Ruminations about Sept. 11
The Second Plane
Terror and Boredom
Alfred A. Knopf: 212 pp., $24
It would be too easy to read Martin Amis’ slim book on Sept. 11 in a day and to dismiss it with a politically correct glare. The dozen essays, columns and reviews and two short stories in “The Second Plane: September 11, Terror and Boredom” are more illuminating than that, though deeply, sometimes self-indulgently flawed.
They were written across six years, starting with a column in Britain’s Guardian on Sept. 18, 2001, and ending with one in the Times of London on Sept. 11, 2007. Amis has republished them together, with few revisions, to let us watch him learning fitfully, as we all did, from Sept. 11.
He stumbled through over-determined, under-informed generalizations and fragmented, contradictory insights about an attack as old as hatred but as new as using an “American passenger jet . . . symbol of indigenous mobility and zest,” to destroy thousands of lives and shatter symbols of Pax Americana’s peaceful commerce and omnipotence in war.
Amis is brave in again baring his earliest rationalizations, unfolding obsessions and dubious conclusions, but at times he’s brazen in shoving our snouts into harsh realities that he thinks we’ve sanitized, ideologized or quietly forgotten with the passage of time.
So determined is Amis to make us taste suicide bombing’s depravity that he traces intimately the perpetrators’ psycho-sexual perversity, their “self besplatterment,” the bloody “pink haze” forming above the bodies of World Trade Center victims who’ve plunged to their deaths. Even the film “United 93" captures heroic passengers’ “state of near-perfect distress -- a distress that knows no blindspots. . . . the ancient flavor of death and defeat. You think: this is exactly what they meant us to feel.”
He makes you ashamed of trying to feel anything else.
Amis’ realism is harsh politically as well as morally: Wrong-headed though he considers the war in Iraq, he doesn’t let its depredations eclipse those of Saddam Hussein, who “used familial love as an additional instrument of torture . . . as the interrogator applies himself to your mother or your three-year-old child.”
Even Amis’ New Yorker short story “In the Palace of End,” about Hussein’s torture house, is chilling, with a clamminess that puts it beyond surreal.
Similarly with Israel’s enemies: “Naturally one would be reluctant to question the cloudless piety of the Palestinian mother who, having raised one suicide-mass murderer, expressed the wish that his younger brother would become a suicide-mass murderer too. But the time has come to cease to respect the quality of her ‘rage’ -- to cease to marvel at the unhinging rigor of Israeli oppression -- and to start to marvel at the power of [this woman’s] entrenched and emulous ideology. And if oppression is what we’re interested in, then we should think of the oppression, not to mention the life expectancy (and, God, what a life), of the younger brother.”
You expect Amis to seek a Palestinian Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, who curbed vast, national-security states without terrorism.
But Amis rouses only his inner Winston Churchill against liberals who rationalize terror, admonishing, “We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.” Islamists are “a completely new kind of enemy, one for whom death is not death -- and for whom life is not life, either, but illusion.”
Such broad strokes blur Amis’ distinctions between fanatical Islamism and Islam.
“Islam means ‘submission’ -- the surrender of independence of mind,” he writes. Its nature is “to dominate,” [but] the only thing Islamism can dominate, for now, is the evening news. But that is not nothing, in a world of pandemic suggestibility, munition glut, and our numerous Walter Mittys of mass murder.”
Here we teeter again between being frightened of Islam and deeply doubtful of the suggestible, consumerist West.
Amis lets Paul Berman’s book “Terror and Liberalism” organize too much of his contempt for what Berman aptly calls liberals’ “naive rationality” about things that cannot be rationalized.
But Berman’s claim (which Amis also adopts) that Islamism borrowed a lot from Hitler and Stalin makes the West more inherently irrational than either writer considers as he sounds the alarm against Islamism.
Instead of exploring that paradox, Amis grasps for certainty, writing as if Sept. 11 had changed everything: Now, parents’ hope that they can protect their children “seems obviously and palpably inconceivable.” But was it better for British parents during the Blitz?
Similarly, on the morning of Sept. 11, with all eyes secured cinematically on the north tower, “the second plane would crash into the South Tower, and in that instant America’s youth would turn into age.” I dunno. For me, the U.S. lost its youthfulness in the Vietnam War, which slaughtered more than 50,000 young Americans and countless Vietnamese before ending in a cinematically riveting evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon.
Amis finds Mohamed Atta and his fellow jihadis gripped “by a chaotically adolescent -- or even juvenile -- indifference to reality. These men are fabulists crazed with blood and death; and reality, for them, is just something you have to maneuver around in order to destroy it.”
That’s similar to how Tom Wolfe depicted inner-city black youths in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1987, when New York City had more than 1,600 murders a year. One needn’t press the comparison, but not all that seems new is new.
Amis’ virtuosity sometimes outruns simple reportage as well as reason: Tony Blair’s aging is slower than “Abe Lincoln’s -- the handsome frontiersman completely desiccated by the Civil War.” Was Lincoln ever handsome?
In another passage, Amis claims that in Europe, Muslim fertility rates imperil Christian demographic dominance, while in the U.S., Hispanics help offset that peril with high birthrates in red states such as “Alabama and Wyoming.” Using those states to make his point is a novelist’s confabulation, not a report.
Some writers deploy validated facts selectively to advance false ideas. Amis advances valid ideas with too many imagined facts. As a choreographer of imagination and ideas, he’s bracing and morally brave, but so was George Orwell, who told truths less affectedly, in writing clear as a pane of glass.
That difference reminds me that Amis’ British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was founded by the man who turned down Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in 1944, after the Ministry of Information warned that the novel was a satire of Britain’s Soviet ally against Nazi terror. Cape may have changed for the better in publishing Amis’ flamboyantly dark and irreverent performances, but Orwell remains the better guide to truth about terror, in fiction and prose.
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.