News - Facts from fiction

What have we learned from 30 years of terrorism?

Much ink has been spilled since Sept. 11 by people who argue that we don't understand the terrorists. This argument seems somewhat disingenuous — the terrorists are nothing if not explicit: They inscribe their beliefs every day in unambiguous ways on the bodies of people trapped within their rule. They've impressed their message on our consciousnesses as well by killing Americans in such a visible manner. What's left to know about what they believe? Those who have not gotten their message by now never will.

It's we who are ambiguous. What we need to understand better is our own reaction to terrorism, a more complicated and nuanced thing. We've been living with terrorism and fundamentalism for 30 years. What have we learned?

Recommending books is tricky because it's personal, but I'd like to suggest a few novels and a website that deal with the terrorist crisis. Why novels? They seem more true.

Cannibals and Missionaries: Few people read Mary McCarthy these days, which is a shame because this is a great novel about the dynamics of terrorism. The plot involves a group of well-meaning ministers and academics who are kidnapped by extremists en route to Teheran, where they're traveling to investigate human rights abuses committed by the Shah. It's a comedy, albeit a black one.

When McCarthy published this book in 1979, hijackings had grown so commonplace as to seem almost routine, a negotiated form of exchange between the Western and non-Western world. The book is worth reading simply as a record of the political events that set the stage for the present conflict — our support for the Shah, human rights activism, revolutionary politics and the energy crisis. It's a shock to realize how little has changed since then.

The Little Drummer Girl: John le Carre pissed off virtually everyone with this story of a British actress who falls into a plot by the Israeli secret service to infiltrate Palestinian terrorist cells. There are no good guys in le Carre's book, least of all the Western-born "revolutionaries" who fell for bad ideas at an astonishing rate throughout the 1970s. The book's plangent hippy heroine takes a beating from all sides — the Palestinians, the Israeli secret police — as she drifts through the radicalism of the 1970s being smacked about in a haze of pot smoke and bad dates, which raises a timely question: Why is it that all those women who joined the Weathermen and the Mansons and drove getaway cars are now in jail (where they belong) while their boyfriends just got book deals or joined the Republican party?

The book's strength is le Carre's even-handed treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, admittedly, don't inspire much hope for peace.

The Handmaid's Tale: What would happen if America had a civil war and fundamentalist Christians won? According to Margaret Atwood, congressmen would still have access to titty bars, but women showing their ankles on the streets would be shot in the head — just like Afghanistan today. Atwood based her book on social conditions in the Middle East and the rise of fundamentalist politics in America: The book has a distinctly Canadian smugness (Canada is the Promised Land), and it won't be winning any prizes from the Promise Keepers or the home-schooled crowd, but the images of veiled women being tortured in a stadium bring to life — well, the fact that women are being tortured to death in stadiums while we sit here picking Halloween candy from our teeth.

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan website (rawa.org): Remember the anti-apartheid movement? I do, but I don't remember anybody going on about "understanding" the white Afrikaners or excusing the "cultural" dimensions of their oppressiveness. Nobody talked about learning their folksongs or paying diversity trainers from Santa Cruz to expand their horizons regarding the white Veldt.

If only we could apply some of that moral certitude to the conditions for women in the Middle East. Unfortunately, neither left-wing nor right-wing seems interested in making this leap. The congressional retainers of America's oil interests have turned a blind eye to rights violations against women in the Middle East for years. And to hear Cynthia McKinney go on about that poor misunderstood Saudi prince, whom she refers to as a "caring friend," you'd think he didn't keep women in lawn bags.

One can only hope that if this budding romance grows between the slaveholding prince and the slavish congresswoman, he might convince her to throw something bulky and concealing over those orange pantsuits. Meanwhile, those less prone to dismiss the oppression of half the human race in the act of shilling oil rights or free handouts should check out the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

These are the women ho secretly filmed the Handmaid's Tale-like assassinations of women in a soccer stadium. They're fearless feminists: anti-fundamentalist freedom fighters with links to Oprah on their website. They aren't happy about the fighting in Afghanistan, and they're not fans of the Northern Alliance, but they've been working to get rid of the Taliban for a long time. Isn't that what we all want???

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