The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom, by Martin Amis (Knopf, 224 pp., $24)
“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment”—the moment, observed novelist and critic Martin Amis a few days after September 11, when America had a “sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.” The Second Plane collects Amis’s controversial essays, reviews, and short stories on September 11 and its long aftermath. The pieces, originally published in the Guardian, The New Yorker, and other elite opinion outlets, appear chronologically, with virtually no after-the-fact emendation. They are heated, imaginative, often profound, and strikingly honest.
His initial response to September 11, Amis acknowledges, suffered from naive rationalism, a need for an explanation, a justification. He even came close to embracing the confused doctrine of moral equivalence that so many on the left have signed on to. America must have deserved it, must have had it coming for killing people in the Gulf War or for ignoring the sufferings of distant peoples. How else to explain Islamic rage?
But as the War on Terror proceeded, Amis—like his friend Christopher Hitchens and French thinkers André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy, but unlike most other left-leaning writers—took the measure of what free societies were up against. “The most extreme Sunni Islamists want to kill everyone on earth except the most extreme Sunni Islamists; but every rank-and-file jihadi sees the need for eliminating all non-Muslims, either by conversion or execution,” he writes.
Enough with moral equivalence, Amis concluded. Whatever the relative sins of the West, the paranoid, irrational, death-loving, freedom-hating Islamic ideology—“horrorism,” he dubs it—was pure totalitarian evil, a “maximum malevolence,” and had to be called such and resisted. He now bristles at the charge (often directed at him) of Islamophobia. A phobia, after all, is an irrational fear, and it’s not irrational to fear something that seeks to exterminate you.
Along with the human bombs and the severed heads, the post-9/11 world has also brought with it numbing tedium. Not just a normal, everyday boredom, but a “superboredom, rounding out and complementing the superterror” of what Amis calls the “suicide-mass murderer.” Long airport lines and random knapsack searches are only the surface reflection of this monotony, a future in which riding a city bus could become “like flying El Al.” On a deeper level, the boredom reflects “the nullity of the non-conversation we are having with the dependent mind.” Just contemplate the Islamic utopia for a moment, Amis says—a bleak world, absent variety and women, “where the sole entertainment is the public execution.”
Engaging with this dead zone of the human spirit appears to be our fate for a long time to come, which certainly doesn’t inspire the intelligence or the heart. The Left’s victimology now sickens Amis. “Naturally one would be reluctant to question the cloudless piety of the Palestinian mother who, having raised one suicide-mass murderer, expressed the wish that his younger brother would become a suicide-mass murderer too,” he writes, sarcasm dripping. “But the time has come to cease to respect the quality of her ‘rage’—to cease to marvel at the unhinging rigor of Israeli oppression—and to start to marvel at the power of an entrenched and emulous ideology.” It’s painful to stop believing in the pure spirit of the underdog, Amis admits. And it’s painful, too, “to start believing in a cult of death, and in an enemy that wants its war to last for ever.” But intellectual and moral responsibility requires just such a conversion.
Amis opposed the Iraq War, seeing it as a wrong move in the global struggle against Islamic fanaticism, but he sympathizes with Tony Blair, who as British prime minister had to shoulder the burdens of that war. And he is withering toward those (again, mostly on the left) who want America and its allies to lose in Iraq. “There are vast pluralities all over the West that are thirsting for American failure in Iraq, thirsting for regional conflagration, for a Fertile Crescent bridle-deep in gore—because they hate George Bush,” Amis observes. “Perhaps they don’t realize that they are co-synchronously thirsting for an Islamist victory that will dramatically worsen the lives of their children.”
Reading The Second Plane is a bracing experience. The anger and upset that I felt on September 11 and the days that followed simmered again. Especially powerful was Amis’s review of Paul Greengrass’s 2006 film, United 93, about the doomed 9/11 flight whose brave passengers crashed it (at over 600 miles per hour) into a Pennsylvania field before it could obliterate the White House or the Capitol. For all his wrenching realism, Greengrass spares us something, says Amis: United 93 has no children in it. Yet when was the last time you boarded a plane that had no children?
“It is hard to defend your imagination from such a reality (and the Internet will not willingly tell you about the children on the planes of 9/11),” Amis notes. He then brings us where Greengrass and the Web don’t: “‘What’s happening? Well, you see, my child, the men with the bloodstained knives think that if they kill themselves, and all of us, we will stop trying to destroy Islam and they will go at once to a paradise of women and wine.’ No, I suppose you would just tell him or her that you loved them, and he or she would tell you that they loved you too. Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black. We can’t tell if it will survive us. But we can be sure that it’s the last thing to go.”