The Magazine

Unholy Thoughts

A Bright Young Thing grapples with the post-9/11 world.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By STEFAN BECK
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The Second Plane

September 11: Terror and Boredom

by Martin Amis

Knopf, 224 pp., $24

In 2006 Martin Amis took a potentially career-ending risk: He told the truth. In an interview with Ginny Dougary of the (London) Times, he confessed that he'd felt "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."

When the literary critic Terry Eagleton drew attention to Amis's mostly overlooked comments-in the same calculating fashion that certain "Muslim leaders" drew attention to the mostly overlooked Jyllands-Posten cartoons-Amis defended them as the product of "a thought experiment, or a mood experiment." It's a fancy way of saying that he was angry, that he felt something, however ugly, and described it honestly.

The late Oriana Fallaci did this twice, first in The Rage and the Pride and then in The Force of Reason, and it nearly landed her in the dock. It seems that spontaneous emotion is the luxury of those willing to buttress it with violence; the rest of us are expected to conceal, whitewash, and falsify. But what we have in The Second Plane, Amis's collection of September 11-related journalism and fiction, is a man unwilling to stoop to any of the above-but perfectly willing to sound a bit crazy.

Amis opens the centerpiece of this book, "Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind" (previously published as "The Age of Horrorism"), with an anecdote about a friend who, boxed in by the Osama bin Laden Fan Club in Peshawar, thought on his feet to get out of a bind. Asked whether he "liked" Osama, the man answered, "Of course. .  .  . All men are my brothers." A good line, Amis allows-but "all men are not my brothers. Why? Because all women are my sisters. And the brother who denies the rights of his sister: that brother is not my brother."

In many ways this is the linchpin of Amis's argument. We're warned by his detractors that he's an Islamophobe, a racist, a hysterical fool; but the problem he identifies isn't one of religion, race, or ethnicity. It's a problem of youth, stymied masculinity, and, no matter how absurd it may sound, poor parenting. To read the comments following what Eagleton et al. selectively quoted is to find Amis struggling with inescapable frustration:

They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs-well, they've got to stop their children killing people. It's a huge dereliction on their part.

This is less Enoch Powell than Bill Cosby-a reminder that, if parents sheltered their children from truly malignant influences while guiding their (gradual) assimilation into liberal society, the Semtex belt might be a bit less appealing.

"It has been suggested," Amis writes, "by serious commentators, that suicide-mass murderers are searching for the simplest means of getting a girlfriend." Is this a lazy oversimplification? It would be nice to think so. One of the most distressing aspects of the martyrdom myth is that it promises to fulfill the very desires a healthy soul is meant to outgrow in the course of mortal existence. If you regard polygamy as an affront to your "sisters," and alcohol as a terrestrial time-killer, you're liable to expect more of your afterlife.

Amis argues that a "rational response [to suicide-mass murder] would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven't managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion." For instance: Ronan Bennett, railing against Amis's supposed "intolerance of otherness," approvingly quotes Ian McEwan's Guardian essay, published just four days after the September 11 attacks: "Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality."