Second Thoughts

The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom BY Martin Amis. Knopf. Hardcover, 224 pages. $24.

The cover of The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom

Last fall, as the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks neared, the New York Times did something that I confess I would have thought it impossible for the newspaper of record in the city of Ground Zero to do for a few years yet: It ran a piece on its front page suggesting that we may have been overcommemorating the foul event. “I may sound callous, but doesn’t grieving have a shelf life?” Charlene Correia, a nursing supervisor from Acushnet, Massachusetts, admitted to correspondent N. R. Kleinfield, who used her words as the first (and thus emblematic) quote of the article. “We’re very sorry and mournful that people died, but there are living people. Let’s wind it down.”

In the interest of balance, quotes from those who lost loved ones in the attacks were interposed, and understandably, they felt differently. But here was a case where the Times’s, and Kleinfield’s, “agenda,” to use that overemployed allegation of media critics, was clear enough. There is such a thing—for a city, a society, and a civilization, just as much as for an individual—as a grieving process. It inevitably, and healthily, includes the stage of letting go. Of winding it down.

But what do we call the process that is the opposite? It’s a trickier question than it seems. Rummaging around for the standard antonyms of grief will lead one to words like joy and elation. These, of course, are highly inapposite, and, as far as Westerners are concerned, beside the point, really. But grief, it turns out, has another opposite—a fear of letting go; a conviction, chiseled into stone, that to do so would be to admit not to humanity but to pusillanimity; an insistence that we must sit with our burden as our constant companion; that we must do anything, everything, except wind it down, probably even that we should wind it up. I don’t quite have a name for it. The angering process, the antagonizing process. The name is unimportant and uninteresting. The instinct—well, actually, the instinct is not very important or interesting, either, but when it percolates out of the word processor of one such as Martin Amis, I suppose it must be reckoned with.

Here in America, we have our well-known and much-celebrated Anti-Islamofascist Brigade—that group of men (yes, all men) who had been (and in certain ways still are) intellectuals of the liberal or left tendency who reacted to 9/11 with a combination of stunned fury at the extremists and a strange kind of euphoria that History had chosen their sentient adulthoods as the era in which this seismic incident would occur. You know that I am speaking, for example, of Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. Joshua Micah Marshall, in a review of Berman’s Terror and Liberalism in the Washington Monthly back in May 2003, dubbed it “The Orwell Temptation”: Finally, after a humdrum, small-bore decade, they faced a big choice on a big question, a question just like those that had confronted the beatified Eric Blair and his generation. They knew instantly on which side they would declare themselves.

Amis has, from time to time, been lumped with Hitchens and Berman, and indeed the only people he quotes in The Second Plane: September 11, Terror and Boredom as having guided his thinking on the matter of “Islamism,” the extremist variant that he distinguishes from the more benign Islam, are Hitchens and Berman and Bernard Lewis. But Amis’s case is slightly different. His early reaction to the attacks, based on the evidence presented herein, was fairly measured. It’s only in the last few years that he’s gone—what is it they say over there?—potty.

Here, for example, is the 9/18 Amis—that is to say, the author published just one week after the attacks, in The Guardian:

What are we going to do? Violence must come; America must have catharsis. We would hope that the response will be, above all, non-escalatory. It should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish. A utopian example: the crippled and benighted people of Afghanistan, hunkering down for a winter of famine, should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked lendlease usa. More realistically, unless Pakistan can actually deliver bin Laden, the American retaliation is almost sure to become elephantine.

That’s pretty good, for something written, what, five days after the event? I know that some will howl about that “violence” bit, but the “non-escalatory” riposte to self seems to me ingenuous, and the recommendation that we blast them into the Stone Age with bags of rice and strips of dry-aged beef can surely be counted as an admirable gesture of humanity or, if you prefer, pusillanimity. Likewise, this rumination on Iraq from the March 2003 Guardian essay “The Wrong War” (nota bene the title) strikes me as pretty prescient:

There are two rules of war that have not yet been rescinded by the new world order. The first rule is that the belligerent nation must be fairly sure that its actions will make things better; the second rule is that the belligerent nation must be more or less certain that its actions won’t make things worse. America could perhaps claim to be satisfying the first rule. . . . It cannot begin to satisfy the second.

I don’t care for that “more or less,” with which the author allows himself a degree of wiggle room that his pal Hitchens would inevitably dub Clintonian. But that aside, Amis is saying here what it was, on commencement of hostilities, the responsibility of intellectuals to say.

Now we fast-forward two or three years. Amis spent part of that time in England and part of it in Montevideo, of all unlikely places. The Uruguayan capital—let’s face it, not high on al-Qaeda’s target list—would seem at first blush to be a milieu inhospi­table to the fermentation of quasi-paranoid thoughts about terrorist strikes. But Amis, clearly, is no captive of his environment. And suddenly, it all comes pouring out.

And so, as The Second Plane soldiers through the past three or four years, we find a man who sounds increasingly like the embarrassing uncle screaming at the television. A long essay written for The Observer on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, called “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind,” describes a novella the author started but never finished whose plot would have centered on a terrorist’s evil plan to round up every Arab-world rapist he could and set them loose on Greeley, Colorado. An April 2006 New Yorker short story imagining the final waking hours of Mohamed Atta so compulsively “re-creates” Atta’s last thoughts and actions that it includes the piece of absurd conjecture that he hadn’t managed to take a shit for the last four months of his life.

Video still from Martin Amis’s profile of Tony Blair for The Guardian’s website, 2007.
Video still from Martin Amis’s profile of Tony Blair for The Guardian’s website, 2007.

On it goes. A mostly favorable 2007 review in The Times (UK) of American conservative author Mark Steyn shares Steyn’s alarm that the hordes are about to overrun us demographically. A windy profile of Tony Blair from The Guardian in 2007, which Amis informs us he has augmented “by 40 percent,” still manages to contain almost nothing in the way of actual reporting (in the sense of interviewing actual people beyond Blair himself) and, four years postbellum, includes a bank shot of an admission that maybe he didn’t really think Iraq was “The Wrong War” after all: “My support for the war, nonexistent until it actually began . . . ” he writes. It all culminates in a rantelegantly turned, laced with a certain literary mordancy, but straight-forwardly right-wing in point of view—written for The Times on the occasion of the sixth anniversary, predictably decrying the forces of political correctness and moral equivalency that are tying the West’s hands.

Left out of this collection—fairly, it must be said, since he made the comment in an interview, not in a piece of writing—is the author’s most eye-catching remark of the era: “There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.”Second Thoughts

He quickly stood down from this (“I was not ‘advocating’ anything. I was conversationally describing an urge—an urge that soon wore off”). But let me put it this way. If you offered the second half of The Second Plane to a reader and did not reveal authorship, then asked your reader whether the author was likely to have spoken those words, your reader would undoubtedly see a certain consistency at work and would as likely as not suspect that said “urge” hadn’t really quite worn off.

Obviously, some of Amis’s concerns are real; they are mine, and I hope they are yours. Islam, as he argues convincingly here and there, is a younger religion than the other “majors” and is still in a comparative dark age, and this is something the West is just going to have to live with for a long, long time while the Muslim world sorts itself out, even as at the same time we must guard against attack and assert our own values. He is right to be alarmed that “present-day Spain translates as many books into Spanish, annually, as the Arab world has translated into Arabic in the last eleven hundred years.” Some manifestations of political correctness are wrong in their unwillingness to say plainly that our way of life is better. We must all be opponents of extremism.

But what we must not be is obsessed by it, because obsession is the enemy of inquiry, and inquiry is what separates us from extremists; a darkness of its own sort awaits us down the path of its rejection. And we must be willing, in Western fashion, to submit our hypotheses to empirical testing, to tether them to the ground. Here, Amis hasn’t done his homework, or has done only enough—reading Berman, Lewis, Sayyid Qutb, and so on—to reconfirm him in views toward which he was gravitating anyway. There is little sense in these pages of a mind really, deeply trying to grapple with questions to which it may not have all the answers. And paranoid musings about the Other’s encrusted and desiccated bowels, and especially about the Arabs coming to rape all our women, are one step removed from the stuff of Ku Klux Klan literature.

Being Martin Amis, he can’t help but pull off some luminescent sentences, and some very funny ones (of Osama bin Laden’s birth order: “Seventeenth out of fifty-seven is a notoriously difficult slot to fill”). But I mostly kept wondering why Amis and Knopf felt this collection was worth bringing out in the first place. It’s a diary of man who’s let his darker angels get the better of him and who’s confused anger with vigilance. At what I agree is a crucial and unique moment in history, that is exactly what we do not need our leading intellectuals to do.

Michael Tomasky is editor of GuardianAmerica.com and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.