Reviewed by Warren Bass
Sunday, April 27, 2008
THE SECOND PLANE
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.
"A rational response" to 9/11 and bin Ladenism, Amis writes, "would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust." But it's when he varies his siren that the book snaps and snarls. During a coiled, approving review of the movie "United 93," Paul Greengrass's almost unwatchably intense recreation of the flight whose abandoned, assaulted passengers did far more than NORAD to defend the country, a furious Amis imagines having to explain the hijacking to a child on board: "Well, you see, my child, the men with the bloodstained knives think that if they kill themselves, and all of us, we will stop trying to destroy Islam and they will go at once to a paradise of women and wine." Or there's his commendable disdain for Western conspiracy cranks, who indecently mewl that the U.S. government planned the attacks and desperately "want you to sit still and listen to an epic of futile pedantry." Or his skewering of President Bush over his Iraq policy (which Amis regards as imbecilic) and propensity to cast the post-9/11 world in theological terms: "It makes him feel easier about being intellectually null. He wants geopolitics to be less about the intellect, and more about gut instincts and beliefs -- because he knows he's got them."
The last word should go, perhaps, to Tony Blair, whom Amis shadows for several days and finds far from intellectually null. At one point, the devoutly Christian prime minister remembers being lectured by Alastair Campbell, his closest aide. "Look. This isn't America. Religion and politics don't mix," Blair recalls Campbell saying.
"And when religion and politics mix?" Amis asks.
"You start saying things," Blair replies, "like 'God made me do it.' "
That is the great geopolitical danger; Amis, for one, told us so. ·
Warren Bass, a former member of the 9/11 Commission's staff, is deputy editor of The Post's Outlook section.