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A Writer's Response to Terrorism

by Aaron Roy Even

On September 11, 2001, we reached the limit of words, as a man reaching the end of a pier encounters the impassable water. No way to properly express what we have all, by now, seen a hundred times over. The hijacked airplanes loaded with fuel, smashing into the side of the World Trade Center towers, then bursting into flames. And a short while later, the towers themselves collapsing into dust. But these are merely descriptive sentences and can’t adequately express what you saw, what you felt, what these pictures mean to you and to the United States as a nation. It’s humbling for an artist to realize the limits of his instrument: the elegant violin suddenly becomes a block of wood. And words? What good are words at a time like this? No way to properly describe the parade of sickening images. The writer is as helpless as anyone else. And maybe this isn’t a time for words, maybe that time will come later, when the guns are quiet. But for those of us who turn habitually to literature in order to make sense of our lives and our world, already the search for understanding has begun.

The question we hear asked over and over is: How could anyone do this? The scale of the disaster is so immense it’s hard to grasp in our minds, and we end by shaking our heads in frustration and disbelief. The question is fundamentally about the depth and nature of evil—in this particular case, political evil—so it shouldn’t be any surprise that we’re not able to provide a ready answer.

There is an instructive story from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. As a young boy, he was sent to live with a Bedouin family in the desert. One day two angels appeared to him under a burning sun, clothed in white and carrying a bowl of snow. They lay Muhammad down and split his breast open, removed his heart, and withdrew from its recesses a black clot. Then they washed his heart in the snow.

The story teaches that only by the grace of God is evil cleansed from our hearts. Still, we wonder: How can anyone become so corrupted, vicious, and indifferent to human suffering? And how can anyone believe such bloodshed serves God?

But literature has long known that such people do exist, and many writers have explored the nature and origins of the terrorist. In the hours after Tuesday’s attack, unable to sleep, a few great novels came immediately to mind.

In Dostoevsky’s novel Demons, the story centers on a group of would-be nihilist revolutionaries in a provincial Russian town. At first glance they seem a laughable bunch of posturers and pseudointellectuals, but a frightening sense of menace builds implacably as the narrative unfolds. One evening the group meets in secret and a conversation takes place about the proper method for reordering society. The scene is brilliant in its mix of satire and bloodchilling ideology. One of the members, Shigalyov, expounds on his system at length, but first admits, "’I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the orginal idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.’"

Shigalyov’s system is summed up by another member of the group. "‘He suggests, as a final solution of the question, the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One tenth is granted freedom of person and unlimited rights over the remaining nine tenths.’" The top one tenth is naturally made up of radical revolutionaries or intellectuals, and the rest of "the herd" are forced into perpetual slavery, which they will be taught to accept over time, creating what Shigalyov promises will be a paradise on earth. Another member of the group, Lyamshin, takes Shigalyov’s system a step further: "‘I’d like to take these nine tenths of mankind, since there’s really nothing to do about them, and blow them sky-high, and leave just a bunch of learned people who would then start living happily in an educated way.’" Indeed, why not blow them sky-high? Society cannot be properly reconstituted without sacrificing a number of people to whatever social system is agreed upon. Another of the members complains: "‘Now it is being suggested to us, through various strewn-about leaflets of foreign manufacture, that we close ranks and start groups with the sole purpose of universal destruction" under the pretext that however you try to cure the world, you’re not going to cure it, but by radically lopping off a hundred million heads’[.]" If an argument for mass murder is being made, Verkhovensky, the out-of-town radical who has called the meeting, provides the necessary rationalization. He offers the group a stark choice between "‘the slow way that consists in the writing of social novels and the bureaucratic predetermining of human destinies’" or the quick way, which is to say a hundred million heads. This is even presented as a kind of bargain, because "‘despotism in some hundred years will eat up not a hundred but five hundred million heads’[.]"

Compare this passage with what we know of modern terrorist logic. The holy warriors in Osama bin Laden’s organization, for instance, are the flip side of Dostoevsky’s nihilists; although claiming to draw their legitimacy from God, they adopt the nihilists’ mathematical attitude toward human life. Individual human beings are entirely beside the point, as are questions of innocence and justice: whatever the number of lives it takes to accomplish their political goals, they are willing to sacrifice and slaughter. Similarly, the Shining Path of Peru regarded bloodshed as a necessary part of the birthing process. In order to bring a new society into the world a certain number of people must be sacrificed, and it’s best not to be squeamish about it. If we are repulsed by such logic, so was Dostoevsky, and Demons can be seen as an attempt to shed light on the evil lurking beneath fashionable revolutionary politics.

In the character of the Professor, Joesph Conrad’s The Secret Agent presents a very different portrait of a terrorist. A self-descibed agent of destruction, the Professor abhors all collective movements, judging revolutionaries and the police who pursue them as fellow slaves of social convention. Instead he has set himself a very simple, precise task——the construction of "a perfect detonator." Conrad describes him as a "bespectacled, dingy little man" whose physical weakness is contrasted by a supreme self-confidence and sense of invulnerability: he carries on his person at all times a detonator which he means to explode at the first hint of arrest. Speaking with the Professor at a grimy London bar, a revolutionary named Ossipon has a vision of the destruction the Professor would so casually unleash: "For a moment Ossipon imagined the overlighted place changed into a dreadful black hole belching horrible fumes, choked with ghastly rubbish of smashed brickwork and mutilated corpses. He had such a distinct perception of ruin and death that he shuddered [.]"

The Professor compares himself with the revolutionaries and police officers in this way: "’Their character is built upon conventional morality. It leans on the social order. Mine stands free from everything artificial. They are bound in all sorts of conventions. They depend on life....whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident.’"

It’s hard to read this passage without thinking of the hijackers who, like the Professor working away at his detonator, attended flight schools and planned their deaths in meticulous and coordinated detail. Death is regarded coldly, from a distance, not merely as a means to an end, but as a legitimate end in itself. If the Professor sees himself as an agent of social destruction, surely the suicidal hijackers of September 11 viewed themselves in a similar light: the society they seek to destroy is our own.

The aims of these modern terrorists are ambitious and unrelenting. Osama bin Laden has stated that his goal is not simply to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East, but to destroy the United States by causing the country to divide; he foresees a future of loose American states that have broken apart under the strain of terrorism, powerless, weighted with corpses, like Ossipon’s vision in the bar.

The terrorist has convinced himself that he is justified. His view of the world and of human beings is myopic, dwelling solely within the borders of his plan. He has no time or inclination to lift his eyes, even for a moment, to consider the physical and moral consequences of what he is doing. Lazily he leans on absolutist political doctrine or bizarre interpretations of Scripture, but this is contrasted by the furious and focused effort of his work. As in the Professor’s case, there is no hope of negotiation. He is contemptuous of weakness. And he very much believes we are weak.

If we have never seen such evil before, it’s because we have chosen not to see it. After all, our country armed and trained many of these terrorists during the cold war, and we have long known they wish us no good. We have spent a long while absorbed with trivial pursuits, emboldened by flush times, believing the party would never end.

Now we will have to try to understand evil. We are out of practice, flabby and hung over, but we will have to get in shape fast.

Perhaps this is where the writer can help. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner spoke about the writer’s duty to his time:

"I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. "

If we can put aside the things that don’t matter. If we can put aside our fear. If we can remember the "courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice" of which Faulkner reminds us. They are part of our national character, our past, our literature. And we will need them again.

Aaron Roy Even is the author of Bloodroot and the recipient of an AWP award for fiction.

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