So how come I’m not the world’s most wanted man? I was thin-skinned, sweet-natured, loving – “a beautiful young man” in every way, my mother remembers – so where did it all go wrong for me?
Even my father – a person not given to idle praise – remarked on the gentleness of my disposition. “Isn’t he a bit kind?” I recall him asking my mother when he thought I wasn’t listening. “A bit kind for what?” my mother wanted to know.
I have a faded image of my father shrugging. He didn’t like having to explain himself. But I knew what he was getting at. I lacked the qualities of a warrior. We were naive in those days. We didn’t understand that a gentle nature was the ideal breeding ground for murderousness. We thought it simply denoted incipient homosexuality.
At school my reputation for being a beautiful person was enhanced by my bookishness, my timidity and by the gothic script initials my aunt had embroidered on to my blazer pocket. If ever there was someone who was never going to commit an atrocity – and was therefore, by the inverse logic of these things, bound to go on and commit a whole string of them – it was me.
There I sit, in photograph after photograph, just to the right of the headmaster’s knees, looking seraphic and isolated – an angel in a line of grinning devils – the quintessential terrorist-to-be aged nine. Some of those photographs even came with my face already encircled so that the newspapers wouldn’t have to hunt me out once the extent of my subsequent criminality became known.
I have no memory of banging my head against a goalpost, but then the memory of banging one’s head against a goalpost is precisely the sort of memory that banging one’s head against a goalpost expunges. I did, however, once allow 17 goals go past me when I was keeping goal for my class team, and the jeering of my fellows might have had an effect comparable to concussion. Shame devoured me anyway, even if oblivion didn’t, but why did I not swear, there and then, to make humanity pay for my humiliation? What examples urging otherwise did I attend to? What quiet voice made a coward of me?
There followed, speaking of shame, that sequence of excruciating ignominies which adolescence visits on the hypersensitive – the most productive, in the education of an assassin with a special penchant for the machete, being rejection by girls. It is a strange fact of human nature that the more fervently sentimental we are in our longing to show affection, the more urgent our need to sever people’s heads from their shoulders when that affection is not reciprocated.
Considering how often girls rejected me, it remains a mystery that I didn’t end up decapitating on what’s called an industrial scale. How was it, I must ask again, that other options presented themselves to me? Who suggested I was better off crying over Little Nell or going to the opera?
In the early life of any terrorist deserving of the name is a period working in a lowly capacity during which he shows no interest in politics and is remembered with gratitude by his bosses who describe him as the best employee they have ever had. Here again I promised much in that I worked my socks off driving a delivery van for Wall’s ice cream when I was 18 and was careful to say nothing about wanting to blow the world to smithereens when I met my fellow drivers at the pie and mash shop in Bolton. Yet for all these advantages I got no nearer to fanaticism than reading English literature at Cambridge.
Here at last, you would have thought, was my opportunity. My moral tutor alienated me by thinking that if my name wasn’t Finkleburger it was Grubenstein; my supervisor harassed me by asking for an essay every week and then not liking what I wrote; I ran up bills at the buttery which I was expected to discharge; and fellow students contributed to the atmosphere of bitter disaffection in which I lived by getting better degrees than I did.
Further provoked by that subtle form of persecution known as leaving you alone, I began to walk the streets at the dead of night with my college scarf wrapped menacingly around my face. “Go home, sir,” the authorities warned me, increasing my sense of beleaguerment. It would have made perfect sense to unleash destruction on that smug university town. So what, I must again ask, stopped me?
It wasn’t that there were no extremist lectures to attend. Raymond Williams made a socialist of me. C S Lewis a Christian apologist. F R Leavis an elitist. But there was still no ideology to hand sufficient to my simmering resentment. Suited by nature and shaped by experience to be a beheader-in-chief, I was denied the opportunity to be anything of the kind by the culture of agreeable mistrust I’d encountered at home, at school, at the Wall’s ice cream depot and at university. Put simply, I’d been ruined: brought up to doubt and question, taught never to follow blindly or believe the world would be a better place the minute I felt better in it.
And where such scepticism has not been instilled? Where education is turned into the very opposite of itself and instead of rebutting fantasy becomes fantasy’s proponent? What then? Then, reader, all bets are off. Then, until the impressionable can once again police themselves by breadth of knowledge and elasticity of mind, we must do the policing for them, acting as the intellectual consciences they don’t have.
Exposing the easily incited to dogmas of certainty and hate laced with paradisal promises is not the aim of education; teaching to think critically is. “Let every voice be heard” is a fine sentiment so long as we can trust the discernment of those who listen. But right now – whatever those who believe unconditionally in free speech think – we can’t.Reuse content