Why have novelists so far failed to write a believable terrorist character, one that reflects actual people in the real world? Why do literary terrorists instead mostly conform to propagandistic stereotypes and widespread cultural myths? I must have read a hundred novels – both popular and serious literary fiction – with central terrorist characters, and I have yet to be satisfied with one which I feel represents a real person in the real world. Here, I am not referring to offbeat characters accused of terrorism (such as Paul Auster’s Leviathan), terrorists who are dead and their motivations have to be reconstructed retrospectively (such as Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack), or characters accused of terrorism who are really not terrorists in any reasonable sense (such as Heinrich Boll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum). Rather, I am concerned with the novel in which a terrorist plays a central role.
Most recently, I read The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III. In this otherwise excellent novel, a central character is one of the 9/11 terrorists – one of the ones who frequented Miami strip clubs before embarking on the mission. This character, Bassam, conforms to several common stereotypes typical of the literary terrorists I have come across.
First, in a broad sense, and characteristic of a great many literary terrorist characters I have come across (such as Thomas Harris’s Black Sunday, and more recently, Vince Flynn’s Memorial Day), he is filled with a pathological hatred of America and Americans. He hates its culture, its success and its lack of piety, and he fantasizes about slitting the throats of people he meets. He looks forward to the vengeance he is about to unleash on America. In this particular novel, Bassam’s hatred is further twisted into a warped self-loathing which results from his inability to resist the sexual attraction he feels towards the scantily clad American women and the pleasure he takes from alcohol and smoking – things purportedly denied him by his religion. He is, in effect, deeply cruel, ruthless and psychologically unbalanced. In this, he follows a long-standing literary trope which goes back to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, who was ruthlessly willing to risk his wife’s son in his diabolical plot.
This leads directly to the second theme common to literary depictions of terrorists. In a depiction remarkably similar to the central terrorist characters in John Updike’s Terrorist and Nelson DeMille’s The Lion’s Game, the terrorist, Bassam, is deeply confused by his sexual feelings, which leads to a perverse sexual experience in which a confused self-hatred is the primary outcome. In Dubus III’s depiction, Bassam (along with most of the stereotypical terrorists in popular thrillers) looks forward to death because he longs to experience all the sexual delights of the virgins promised to him in paradise. The sexually perverted terrorist is a surprisingly common theme in the depiction of the literary terrorist.
Third, the literary terrorist, following Dubus III, Updike, Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and countless others, is a religious fanatic. In these depictions, the terrorist is portrayed as being motivated solely by a perverted and all-consuming sense of divine purpose. This means that they are also inherently irrational and unreasonable, a true believer in a twisted world view. In all cases, the religious fanatical terrorist stands in stark contrast to the ‘good’ religious person who possesses a moderate, non-political, positive religious orientation, rather than a twisted, pathological zealotry.
A fourth common characteristic of the literary terrorist is the extent to which they are motivated by a desire for personal revenge. For example, following DeMille’s Lion character, Yasmina Khadra’s terrorist in The Sirens of Baghdad is motivated by the desire to avenge shame and violence visited on his family by Coalition troops. For this, he is willing to die delivering a specially developed biological agent to Europe which will kill millions. The literary terrorist, it seems, can be motivated by religion or revenge, but never political conviction.
Interestingly, a final characteristic sometimes seen in the literary terrorist, including Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, is the good-hearted but misguided, naïve, simple-minded individual who is easily manipulated by more villainous individuals. In this depiction, the terrorist is really a kind of victim, and thus, not really a terrorist at all. We can feel human sympathy for this kind of terrorist.
The point is, none of these depictions really accord with the academic research on people who join militant or terrorist groups, nor do they accurately reflect existing interviews, auto-biographies and biographies of terrorists. These two bodies of evidence show instead that terrorists are most often intelligent, rational, altruistic, socially integrated, married or in relationships, and motivated by understandable political grievances, not unlike the kind of people who join organisations like Greenpeace or WWF. A realistic depiction of a terrorist therefore might describe someone like Nelson Mandela, a man imprisoned for being a terrorist and officially listed as a terrorist by the US government until a few years ago.
The question is: why have novelists failed to do their research in the case of terrorists and instead relied on unrealistic stereotypes and exaggerations? I mean, it’s not as if novelists couldn’t go to Northern Ireland and talk to dozens of former terrorists, visit convicted terrorists in prison or even just read a few auto-biographies. I suspect this failure is a function of the way in which terrorism has been socially constructed as a modern cultural taboo – a taboo which novelists are still unwilling to challenge. A novel I am currently reading – The Bombmaker by Stephen Leather – illustrates my point. Purportedly about a retired IRA bombmaker who’s daughter is kidnapped in order to force her to make another bomb, the author cannot bring himself to write about an actual terrorist who might later regret what they’ve done and wish to have a normal life. Instead, it turns out the former bombmaker was working for the British intelligence services; that is, she was one of the ‘good guys’ all along, therefore we do not need to feel anxious about sympathizing with her predicament.
Unlike ordinary murderers and criminals, novelists, it seems, are not allowed to paint a sympathetic picture of a terrorist or attempt to understand their political motivations or perspectives as fellow human beings. There is no equivalent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for terrorists, for example. Instead, the dominant taboo against terrorism must never be violated and terrorists must always be portrayed as deviant, abnormal, inhuman. They are not allowed to be like us in any way. The problem is, not only are such stereotypes wrong, they are potentially dangerous. At the very least, giving the ‘Other’ a human face, including the terrorist ‘Other’, is a necessary step in learning to deal constructively and nonviolently with conflict and those who would resist us. It is also a crucial step in preventing the worst kinds of abuses against those we have placed outside of humanity. In Abu Ghraib we transformed the terrorist into the animal we had always imagined them to be – the animal novelists have always told us they are.