Martin Amis: 30 things I've learned about terror
Sunday 08 October 2006
Two flights above Greek Street, in a cluttered attic room atop a private members' club, Martin Amis is smoking a roll-up, drinking Red Stripe from a tumbler and peering at the front page of The Independent. It's a miserable, rain-sodden Monday lunchtime in Soho, and the news is grim - more carnage in Iraq - but Amis seems in fine fettle. "This Blair-Brown business," he says, flicking the pages. "It's tremendously parochial, yet everyone seems so sort of fascinated by it." He harrumphs. "I'm not."
Amis is recently returned from two and a half years living in Uruguay, where his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, has family. To some extent, he says, he felt out of touch there, cut-off from world events (and even tremendously parochial British ones), and while he enjoyed his time in South America - "exceptionally nice people, Uruguayans" - it's good to be back. London is where he intends to stay, for 10 years at least.
It's difficult to credit, perhaps, for those who continue to regard him as the enfant terrible of British letters, but Amis is 57. Twice married, a father of four, the author of nine novels, two collections of stories and six collections of non-fiction, he has seniority now, to accompany his prodigious talent. Happily, though, age does not appear to have mellowed him. Not in his writing life at any rate: Amis' appetite for the cut and thrust of public debate seems undiminished, as he's amply demonstrated since his August return to England, and to the fray.
Since then he has published a novel, House of Meetings, set for the most part in the Soviet gulag of the 1950s. It was originally to have been collected alongside two short stories - one, a disturbing account of the life of a body-double in the court of Saddam Hussein; the other, the imagined final moments of Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 11 September attacks - but late in the process, Amis decided to jettison both from the book.
Amis has also admitted to having recently abandoned a novella, The Unknown Known (the title was based on one of Donald Rumsfeld's characteristically strangulated linguistic formulations) in which Muslim terrorists unleash a horde of compulsive rapists on a town called Greeley, Colorado. This is the unlikely locus, writes Amis, for the "decisive shaping" of Islamism, in 1949, by a man called Sayyid Qutb - a misogynist, a virgin and an anti-Semite who wrote a book called Milestones, "the Mein Kampf of Islamism".
Perhaps most provocatively, on 10 September, the day before the fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York, he published a long essay, "The Age of Horrorism", in which he declared that the civil war between Islam and Islamism had been won by the fundamentalists. Islamism, he wrote, was "an ideology which, in its most millennial form, conjured up the image of an abattoir within a madhouse".
We find ourselves, Amis wrote, in the situation Yeats envisioned, where "the best [the West] lack all conviction, while the worst [the Islamists] are full of passionate intensity". These are subjects that preoccupy him and ones on which he has much to say:
* I felt very bad when July 7th happened, that I wasn't in London, sort of guilty and uneasy. Not patriotism so much as a homing instinct. I'm glad I'm back. And the great thing about going away - and this applies to any little holiday or weekend - is that it refreshes you for your return. It makes ordinary life more interesting.
* Someone accused me of being a neo-colonial. I realised that "The Age of Horrorism" was very out of step with bien-pensant thinking here, but I never thought I'd be accused of that.
* I think we should stop calling it 9/11. It's an Americanism. If we want to think clearly about September 11th, we should stop calling it November 9th, which is what 9/11 really means. The dual-purpose 7/7 sort of postponed the debate. But November 9th is obviously the wrong name for September 11th, particularly as it's a historic date itself - the date the Berlin Wall came down. Anyway, that's a detail.
* There's almost been a denial of the event in America, a sort of failure to face up to it, in that you never see the footage of the actual attack. Within a few days it was suddenly forbidden, supposedly out of compassion for the families. But the families are not monolithic on this or any other question. I think we should be constantly reminded of it. It makes me feel like a frustrated voyeur, in that I want to see that footage again. It's not a human story, what happened that day. We like to think it is, but it's a world-historical moment. (omega)
* I wonder whether satire is on any more, really. Not because real life has outstripped it, but because if it's on a serious subject people will think it's blasphemous - and it sort of is blasphemous. How funny would it be after a dirty bomb attack? The relentless unforeseen is what you're dealing with, and I sometimes feel that humour has basically had it. You can almost imagine some sort of committee humourlessly deciding that humour is not to be tolerated anymore.
* Democratisation is as good a word as any for the ideology of the West - egalitarianism, relativism, Westernism. It's a sort of luxurious ideology. It's an amalgamation of polite fictions. It levels everything. "Levelism " I think is the best word for it. It says that we're all equal, that we have equal talents and equal gifts. And your senses tell you that that's not the case a thousand times a day.
* Something very unusual is happening. It has happened before and we do know a little about waves of belief that are essentially cultish and death-centred. But it's very unpleasant to realise that that's what's happening. It's more reassuring to say that if we hadn't gone into Iraq, this wouldn't have happened. But there were plenty of signs of it from the middle of the last century.
* One of the disasters of September 11th is how we've just... panicked. The first thing a government does when faced with terrorism is reach for torture, as happened here with the IRA. I think this is just the time when you don't do it. Otherwise, what are we fighting for? What is worth defending?
* The disaster of Iraq is that we've lost legitimacy. Once you've lost that you're floundering, like someone in a great sea.
* I'm reading a book by Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival.He says the biggest legacy of Iraq is not extra terrorism but the ignition of the Shia-Sunni divide. The peculiarity of Iraq now is that it's the first and only ever Shia Arab state. He says the future of the Middle East will be war between the Shia and the Sunni. It's absolutely unknowable, what form that's going to take.
* Once Baghdad had been taken, the air went out of the thing. There were generals and commanders saying, "What's the plan?" There is no plan.
* Two things have collapsed in Iraq. One is the state, and the other is the value of human life. I have friends who were liberal hawks and the most persuasive of their arguments was for the relief of the Iraqi people. But the trauma then was nothing compared to what life is like there now. There's more torture than under Saddam.
* I don't think it's my duty to talk about all this. There's no reason you should, except for having eyes in your head and ears on either side of it.
* I may have said something when I was slightly hot under the collar, about that plan to blow up those aeroplanes, and the prospect of people converting to Islam for the benefit of committing mass murder. And that I thought we should try to make the Muslim community more responsible, collectively. But I don't think that's the way. We've got to keep the sympathy of the vast bulk of the Muslim community. Getting tough wouldn't work there.
* I just don't hear from moderate Islam, do you? They're there in the papers, but there's no sort of mass presence. The trouble is that all over the world you have majorities in many huge countries that regard Osama bin Laden as a hero and argue that suicide bombing is at times justified. That's the challenge, to turn that around.
* All ideologies are bad. They all contain violence because any complete belief system is going to involve you in an illusion, and that can't be defended with the mind alone. There's an emotional or even glandular component involved in an ideology which must tighten its fists when challenged, because it can't really do it with the head. So it's inherently dangerous.
* Why be of the crowd? Why oblige the crowd? Why go with the crowd? The reason I wrote Koba the Dread, in a way, was to try and probe this difference between my father and me, because he was definitely ideological. Communism in him was replaced by anti-Communism, which is just as much of an ideology. He was tremendously independent in all sorts of ways, so why did he need this little umma in the mind, this little community? Why did he need that? I came up with this sort of pathetic explanation: because he was an only child. But I think some people have it and some people don't, like some people sleep well and others thrash all night.
* My father was abnormally frightened of death from an early age. In most of us the fear builds up gradually. But he had it, as did Larkin, age 20. Premature Death Awareness, or something.
* Ideologies are powerful because they liberate you from reason. It gives you a great surge, a limitless freedom. And Islamism has got an enormous thrust from the rejection of reason. Stalin and Lenin, in their writings in the hot days of Communism, and Hitler throughout the Nazi era, never let the word "reason" go by without putting in some shifty adjective: "cowardly" or "abject" or "cringing". They hated reason because it set limits, and theirs was an infinity-tending ideology. By Christ it made them powerful for a while. It made them irresistible. But it all turns to swamp beneath your feet, because reality doesn't sustain it.
* I think the Islamists are like the Japanese military in 1940, 1941. They said to the Emperor, "We can't win. Look at their GNP and look at ours. But we can raise merry hell for a few years." And they did raise merry hell. And they were defeated. But that was symmetrical war.
* The difference between terror and horror has been nicely described. The first stage is angst, then comes concern, then anxiety, then fear, then terror, then horror. When you're on a sleigh going through the steppes of Russia and you hear a wolf howl, that's fear. When they're bounding after your sleigh, that's terror, but when they're actually there, that's horror.
* Self-besplatterment is horrific. July 7th was horror, vividly so in the clean-up operation, the rats and the scraping... Yeah, that was horror all right. It's just the next stage. It's not an age-old tactic of war. It's turning up the dial.
* Islam asks more of you than other religions. In fact, other religions are hardly worth the name, are they? As Khomeini kept saying, with the other ones you can do half a day a week.
* Impatience with religion is inescapable for a rationalist in the West. But it's not the same in the East. Conrad said that religion is an outrage on our dignity. But it's sort of the other way round in the East - it's the centre of your dignity because so much else is wrong.
* When this book was going to be published with the two short stories in it, I thought the collective title would be Terror and Boredom. Terror brings with it boredom. This was very much the case in Stalin's Russia. It was the two pillars - you get them half dead with boredom and then you scare the life out of them every waking second. And then you really have a docile population. It's different in our culture. It's not just airport queues and this feeling of meaninglessness that comes over you when you're taking your shoes off and going through security. A homely analogy would be when you realise you're having dinner with a fanatical Christian. What you realise is that all the higher faculties in your mind have to go to sleep while you're in the presence of belief. Your reason is no good to you; it's not an actor in you at all. That's boredom. It's dead time. And faced with fanaticism that's what one feels.
* We'll take some awful hits, but we will prevail. They'll raise merry hell. But the GNPs of those Arab countries are so tiny. All the most virulent ideologies do not have long histories.
* The novel I'm working on is blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme. It's called A Pregnant Widow, because at the end of a revolution you don't have a newborn child, you have a pregnant widow. And the pregnant widow in this novel is feminism. Which is still in its second trimester. The child is nowhere in sight yet. And I think it has several more convulsions to undergo before we'll see the child.
* When you get older you want to know where you are in history. That doesn't mean what effect you have on history, because you've had no effect. But I lived through the time of female emancipation, urbanisation, the big forces, and you want to know how they played out in your own life.
* We don't take a zero-tolerance attitude. That doesn't get us anywhere. I think one makes allowances, as the stepdaughter in House of Meetings does for the narrator. Yes, even for rape and murder.
* A poet was asked, are you pessimistic or optimistic? And he said, " About what?" That's the wrong answer. But I don't think I'm either. I'm realistic. As I said, I think we will prevail. I don't think the West is going to collapse. But it's going to be bloody awful. So a bit of one and a bit of the other.
'House of Meetings', is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99). Alex Bilmes is features director of 'GQ'
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