The Prophet Conrad
How ‘The Secret Agent’ anticipates the perils of today.
Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
Liberals deny that they are unconcerned about Islamic terrorism.
Joseph Conrad, 1923
Hulton Archives / Getty Images
They insist, instead, that it is not the extraordinary threat claimed by conservatives. Thus, back in 2004, John Kerry promised to treat terrorism as one would illegal gambling or prostitution, as common criminal activity. Gordon Brown made the same case when he pronounced that “terrorism is not a cause; it is a crime.” This legalistic approach, favored by the Obama administration, is not surprising, since contemporary liberalism has gained its institutional success through the courts. Though I cannot date it precisely, but certainly since September 11, 2001, liberals have been consumed by a different vision of terror—namely, worldwide disaster caused by global warming.
At the same time, it would seem that most Americans don’t think very much about terrorism or environmental destruction at all, and conservatives, in our wish to impress on Americans the threat represented by Islamic terrorism, may seem as hyperbolic as Al Gore in his pronouncements about climate. While further attacks on the magnitude of 9/11 are not inconceivable, nearly 10 years down the road it appears that complacency reigns among Americans. And despite the continuing number of incidents around the world associated with terrorism, and the deaths of our servicemen and women in the Middle East, the danger seems far from the minds of most people.
It is difficult to know whether Americans might be more engaged had George W. Bush not chosen (in Norman Podhoretz’s words) “the path of euphemism and indirection” to describe this ideological threat. There is, however, an unwillingness—an innate inertia, even—to grapple with potential dangers until our own lives are directly affected. We call this attitude “appeasement” in our political leaders, but it is a perennial element in human character that, despite all advances in technology and living standards, is remarkably constant. People simply expect life to continue more or less as it is, without the sudden or abrupt transformations that take place in movies or novels.
Moreover, for over half a century, Western nations have eliminated many of the routine catastrophes that previous generations faced with something approaching fatalism. It is not that the West’s material achievements have made us complacent, as Marxist doctrine would have it, but that Western nations have simply institutionalized this native human tendency, allowing citizens to pursue their own good and thereby increase the wealth of nations. Some individuals, however, both within the West and outside it, enamored with an ideal, are unhappy about this state of affairs. And though it appeared over a century ago, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) offers striking parallels to the threat such individuals pose to the West’s liberal societies, and to the complacency of ordinary people in the face of their threat.
Monitoring this threat is the task of Conrad’s Chief Inspector Heat of the Special Crimes Department, “principal expert in anarchist procedure.” Heat, unlike today’s liberals, has no illusion that these potential terrorists can be treated like criminals. In his eyes, criminals have the same mind and instincts as policemen: “Both recognize the same conventions, and have a working knowledge of each other’s methods and of the routine of their respective trades.” They are products of the same machine: “One classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways.” Thus, “the world of thieves—sane, without morbid ideals, working by routine, respectful of constituted authorities, free from all taint of hate and despair.” Not so the anarchist terrorists, none of whom had “half the spunk of this or that burglar he had known. Not half—not one tenth.”