Many works of art have emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as part of the collective struggle to commemorate, understand, and situate them within the rapidly coalescing frieze of our shared memory. Thanks to the plethora of novels sprung up in the ashes of disaster, we are now privy to such worthwhile phenomena of universal human interest as the tone-poetic hi-jinks of the chattering classes in the months preceding the big event, as in Claire Messud’s respectable novel The Emperor’s Children, and the annoyingly precious musings of the insufferably earnest, as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s not-so-respectable novella Extremely Loud and Incredible Close. However, almost exclusively, the crop of post-9/11 literature has treated the attacks from the perspective of the victims and not the terrorists.
Beyond the obvious reason that terrorists neither purchase books nor pen well-regarded reviews of them in The New York Review of Books, another reason for the paucity of novelistic portrayals may be the inherent distaste many hold toward such an authorial endeavor. The raison d’être for many a novel – replicating the warp and woof of a given milieu and capturing the experience of living for certain people in a certain place at a certain time – may seem obscene and indulgent when applied to terrorists who killed thousands of people. We humanize monsters at our peril; for in doing so we risk dissolving the undigested enormity of their crimes into a thousand banal incidents swirling among the currents of everyday plausibility. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, as the saying goes.
Yet I believe this literary scruple obscures a vital political necessity. It behooves us, now more than ever, to understand our self-declared enemies – both in the sense of articulating their political grievances and in the sense of illuminating the psychological grotesqueries of why a man chooses to lay down his life for the destruction of others. The evidence shows that the terrorists who struck on 9/11 were neither walleyed zombies nor avatars of malice incarnate. Rather, they were well-educated young men from relatively affluent families, many of whom had spent considerable time in the West. And yet they flew planes of human beings into buildings of human beings. Why?
John Updike’s latest book Terrorist (2006) provides an interesting, if ultimately flawed, answer.
The book takes place amid the diverse post-industrial landscape of New Jersey, home to bustling immigrant demimonde, endless suburbia, and blighted inner-city, and it comprises a cast of characters who range from canny handlers and false prophets to burnt-out authority-figures and thwarted ingénues. Our plucky protagonist is one Ahmad Mulloy, an American-born terrorist manqué who takes part in a plot to collapse the Lincoln Tunnel during rush hour with a truck of fertilizer-explosive. The usual suspects of sociology – fervent religiosity, social alienation, and the cultic allure of the close-knit group – are all in evidence. Yet in the final analysis Ahmad is basically a mixed-up kid who went for jihad when he could have just as easily gone for something wholesome, like death-metal or vandalism.
Despite a few lapses of ham-handed characterization and sheer narrative fatuousness, Terrorist suggests a fascinating and provocative portrait of the psychology of fanaticism and martyrdom while at the same time offering a meditation on the ennui and chaos of postmodern America as seen through the eyes of Jack Levy – the lapsed, overweight Jewish-American everyman who is Ahmad’s high-school guidance counselor.
Ahmad attends Central High School in the town of New Prospect, NJ. In his own words, he is “the product of a white American mother and an Egyptian exchange student.” The exchange student (himself irreligious) was quick to dust his broom, as they say, so Teresa Mulloy, Ahmad’s mother, raised the boy herself. Ahmad’s mixed lineage and paternal void seem to encapsulate the hybrid provenance of Islamist terrorism itself – the destructive use of Western technology as a symbolic means of reasserting a positive condition whose contemporary negation may be variously embodied by a bygone Caliphate, military humiliation, economic dependency, or cultural hegemony.
Teresa has no traditional religion, and instead warms herself with threadbare platitudes like, “Religion to me is all a matter of attitude. It’s saying yes to life.” Her breezy, ultra-permissive style of parenting comes to stand for the generous degree of economic, social, and cultural laissez-faire which for us in the post-Enlightenment West has become nearly synonymous with civilization itself. Ahmad reflects that his mother is,
“a victim of the American religion of freedom, freedom above all, though freedom to do what and to what purpose is left up in the air. Bombs bursting in air – empty air is the perfect symbol of American freedom. There is no ummah here…no encompassing structure of divine law that brings men rich and poor to bow down shoulder to shoulder, no code of self-sacrifice, no exalted submission such as lies at the heart of Islam, its very name.”
When President Bush famously declared that terrorists had attacked America because they “hate our freedoms,” and on the very heels of this declaration issued his world-resounding pronunciamento, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he was widely mocked and little heeded. Yet from the mouth of fools: wisdom. In Updike’s book, Ahmad the terrorist does indeed “hate our freedoms.” Ahmad hates freedom for the same reason all religious fundamentalists hate freedom: it tenders a vision of society antithetical to a righteous order predicated on the word of God.
Like Matthew Arnold, Ahmad rejects the principle of Doing As One Likes as a principle sufficient unto the determination of civil society. In his eyes, freedom merely enshrines an official state of anomie and throws open the doors to immorality of every kind, especially the sexual kind. And yet for Ahmad there creeps from the shadow of freedom a specter even more frightening than that of sexual immorality: the specter of a purposeless existence. He is afflicted by the horrible thought of living absent a divine framework and without (like those awful Americans) any supreme life-ordering purpose, save the furious pursuit of getting and spending. As he never ceases to asseverate, “These devils seek to take away my God.”
It is truly unfortunate that Updike brings the same dubious verisimilitude to his portrayal of Ahmad Mulloy as Tom Wolfe brought to that of Charlotte Simmons. The drift of Ahmad’s inner life careens wildly from academic expatiation to perfervid melodrama. A profusion of italicized phrases in Arabic, quotations from the Qur’an, and ploddingly-written theological meditations all contrive not to simulate the desired flavor of authenticity, but rather to broadcast an obtrusive scholarliness. Ahmad Mulloy simply fails to come across as a convincing and unified person. One moment he has the manners of a prophet from the Old Testament, and the next he’s a blushing naif. His speech is wooden and hilarious. At one point Ahmad says, “Sir, I regret to say that you will not live. In a few minutes I am going to see the face of God. My heart overflows with the expectation.” Do terrorists really talk like this? I don’t know, but I don’t think Updike does either. Indeed, Ahmad’s retrograde worldview and fumbling social sense render him a comic figure at times akin to Don Quixote or Ignatius Reilly (from A Confederacy of Dunces), something I doubt Updike was consciously striving for.
Ahmad’s radical beliefs stem not so much from inner reserves of faith, but rather from a paranoia of devilry and a perpetual disgust at his worldly surroundings. Terrorist’s apt epigraph, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, seems to get at this: “Disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses.” That is to say, Ahmad’s religiosity is essentially negative and of the character of a disbelief, an ego-sheltering raft of defense-mechanisms lashed together against the sexual turmoil, strident complexity, and endemic purposelessness of modern life.
The climax of the novel occurs when Jack Levy, having boarded Ahmad’s truck of explosives wending its way toward the Lincoln Tunnel, manages to dissuade our plucky protagonist from flipping the fatal switch. If you’re thinking here comes a mighty panegyric of everything noble and decent about America in the tradition of the Great American Novel, well think again. Their conversation could not be more banal. The only dash of spice comes when Jack confesses, “Listen. There’s something I need to say to you. I fucked your mother.” The rest of their conversation has roughly the moral heft of a Woody Allen movie. After the danger has passed, Jack Levy concludes, “Thank God you chickened out.”
In the end the denouement of Terrorist arrives unaccompanied by any great sunburst of epiphany. Ahmad’s reasons for not going through with the bombing are unclear, and he seems rather contrite about his decision. His final thoughts are reminiscent of someone surveying a postlapsarian world:
“All around them, up to Eight Avenue to Broadway, the great city crawls with people, some smartly dressed, many of them shabby, a few beautiful but most not, reduced by the towering structures around them to the size of insects, but scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day, each one of them impaled live upon the pin of consciousness, fixed upon self-advancement and self-preservation. That, and only that. These devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God.”
Compadres, here’s to devilry. May it last a thousand years.