Adam Ash

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bookplanet: an Updike novel about suicide bombers -- and a movie, and a report

1. In 'Terrorist,' a Cautious Novelist Takes On a New Fear

John Updike is wary of the Internet, concerned that a worm could migrate into his computer and chew up whatever he is working on. In a much-publicized speech recently at BookExpo America, the annual publishing convention, he also took a dim view of the notion of digitizing all books on an enormous online data bank.

For his new novel, "Terrorist," however, he ventured onto the Web to research bomb detonators. He was fairly certain, he remarked recently during an interview in Boston, that the only detonator he could recall — the one that Gary Cooper plunges in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" — must be out of date, but he was also reassured to discover, as he put it, that "the Internet doesn't like you to learn too much about explosives."

While working on the book, Mr. Updike, now 74, white-haired, bushy-browed and senatorial-looking, also risked suspicion by lingering around the luggage-screening machines at La Guardia Airport, where he learned that the X-rays were not in black and white, as he had imagined, but rather in lurid colors: acid green and red.

And he hired a car and a driver to take him around some of the seedier neighborhoods in Paterson, N.J., and to show him some churches and storefronts that had been converted into mosques. "He did his best, but I think I puzzled him as a tour customer," Mr. Updike said.

"Terrorist," which comes out from Alfred A. Knopf next week, is set in Paterson — or, rather, in a slightly smaller, tidier version of the city, called New Prospect — and is about just what the title says. Its protagonist is an 18-year-old named Ahmad, the son of a hippie-ish American mother and an Egyptian exchange student, now absent, who embraces Islam and is eventually recruited to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel.

The new novel is Mr. Updike's 22nd and in some ways a departure. It loosely follows the conventions of a thriller, for example, one of the few forms that Mr. Updike, a jack of nearly all literary trades, had not tried before. And yet as he spoke about "Terrorist" it became clear that the novel also knits together some themes and preoccupations that have been with him almost from the beginning: sex, death, religion, high school and even Paterson itself, which also figures prominently in his novel "In the Beauty of the Lilies" and which Mr. Updike said he sometimes imagines as another version of Reading, Pa., near his hometown, Shillington.

Mr. Updike, who confessed to a mild phobia about tunnels, said the image of an explosion was actually the inspiration for the book. "That picture was the beginning," he added. "The fear of the tunnel being blown up with me in it — the weight of the water crashing in."

Originally, though, he imagined the protagonist as a young Christian, an extension of the troubled teenage character in his early story "Pigeon Feathers," who comes to feel betrayed by a clergyman. "I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith," he said. "The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world."

When Mr. Updike switched the protagonist's religion to Islam, he explained, it was because he "thought he had something to say from the standpoint of a terrorist."

He went on: "I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody's trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that's what writers are for, maybe."

He laughed and added: "I sometimes think, 'Why did I do this?' I'm delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I'd say, 'They can't ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.' "

Ahmad is lovable, or at least appealing; he's in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book, and he gains in vividness from being pictured in that familiar Updikean setting, the American high school.

"It might be that, having gone to high school and having a father who was a high school teacher, that I'm imbued with the ethos," Mr. Updike said. "It occurred to me, though, that a real omission in terms of plausibility is that I don't do enough with cellphones. My school isn't really electrified."

When he was in high school, Mr. Updike added, his own head was "in The New Yorker instead of the Koran," and so while working on "Terrorist" he again picked up that religious text, a book he first read when learning how to impersonate Colonel Ellelloû, the narrator of Mr. Updike's 1978 novel, "The Coup."

"A lot of the Koran does not speak very eloquently to a Westerner," he said. "Much of it is either legalistic or opaquely poetic. There's a lot of hellfire — descriptions of making unbelievers drink molten metal occur more than once. It's not a fuzzy, lovable book, although in the very next verse there can be something quite generous."

"Terrorist" even includes some Koran passages in Arabic transliteration; Shady Nasser, a graduate student, helped Mr. Updike on those sections. "My conscience was pricked by the notion that I was putting into the book something that I can't pronounce," he said, but he added: "Arabic is very twisting, very beautiful. The call to prayer is quite haunting; it almost makes you a believer on the spot. My feeling was, 'This is God's language, and the fact that you don't understand it means you don't know enough about God.' "

For all its theological concerns, "Terrorist" is also an authentic Updike novel, and, thankfully, includes some sheet-rumpled, love-flushed sex scenes between Ahmad's mother, Teresa, and Jack Levy, a guidance counselor at the high school.

"I was happy — because there was so much shaky ground in the writing of this novel — when Jack began to hit on Terry Mulloy," Mr. Updike said. "I felt I was in a scene I could handle. That little romance was very real — to me, at least. I liked those two because they're normal, godless, cynical but amiable modern people."

While waiting for "Terrorist" to come out, Mr. Updike has been working on one of his omnibus volumes. As for what will come after that, he said he was not sure.

"All my life there has been one more thing I think I can do — but only one," he said. "I feel I'm very near the bottom of my barrel at every moment of my career — not like Dostoevsky, who had a notebook full of ideas when he died. I try to see the next book in my mind, and I see a slightly plump book with a lot of people in it, like 'Gosford Park.' But it's not a murder mystery because I'm not clever enough to write one of those."

2. Movie: “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber”
Review by David Denby

Many of us have spent hours at the movies relishing violence and explosions as entertainment. In the documentary “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber,” we see explosions in which real people die, and the sequence comes as a kick in the gut. In 2005, Robert Baer, the C.I.A. case officer whose adventures and misadventures served as the basis for George Clooney’s role in “Syriana,” went around the Middle East with a camera crew, interviewing Lebanese and Israeli intelligence officers and politicians, and the families of suicide bombers and their victims. In between the interviews, Baer and his collaborators, the producer-directors Kevin Toolis and David Batty, drawing on news-agency footage, lay out the historical development of suicide as a weapon—first as a weapon of war, then of terror. The movie is a pageant of fanaticism, sacrifice, and death, and the most striking passage comes near the end. Some of the Lebanese and West Bank bombers were trailed by cameramen, and the footage they recorded—say, of a car bomber taking out an Israeli military patrol—was later used by terrorist organizations as a recruiting and propaganda tool. Baer shows some of those films again and again, and by the end of the sequence I wasn’t sure what enraged me more—the moviemaking terrorists, the blithe idiocy of routine commercial entertainment, or my own complacency in putting up with so much of it.

Baer, who narrates, begins by saying that he is obsessed with the terrorist bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut, in April, 1983, which killed sixty-three people and wiped out most of the C.I.A. station there. How did suicide become so potent a force? He goes through the stages: Ayatollah Khomeini, in the early nineteen-eighties, sanctified very young soldiers’ dying in the defense of Iran, which encouraged a thirteen-year-old boy to strap explosives to his body and blow up an Iraqi tank; Hezbollah used terror against Israelis occupying southern Lebanon in the eighties and nineties; and so on. The filmmakers place each development in its political context, and they trace the increasingly sinister use of religion to justify self-slaughter and murder. Baer can’t say who bombed the Embassy, but he strongly suggests that Iran was behind it, and that Iran has been waging a secret war against American interests for more than a quarter of a century.

That’s the news that Baer threads through “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber.” But the real center of interest, for me, at least, lies in the families of the young men who died. The act by which these kids have fulfilled themselves has ended any possibility that we might attain further knowledge of their temperaments or their souls. What of those who are left behind? An Iranian mother in a black head scarf, referring to her fifteen-year-old son—a photograph shows a slender boy with dark eyes and the faint beginnings of a mustache—who died in battle, says, simply, “He became a martyr for God.” In a city near Tehran, a male relative of a bomber, pointing to a photograph, says, “There’s the martyr Hossein.” Both speak as if the boys had attained a purely official identity, as if they were not their own dead children. “It was a good path for him to take. So why would we stop him?” the mother asks Baer, and there are more remarks, from brothers, sisters, and friends, in praise of the suicide’s duty and rectitude. Other families of young dead warriors may grieve, but these people do not. Did Baer choose them for their ideological purity, or were they the only ones who would talk to him?

The families must be under enormous pressure from Hezbollah, Hamas, and other such organizations to say only the approved things. Still, knowing this, one looks for a fuller response. Did at least one of the bombers’ brothers or sisters harbor such angry thoughts as “My brother was seduced into giving up his life by a cynical and vulgar fantasy of virgins in Paradise”? Or perhaps, in a more analytic vein, did one of them think, “Young men in this society feel they have no future, so why shouldn’t they give up their lives”? Those words, which would suggest a social, rather than a religious, context for the act, are never spoken, or even hinted at. Any kind of psychological explanation is ignored, too. The families utterly reject the word “suicide.” The appropriate word is “martyr,” a bomber’s sister firmly tells Baer. Suicide, it seems, implies the possibility of unhappiness or compulsion, an emotional need that has not been met, whereas martyrdom, as the families present it, is always rationally chosen, and a gift to everyone. The religious language rules out any reason for doing something other than the single reason that is given (American fundamentalists talk the same way).

Hearing this, Baer doesn’t push very hard. He’s in a precarious situation; he enjoys, we imagine, no more than a limited welcome. But his failure to get anything more out of the families frustrates his viewers, and probably frustrates him, too. Near the end of the journey, chronicling Sunni car bombers in Iraq, he talks sorrowfully of Muslims killing Muslims, and he concludes that suicide bombing has lost any coherent political meaning and has taken on an irresistible life of its own as a glamorous cult. And the word he finishes with, to describe the intentions and results of this cult, is “chaos.” But the movie suggests that some kinds of chaos, however much induced by professional terrorists, don’t come about without the consent and support of deeply religious people.

3. CITIZENS – by Steve Coll

In a world amply populated with angry young Muslims, it is a question of some interest why a small number choose to become suicide bombers. President Bush addresses the matter in starkly religious language, consigning it to an eternal contest between good and evil. American scholars have begun to attack the problem with scientific method; Robert Pape, of the University of Chicago, for example, recently mustered data to argue that suicide attacks are a rational means by which the weak can humble the strong. To this potpourri of hypotheses can now be added a compelling work by anonymous bureaucrats in Great Britain, under the oddly redundant title “Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005.”

On that summer morning, three young Muslim men blew themselves up on Underground cars, and a fourth immolated himself on a double-decker bus; fifty-two people died, and several hundred suffered injuries. The most striking aspect of the inquiry into the attacks, which was published earlier this month, is the extent to which it plumbs the suicide bombers’ motivations.

The four men depicted in the report are in some respects unfathomable. When Shehzad Tanweer, a talented athlete who was twenty-two years old, bought snacks at a highway convenience store four hours before his death, he haggled over the change. Hasib Hussain, who was eighteen, strode into a McDonald’s just half an hour before he killed himself and thirteen others. When the four men took leave of one another at King’s Cross station, they hugged, and they appeared, the report says, “happy, even euphoric.” To the credit of the British investigators, however, they were not satisfied merely to observe that the bombers had enrolled in an appealing death cult. They wanted to know how the men were radicalized on British soil—not to excuse them but to aid a strategy of prevention.

Three of the bombers were British citizens, and the report makes plain that this was not just a technical matter of passports or residence status. They were far from destitute; born to Pakistani immigrants, they attended secular state schools and received government and family support throughout their short lives. (The fourth bomber was a Jamaican immigrant who converted to Islam, and whose life was more troubled and erratic.) The ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, even worked for a time at a British welfare agency; later, he was a well-liked teacher’s aide. And yet citizenship failed to compete with the lure of enlistment in an imagined jihadi militia. Khan lost his job just before he began to plan the London bombings. In a video statement left for posthumous broadcast, he emphasized with every pronoun he chose that he had abandoned British identity for service in an enemy army: “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible.”

The report concludes that there is no consistent profile that could be used to help identify who might be vulnerable to such radicalization, and yet the biographies do show in some detail how the making of an Al Qaeda-inspired suicide bomber is an idiosyncratic narrative of push and pull. Alienation from citizenship or family and a loss of faith in secular opportunity create a pool of potential volunteers; preachers, recruiters, and Al Qaeda leaders take it from there. The British parliament’s main intelligence-oversight committee, in a separate report, admits that Britain has failed to consider adequately how it might reduce the number of potential recruits: “We remain concerned that across the whole of the counter-terrorism community the development of the home-grown threat and the radicalisation of British citizens were not fully understood or applied to strategic thinking.”

It seems obvious that citizenship, assimilation, religious tolerance—the basic ideals of an open, plural society—should play a prominent part in counterterrorism strategy, to at least complement the funds that governments pour so eagerly into concrete barriers, listening devices, and retina scanners. When President Bush promotes the spread of democracy abroad, he argues that the distractions of civic life offer a partial cure for terrorism. Yet he offers no comparable rhetoric, never mind a strategy, at home. The scant outreach to American Muslims that the Bush Administration undertakes, aside from occasional religious conferences and White House iftars , is left mainly to the F.B.I.

The results are predictably depressing: a startling number of America’s several million Muslim residents think that the United States is not safe for them. A poll conducted by Zogby International just before the last Presidential election, for example, showed that more than a third of American Muslims believe that the Administration is waging a war on Islam; a similar number believe that “American society overall is disrespectful and intolerant toward Muslims”; and more than half said that they knew someone who had suffered discrimination. It is fair to assume that these numbers understate the problem. If you were a media-literate Muslim immigrant, would you express your frustration to a pollster on the telephone?

British and European Muslims are more often poor, unemployed, and trapped in segregated housing than their American counterparts, but this hardly seems grounds for self-congratulation or complacency, particularly in this country’s current phase of fence-building and nationalism. The Bush Administration has failed to manage the connection between immigration policy and counterterrorism strategy; instead, the President is succumbing to immigrant-bashers. The nativists are ascendant in the Republican Party as final negotiations begin in Congress on a major immigration-reform bill that is rooted in a demagogic movement to strengthen border security (a worthy objective, but not one likely to be achieved by such craven symbolic gestures as the deployment of National Guard troops). It is not clear whether a new law will be passed this summer, or just how bad a bill it will be. Even if a compromise is reached that offers a reasonable path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have long lived here, the price will almost certainly include an expansion of police powers and the re-categorizing of many immigration violations as felonies—a prescription for error and abuse.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Washington Post last week that it is “very, very hard to detect” a jihadi terrorist who is “purely domestic, self-motivated, self-initiating.” The population in which such radicalization may occur is, of course, the one that is on the receiving end of our hysterical immigration debate. To impress upon immigrants that the federal sheriff and his posse will be riding yet again, that detention and expulsion await those whose papers are not in order, and that obtaining citizenship will prove, at best, a risky ordeal is not only unnecessary and wrong; it is dangerous. Almost five years after September 11th, we remain burdened by a President who believes passionately that he is at war and yet has only the most tenuous grasp of his enemy.


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