Osama the Dread

Reviewed by Warren Bass
Sunday, April 27, 2008


September 11: Terror and Boredom

By Martin Amis

Knopf. 211 pp. $24

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest's publisher asked him to reissue his classic broadside against Stalin's outrages, The Great Terror. Conquest was asked if he might consider a new title. "How about 'I Told You So, You [Expletive] Fools'?" he replied.

Martin Amis gleefully recounted this story in his own fusillade against Stalinism, Koba the Dread, and there are moments in Amis's scathing collection of his journalism about 9/11, The Second Plane, when one wonders if he wouldn't rather have used Conquest's title instead. It's perfectly clear to him that Islamism -- that is, perverting a great world faith to create a radical, bloodthirsty modern "ism" -- has some creepy similarities to "the thanatoid political movements we know most about, namely Bolshevism and Nazism," all of which share "a self-pitying romanticism," a furious anti-Semitism, a loathing for liberal societies and above all a "rejection of reason -- the rejection of the sequitur, of cause and effect, of two plus two."

Amis is determined to make even the most complacent reader share his revulsion. Islamism and Bolshevism strike this novelist as, in a word, inhuman, and it appalls and fascinates him that so many humans sign up.

Amis's political engagement is passionate and permanent, absorbed not so much with his mother's milk as with whatever beverages his father, Kingsley Amis, might have had on offer. Like a depressingly broad swath of other Western intellectuals, Amis père had a soft spot for the Soviet Union. That fondness ultimately provided the germ for his son's fuming Koba and his most recent, Soviet-themed novel, House of Meetings. But the younger Amis's journalism deserves to be taken on its own ferocious terms. For one thing, his fury at the fanatics of al-Qaeda and "those sanguinary yokels, the Taliban," fuels some fine jabs; for another, our unconscious preference for pretending that the shock of the attacks has been "frictionlessly absorbed" is so stubborn that even a flawed attempt to admit our angry bafflement is welcome.

Amis may count himself lucky that this collection is now being published outside of Great Britain, if only because, for the first time, the book will have more chance of being read. Back home he's still living down a vintage fracas among the British intelligentsia; in a foolish August 2006 interview conducted when he was livid over a recently busted jihadist plot to blow up transatlantic jetliners, he admitted to "a definite urge" to hound the British Muslim community -- travel bans, curtailed freedoms, racial profiling, perhaps even deportation -- until "it gets its house in order." The resulting brawl mostly drowned out his book in Britain.

But for all the ugly bigotry of Amis's 2006 musings, the argument in The Second Plane bristles with intelligence. Amis sees Islamism as a particularly nasty ideology, "a death-brimmed bog of circular gullibility and paranoia." Osama bin Laden himself is memorably dismissed as an "omnicidal nullity under a halo of ascetic beatitude." Precisely because of his rage at the atrocities in New York, Washington, Shanksville, Pa., Madrid and London, Amis is obsessed with understanding what makes the jihadists tick, and if this collection sometimes flags, it may be because jihadism isn't all that interesting -- a sour, spoiled pseudo-theology rooted in "tinkertoy sophistry."

Of course, Amis also isn't crazy about religion in general. Unlike his old friend Christopher Hitchens, Amis is an agnostic, not an atheist, but he largely shares Hitchens's scornful dismissal of religious belief as ignorant sentimentality. Still, Amis is more or less content to casually sneer at your average theist. What really enrage him are not the believers but the killers. "Naturally we respect Muhammad," he writes. "But we do not respect Muhammad Atta."

So when Amis reimagines "The Final Days of Muhammad Atta" in one of the book's two surprisingly lame stories, he's not satisfied with having the 9/11 ringleader detour to Portland the morning of the attacks to pick up a bottle of holy water from Medina that's probably just ordinary Volvic. Amis has Atta shudder from months of constipation, shake with nausea, repulse those around him with breath that "smelled like a blighted river" and fall down in the shower. Contempt for a mass murderer like Atta is morally unassailable, but there's not a lot of insight in this story. Amis's cleverness also gets the better of him in a lengthy, indulgent and vague tangent about the meaning of boredom in the age of sacred terror.

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