Posts about Terrorism


John Updike, old fart, is turning out to be no ally of modernity. Last week, he took to the podium at BookExpo and railed against the mere notion of making books digital.

Today, he tells the the Times about understanding a cuddly Islamic terrorist in his new book:

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….

“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.’ “

Defending the right to offend

It’s sad seeing the Dutch — or at least one Dutch politician — dis Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born refugee and member of Parliament who has bravely stood up against Muslim extremism (she was the author of the film that led to Theo Van Gogh’s murder). Through this story — via Andrew Sullivan and Pieter Dorsman — I found the blog of Leon De Winter, a Dutch author I respect, who in turn quoted Hirsi Ali’s speech about the right to offend in the wake of the Muslim cartoon madness:

I am here to defend the right to offend.

It is my conviction that the vulnerable enterprise called democracy cannot exist without free expression, particularly in the media. Journalists must not forgo the obligation of free speech, which people in other hemispheres are denied….

Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers the caricatures in The Cartoon Affair. These intellectuals live off free speech but they accept censorship. They hide their mediocrity of mind behind noble-sounding terms such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘sensitivity’.

: By the way, I have now subscribed to De Winter’s blog and wish I’d discovered it long ago. As I said, he’s a Dutch author but here he writes in English on a German newspaper site. Adding to this linguistic carousel, I read many of his novels in transation from Dutch to German (because I find that reading translations is sometimes easier than reading works written in German as I try to improve my woeful language skills). A sample of his deftly blunt prose, which gains much in translation:

Don’t you just love the Norwegians? That wonderful nation that gave us bloodcurdling Vikings and Christmas trees, dynamite and peace prizes. They’ve done it again: last week they promised to help bail out the bankrupt Palestinian authority, and now they’re ticking off Hamas for not ‘living up to their expectations’. Norway, which brokered the failed Oslo accords (yes, that’s where Oslo is) seems to have a gift for overreacting and overcompensating. What kind of expectations could thay have had of Hamas? Didn’t they read the manifesto? Israel must vacate occupied Palestine: and in their language occupied Palestine means all Palestine. In other words the Jewish state must be dismantled, defeated, destroyed. Then those Jews that haven’t already fled or been killed will be redispersed. Hamas isn’t about compromise and peace, it’s about waging and preparing for war. Nice try Norway.

United 93

United 93 dredged my anger and hate about September 11, the silt of my soul that is never far below the surface.

I wasn’t sure whether I should see the movie. Some of you who have come to this page more recently and find mostly blathering about media may not know that I started this blog after September 11, because I was there. It’s personal for every one of us. For me, the memories and emotions are inseparable. Before I went into the theater, I even made sure to take my heart pill, because fear triggers my arrhythmia. I really wasn’t sure I could take it.

The planes hitting their targets one more time hit me as those scenes always do, except these images usually are not part of a drama; they are the drama. The sound and sight of the people on this plane calling home to tell their families goodbye was so sad and so close to home it was about unbearable; as I’ve told you before, since September 11, my children still no longer let me leave the home without saying that they love me and hearing me say it to them.

But the movie starts and ends not with the victims but with the criminals who committed these murders, praying to a God who surely must disown them or there is no God. They are the objects of my anger and hate.

The meme running through many of the reviews of United 93 is that it is carefully made, but the critics wonder why it was made. Let Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek speak for most of the critics (and more eloquently than many of them):

I’ve never had a more excruciating moviegoing experience in my life, and as brilliantly crafted — and as adamantly unexploitive — as the picture is, it still leaves you wondering why it was made in the first place….

But I went into “United 93” with a feeling of dread, and ultimately, I’m not sure Greengrass did much more than pluck at that dread with dogged, if scrupulous, persistence. I walked out of “United 93” feeling bereft and despondent; my stomach muscles had tensed into a seemingly immovable knot. But the picture didn’t make me feel anything I hadn’t fully expected to feel.

Yes. The movie is meticulously and masterfully made. The performances — including especially those from the people in the FAA and military control rooms who play themselves — are incredible. The entire effort is restrained, respectable, and respectful. It tries hard not to tell you what to feel because it doesn’t have to. And I can’t tell you whether you should go because only you know whether you could or should bear it. Nor can I tell you why director and writer Paul Greengrass made this film.

All I can tell you is my reaction, beyond that dread and sorrow and admiration for the heroism and humanity of the victims. I felt the anger and hate again. This is a movie about a crime, a mass murder, a Godless sin.

But not according to The New York Times. In a parody of Times reviews, Manohla Dargis — who also doesn’t know why the film was made — finds, or rather injects, a political agenda:

“United 93” is a sober reminder of the breakdown in leadership on the morning of Sept. 11. Unlike Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the film doesn’t get into the whereabouts of the president that day, or why Osama bin Laden ordered the attack; its focus is purposely narrow. But that narrow focus, along with the lack of fully realized characters, and the absence of any historical or political context, raises the question of why, notwithstanding the usual (if shaky) commercial imperative, this particular movie was made. To jolt us out of complacency? Remind us of those who died? Unite us, as even the film’s title seems to urge? Entertain us?

To be honest, I haven’t a clue. I didn’t need a studio movie to remind me of the humanity of the thousands who were murdered that day or the thousands who have died in the wars waged in their name.

No, I don’t think it is a “sober reminder of the breakdown in leadership.” I think it is quite clearly a sobering reminder of a crime perpetrated against thousands of innocent people by deluded fanatics.

And so perhaps we do need that reminder.

As I went into the theater to buy my ticket, I heard two young women talking about what to see.

“United 93,” said one, “that’s the one about the terrorists who take over the jet.”

Her friend replies, “You know I don’t like action pictures.”

“It’s not really scary,” says the first.

It’s just another thriller to them, about a story apparently forgotten.

Yes, perhaps we need to be reminded of the anger and the hate. We need to be reminded to be scared.

The banality of terror

A Whitehall official told The Observer that the 7/7 bombings in London “were a modest, simple affair by four seemingly normal men using the internet.”

The official inquiry into the 7 July London bombings will say the attack was planned on a shoestring budget from information on the internet, that there was no ‘fifth-bomber’ and no direct support from al-Qaeda, although two of the bombers had visited Pakistan.

The first forensic account of the atrocity that claimed the lives of 52 people, which will be published in the next few weeks, will say that attacks were the product of a ‘simple and inexpensive’ plot hatched by four British suicide bombers bent on martyrdom.

Far from being the work of an international terror network, as originally suspected, the attack was carried out by four men who had scoured terror sites on the internet. Their knapsack bombs cost only a few hundred pounds, according to the first completed draft of the government’s definitive report into the blasts.

Munich and New York

It put me on edge. As I sat in the theater to watch Munich the other night, a preview of Flight 93, a movie about September 11th, came on: “EWR-SFO” gliding across a radar screen, with the voices of actors as passenger-heroes. The event is still too real to be faked and fictionalized already. I dread the dramatization and manipulation and having to ferret out exploitation from agenda.

But then I had to face all that in Munich, Steven Spielberg’s movie about what he wanted the story of the Palestinian murders of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics to be about.

Munich has all the subtlety of a terrorist attack.

Oh, the movie is impressively made. It’s Spielberg. But in the end, it can be reduced to the four key scenes in which Spielberg abandons drama and story-telling to hammer home his points like nails into the skull: There is the scene in which the oh, so likable Palestinian terrorist delivers his soliquey about not having a home. And then there is the scene in which the gentle Jewish toymaker and bombmaker wails and wonders about what it means to be decent when you have to fight to survive. And then there is the boggling juxtaposition between the story’s tortured hero shtupping his wife and the murder of the Israeli athletes; he explodes just as they do and, yes, violence is sex.

But the worst is the final frame, when Spielberg adds back to the New York skyline the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And just what is he trying to say: That killing the terrorists was futile, for they kept killing? Or worse, perhaps, that 9/11 was a counterattack brought on by the counterattacks from our side? I wish he were trying to say that we must continue to hunt down the vermin who perpetrated 9/11 as Israel hunted down those who murdered in Munich. But he leaves little doubt that he is not.

And I wonder what demons Spielberg is using his considerable filmmaking talents to pacify. After his quite laudable recording and dramatization of the Shoah, is he now trying to be fair and balanced to Israel’s enemies? But I can’t imagine him saying that the architects of the Holocaust should not have been brought to justice. Did he instead — to paraphrase the old Air America bit — get the fax with the Hollywood agenda? Well, I don’t believe in conspiracies and cabals, even from Hollywood. Is he paying some penance for Hollywood’s years of glorifying violence? No, he has always been the sweet antidote to movies’ mayhem. In the end, I don’t much care what made him make Munich. But I did not like it. I left angry.

And now I feel even more on edge anticipating the 9/11 movies to come — Flight 93 and Oliver Stone’s and God knows what else that is headed into production.