the chaos; we see one woman shot for looting. The Finger pulls the trigger, but V has put all the dominoes in place. Therefore, whether or not V directly commits violence against noncombatant targets, we can say that he causes the deaths of many civilians.
Other factors distinguish V's actions from conventional definitions of terrorist target selection, however. For one thing, they're selected away from civilian casualties and they're the opposite of "indiscriminate." "How purposeful was your vendetta," Eve says in the book's climax, "how benign, almost like surgery." (Rather appropriate: the state created V by performing medical experiments on his body; he repays the debt by performing surgery on the state, amputating Fingers and putting out Eyes, enacting somatic revenge on a government that patterns itself after a body as if such hollow symbolism will replace the body politic it has disenfranchised.) V's actions are never targeted specifically on civilians, as most terrorist actions and plenty of state-approved military operations are.
Nor does V act with disregard for human life. He is unquestionably callous in fomenting the chaos that will topple the government (and, of course, in his treatment of Evey--generally agreed upon as his most reprehensible act). On the other hand, several incidents show V acting with great concern for human life, always greater than that of the government he's opposing. He saves Evey from rape and murder by Fingermen. He prevents Evey from shooting Ally Harper (this is clearly for Evey's benefit, not Harper's, since he will offer to pluck Harper's rose himself and later arrange for his murder at the hands of Conrad Heyer). Both of the ancillary episodes, "Vertigo" and "Vincent," show this concern. In "Vertigo" he saves the falsely accused Ryan, "a zero," from falling to his death, and in "Vincent" we see that he'll even spare a smile for a Fingerman. Best not read too much into that one: he can't do anything but smile, and I have no doubts that if Vincent had reached for the gun instead of the door he'd be wearing one of those strange puncture wounds. But the incident is revealing because it shows that V doesn't kill unnecessarily or indiscriminately; he has no quarrel with people, even officers of the Finger, who aren't trying to kill or subjugate someone else.
V's actions are difficult to evaluate because they follow the logic of the action-movie hero, the comic-book vigilante, in which any troubling collateral damage is discreetly pushed off-panel. And yet the comic has a disconcerting tendency, increasing as the story progresses, of illustrating some of the unsavory consequences of V's entirely justified resistance against his fascist government. This moral self-awareness, and this deliberate provocation of our own conflicting tendencies to celebrate V's aims and condemn his methods, are some of the book's strongest features: the things that make it worth discussing.
Objective. Doubtful. V undoubtedly courts widespread attention for his deeds. But is he trying "to provoke fear and intimidation in a target audience"? Among the government, possibly, but not to coerce them into performing any particular action; he doesn't use fear as a tactic in any but the most narrowly interpersonal sense. Even the Leader notes, in Book 1 chapter 4, that V isn't behaving "like a conventional terrorist." He doesn't need to coerce or intimidate the government since he kills them all, making him more of an insurrectionist or resistance fighter than a terrorist.
And what about the British people? He's trying to instill just the opposite of fear and intimidation, which are the government's primary implements of control. He's actually trying to empower them, making this criterion a poor fit.
Motive. Yes. V's goals are political; he seeks the destruction of the Norsefire government. However, this criterion exists primarily to distinguish terrorism from other, apolitical forms of public mayhem such as organized crime. Satisfying it precludes V from being a gangster, but it doesn't guarantee he's a terrorist.
Moore and Lloyd include several gangsters in V for Vendetta, to contrast their form of lawlessness with V's. In the best cases (Gordon and Robert), these gangsters merely exploit the empty niches in the government's social order, supplying black-market goods not readily available in an economy of scarcity and rationing. In the worst case (Harper), the gangsters actually become an unofficial arm (ahem) of the government, putting to rest the notion that government guarantees law or order just as V argues that anarchy is not the same as chaos (and in the same chapter, no less--Book 3, chapter 2). By the end of the book, the government is all but indistinguishable from the gangs. The criminals are complicit with the government and even quite chummy with the heads of its police.
Compared to that, V's motive of political liberation is a badge of honor. Not, I hasten to add, one that would excuse terrorism, if V is a terrorist. But if he is, it will be morally damning for reasons other than this one.
Gordon's an interesting little figure, by the way. More on him later.
Perpetrator and legitimacy. Yes, but these are the most arbitrary criteria in the definition of terrorism--the criteria that exist only to exclude states from the definition. As an individual seeking to destroy his government V undoubtedly meets these criteria, but as someone who resists and finally ends the state terror of Norsefire he turns them in his favor.
It's time we had a word about the government. As instigators of violence directed specifically against civilians, intended to provoke fear and intimidation in the populace, for political goals, the Norsefire government is easily the biggest terrorist in V for Vendetta. The criteria of perpetrator and legitimacy may let them off the hook on a technicality--but let's not forget that etymologically the first terrorists were the state terrorists of the French Revolution and, per Wikipedia, the term once denoted the tactics totalitarian regimes used to suppress their own populations. Among the criteria that describe action and purpose, and not those that exist to rule out or provide cover to governments, Norsefire fits the definition better than V does.
That V should resort to many of their methods--most infamously their unlawful detainment and torture--to end their rule compromises his eminently moral aims, a harsh reality that the comic and V himself know all too well. After initially allowing us to give V our full approval, Moore and Lloyd gradually recast his actions until we see that methodogically, at least, he is no better than the terror state he seeks to destroy--even as they show us why he and everywoman Eve are morally obligated to destroy it. It's V for Vendetta's willingness to confront its protagonists' compromised morality that makes it a great comic; it's V's willingness to submit himself to judgment and pay the price for his crimes that just might redeem him in the end, and allow a better England to arise without him.
But what about V and terrorism? The criteria he satisfies most easily are those that exist only to exclude other parties from the word's stain; the most appalling ones are those he fits least. Even worse, the things he does that most appall us don't qualify him as a terrorist at all. (Lucky for us.) If V, a freedom fighter who resists a genocidal police state, is a terrorist then maybe the word has no meaning; but if V, a homicidal maniac who assassinates and destroys non-military targets, is not a terrorist then maybe the word has no meaning.
Maybe the problem is that there is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism; or rather, that the only definition we all agree upon is elusive and universally unspoken. This Guardian article names it: "terrorism is violence committed by those we disapprove of."
But is V a terrorist?