A Writer's Response to Terrorism
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 cant adequately express what you saw, what you
felt, what these pictures mean to you and to the United States as
a nation. Its 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 isnt 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
we hear asked over and over is: How could anyone do this? The scale
of the disaster is so immense its 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 evilin
this particular case, political evilso it shouldnt be
any surprise that were 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.
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
has long known that such people do exist, and many writers have explored
the nature and origins of the terrorist. In the hours after Tuesdays
attack, unable to sleep, a few great novels came immediately to mind.
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."
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 Shigalyovs system a step further: "Id
like to take these nine tenths of mankind, since theres 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, youre 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[.]"
passage with what we know of modern terrorist logic. The holy warriors
in Osama bin Ladens organization, for instance, are the flip
side of Dostoevskys 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 its 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
In the character
of the Professor, Joesph Conrads 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
taskthe 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
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."
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 Ossipons vision in the bar.
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 Professors 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, its 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.
is where the writer can help. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech,
William Faulkner spoke about the writers duty to his time:
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 poets, the writers, 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 dont 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.
Roy Even is the author of Bloodroot and the recipient of an
AWP award for fiction.
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