The age of horrorism
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 14: The Trouble with Paradise
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Martin Amis
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It was mid-October 2001, and night was closing in on the border city of Peshawar, in Pakistan, as my friend – a reporter and political man of letters – approached a market stall and began to haggle over a batch of t-shirts bearing the likeness of Osama bin Laden. It is forbidden to depict the human form in Sunni Islam, lest it lead to idolatry, but here was Osama's lordly visage, on display and on sale right outside the mosque. The mosque now emptied after evening prayers, and my friend was very suddenly and very thoroughly surrounded by a shoving, jabbing, jeering brotherhood: the young men of Peshawar.
At this time of day, their equivalents in the great conurbations of Europe and America could expect to ease their not very sharp frustrations by downing a lot of alcohol, by eating large meals with no dietary restrictions, by racing around to one another's apartments in powerful and expensive machines, by downing a lot more alcohol as well as additional stimulants and relaxants, by jumping up and down for several hours on strobe-lashed dance floors, and (in a fair number of cases) by having galvanic sex with near-perfect strangers. These diversions were not available to the young men of Peshawar.
More proximately, just over the frontier, the West was in the early stages of invading Afghanistan and slaughtering Pakistan's pious clients and brainchildren, the Taliban, and flattening the Hindu Kush with its power and its rage. More proximately still, the ears of these young men were still fizzing with the battle cries of molten mullahs, and their eyes were smarting anew to the chalk-thick smoke from the hundreds of thousands of wood fires – fires kindled by the multitudes of exiles and refugees from Afghanistan camped out all around the city. There was perhaps a consciousness too that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, over the past month, had reversed years of policy and decided to sacrifice the lives of its Muslim clients and brainchildren over the border in exchange for American cash. So, when the crowd scowled out its question, the answer needed to be a good one.
"Why you want these? You like Osama?"
I can almost hear the tone of the reply I would have given – reedy, wavering, wholly defeatist. As for the substance, it would have been the reply of the cornered trimmer – and intended, really, just to give myself time to seek the foetal position and fold my hands over my face. Something like: "Well I quite like him, but I think he overdid it a bit in New York." No, that would not have served. What was needed was boldness and brilliance. The exchange continued: "You like Osama?"
"Of course. He is my brother."
"He is your brother?"
"All men are my brothers."
All men are my brothers. I would have liked to have said it then, and I
would like to say it now: all men are my brothers. But all men are not my brothers. Why? Because all women are my sisters. And the brother who denies the rights of his sister: that brother is not my brother. At the very best, he is my half-brother – by definition.
Osama is not my brother.
RELIGION IS SENSITIVE GROUND, AS WELL IT MIGHT BE. Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief – unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses. This is, of course, not so in the East where, we acknowledge, almost every living citizen in many huge and populous countries is intimately defined by religious belief. The excuses here are very persuasive, and we duly accept that "faith" – recently and almost endearingly defined as "the desire for the approval of supernatural beings" – is a world-historical force and a world-historical actor. All religions, unsurprisingly, have their terrorists – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, even Buddhist. But we are not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from Islam.
Let us make the position clear. We can begin by saying not only that we respect Muhammad, but that no serious person could fail to respect Muhammad – a unique and luminous historical being. Judged by the continuities he was able to set in motion, he remains a titanic figure and, for Muslims, all-answering: a revolutionary, a warrior and a sovereign; a Christ and a Caesar; "with a Koran in one hand", as Bagehot imagined him, "and a sword in the other". Muhammad has strong claims to being the most extraordinary man who ever lived – and always a man, as he always maintained, and not a god.
Naturally we respect Muhammad. But we do not respect Muhammad Atta.
Until recently, it was being said that what we are confronted with here is "a civil war" within Islam. That's what all this was supposed to be: not a clash of civilisations or anything like that, but a civil war within Islam. Well, the civil war appears to be over. And Islamism won it. The loser – moderate Islam – is always deceptively well-represented on the level of the op-ed page and the public debate; elsewhere, it is supine and inaudible. We are not hearing from moderate Islam. Whereas Islamism, as a mover and shaper of world events, is pretty well all there is.
So, to repeat, we respect Islam – the donor of countless benefits to mankind and the possessor of a thrilling history. But Islamism? No, we can hardly be asked to respect a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination. More, we regard the Great Leap Backwards as a tragic development in Islam's story, and now in ours. Naturally we respect Islam.
But we do not respect Islamism, just as we respect Muhammad and do not respect Muhammad Atta.
I WILL SOON COME TO DONALD RUMSFELD, the architect and guarantor of the hideous cataclysm in Iraq. But first I must turn from great things to small, for a paragraph, and talk about writing, and the strange thing that happened to me at my desk in this, the Age of Vanished Normalcy.
All writers of fiction will at some point find themselves abandoning a piece of work – or find themselves putting it aside, as we gently say. The original idea, the initiating "throb" (Nabokov), encounters certain "points of resistance" (Updike), and these points of resistance, on occasion, are simply too obdurate, numerous and pervasive. You come to write the next page, and it's dead – as if your subconscious, the part of you quietly responsible for so much daily labour, has been neutralised, or switched off. Norman Mailer has said that one of the few real sorrows of "the spooky art" is that it requires you to spend too many days among dead things.
Recently, and for the first time in my life, I abandoned not a dead thing, but a thriving novella, and I did so for reasons that were wholly extraneous. I am aware that this is hardly a tectonic event, but for me the episode was existential. In the West, writers are acclimatised to freedom – to limitless and gluttonous freedom. And I discovered something. Writing is freedom, and as soon as that freedom is in shadow, the writer can no longer proceed. The shadow, in this case, was not a fear of repercussion. It was as if, most reluctantly, I was receiving a new vibration or frequency from the planetary shimmer. The novella was a satire called The Unknown Known.
Secretary Rumsfeld was unfairly ridiculed, some thought, for his haiku-like taxonomy of the terrorist threat: "The message is: there are known ‘knowns'. There are things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
Like his habit of talking in "the third person passive once removed", this is "very Rumsfeldian". And Rumsfeld can be even more Rumsfeldian than that. According to Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack (Simon and Schuster, 2004), at a closed-door senatorial briefing in September 2002 (the idea was to sell regime change in Iraq), Rumsfeld exasperated everyone present with a torrent of Rumsfeldisms, including the following strophe: "We know what we know, we know there are things we do not know, and we know there are things we know we don't know we don't know."
Anyway, the three categories remain quite helpful as analytical tools. And they certainly appealed very powerfully to the narrator of The Unknown Known – Ayed, a diminutive Islamist terrorist who plies his trade in Waziristan, the rugged northern borderland where Osama bin Laden is still rumoured to lurk.
Ayed's outfit, which is called "the "Prism", used to consist of three sectors named, not very imaginatively, Sector One, Sector Two and Sector Three. But Ayed and his colleagues are attentive readers of the Western press, and the sectors now have new titles. Known Knowns (sector one) concerns itself with daily logistics: bombs, mines, shells, and various improvised explosive devices. The work of Known Unknowns (sector two) is more peripatetic and long-term; it involves, for example, trolling around North Korea in the hope of procuring the fabled twenty-five kilograms of enriched uranium, or going from factory to factory in Uzbekistan on a quest for better toxins and asphyxiants. In Known Knowns, the brothers are plagued by fires and gas-leaks and almost daily explosions; the brothers in Known Unknowns are racked by headaches and sore throats, and their breath – tellingly – is rich with the aroma of potent cough drops, moving about as they do among vats of acids and bathtubs of raw pesticides. Everyone wants to work where Ayed works, which is in sector three, or Unknown Unknowns. Sector three is devoted to conceptual breakthroughs – to shifts in the paradigm.
Shifts in the paradigm like the attack of September 11, 2001. Paradigm shifts open a window and, once opened, the window will close. Ayed observes that September 11 was instantly unrepeatable; indeed, the tactic was obsolete by 10am the same morning. Its efficacy lasted for seventy-one minutes, from 8.46am, when American Airlines 11 hit the North Tower, to 9.57, and the start of the rebellion on United 93. On United 93, the passengers were told about the new reality by their mobile phones, and they didn't linger long in the old paradigm – the four-day siege on the equatorial tarmac, the diminishing supplies of food and water, the festering toilets, the conditions and demands, the phased release of the children and the women, then the surrender, or the clambering commandos. No, they knew that they weren't on a commercial aircraft, not any longer; they were on a missile. So they rose up. And at 10.03, United 93 came down on its back at 580 miles per hour, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, twenty minutes from the Capitol.