The Second Plane by Martin Amis
The Martin Papers
The Second Plane, September 11: Terror and Boredom
by Martin Amis
Knopf. 224 pp. $24.00
Martin Amis thinks big. This is not only to say that he is an ambitious writer, having taken on such large topics as the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag, and, now, the war on terrorism. It is also to say that he tends to ponder in public. The deep thoughts of this leading literary figure in England, frequently offered up in press interviews, are routinely magnified into sweeping headlines.
In his fiction (London Fields, The Rachel Papers, Yellow Dogs, etc.), Amis has sometimes been accused of creating unlikable characters who behave in improbable ways. In his person, he himself has now been found extremely unlikable by much of England’s cultural establishment. For as a card-carrying member of the British Left he has done something most improbable: he has attacked radical Islam.
The latest episode began in September 2006, shortly after the British government foiled an Islamist plot to explode multiple passenger airplanes over the Atlantic. In an interview with the (London) Times, Amis said:
What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs—well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people.
These comments were swiftly picked up and assailed by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton (a colleague of Amis at the University of Manchester). In an introduction to the 2007 edition of his book Ideology, Eagleton wrote that Amis’s observations could have passed for “the ramblings of a British National-party thug” (the allusion is to a small, whites-only, anti-immigration grouplet on the British Right), and that Amis must have inherited his obnoxious views from his father Kingsley—“a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays, and liberals.”
Responding in print, Amis characterized his Times interview as a “thought experiment” and not a policy proposal. The continued back-and-forth, with additional commentary from high-profile British luminaries, inspired a flurry of media coverage that soon became bewildering. Now, with The Second Plane, he has cut out the middleman to present readers with direct access to his deliberations on the post-9/11 universe.
Arranged chronologically, this book is a kind of guide to Amis’s unfolding ideas from one week after the attacks of September 11, 2001 up until September 11, 2007. The fourteen writings that make up The Second Plane, all previously published in periodicals, comprise seven essays, two short stories, four book reviews, and one movie review. But though they vary widely in genre and approach, each of them, whether the subject is the terror attack of 9/11, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the nuclear threat from Iran, or the demographic fate of the West, relates to the issue of Islamic terrorism and the fight against it.
The very first piece, “The Second Plane,” was written a week after 9/11, and in an author’s note Amis half-apologizes for it. It was, he says, “fevered by shock and by rumor.” Rumor, yes: according to Amis’s mistaken account, one of the hijacked planes flew so low over New York’s Fifth Avenue that it had to climb to clear the arch in Washington Square Park. But shock? If anything, the essay is composed with a suspicious degree of artfulness. Here is Amis’s description of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center:
We speak of “plane rage,” but it was the plane itself that was in frenzy, one felt, as it gunned and steadied and then smeared itself into the South Tower. Even the flames and smoke were opulently evil, with their vampyric reds and blacks.
It is as if the writer were in competition with the magnitude of real life—and losing.
“The Second Plane” also finds Amis’s anti-American credentials in perfect order. With the attacks only one week old, he excoriates the alleged American “deficit of empathy for the sufferings of people far away” and, presumably referring to the sanctions on Iraq then in place, asks:
How many [Americans] know, for example, that their government has destroyed at least 5 percent of the Iraqi population? How many of them then transfer that figure to America (and come up with fourteen million)?
As one moves forward in time, however, both Amis’s rhetorical excesses and his reflexive anti-Americanism quiet down. True, they are often replaced by subtler forms of linguistic self-indulgence and a more considered anti-Americanism; but they are also augmented by a more informed understanding of Islamism. As early as in “The Voice of the Lonely Crowd,” from June 2002, Amis is feeling his way around Islamic fundamentalism:
The champions of militant Islam are, of course, misogynists, woman-haters; they are also misologists—haters of reason. Their armed doctrine is little more than a chaotic penal code underscored by impotent dreams of genocide.
Still, no sooner is this analysis aired than it begins to blur with an argument that will appear more and more frequently until it reaches full bloom in a 2006 essay entitled “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind.” Here Amis declares that all religious belief is poison, and he formulates a pronouncement that will lend the principal sub-text to the rest of the book:
The age of terror, I suspect, will also be remembered as the age of boredom. Not the kind of boredom that afflicts the blasé and the effete, but a superboredom, rounding out and complementing the superterror of suicide—mass murder. And although we will eventually prevail in the war against terror, or will reduce it, . . . we haven’t got a chance in the war against boredom. Because boredom is something the enemy doesn’t feel. To be clear: the opposite of religious belief is not atheism or secularism or humanism. It is not an ism: it is independence of mind—that’s all. When I refer to the age of boredom, I am not thinking of airport queues and subway searches. I mean the global confrontation with the dependent mind.
In other words: there is the quotidian boredom brought on by our necessary compliance with security measures, and then there is the “superboredom” of having to do mental battle with the fanatically devout. Pity us poor secularists: just when we thought we were free at last, the Torquemadas of the world have returned to make our lives tiresome. This is only one of many places throughout the book where Amis denounces all religious constructions of reality for what one senses are mostly solipsistic reasons—namely, so that he can justify his condemnation of Islamism while continuing to chastise faith-based America.
In this context, his specific attacks on American faith are disingenuous to say the least. For example, he writes that George W. Bush’s religious conviction renders him “more psychologically primitive” than Saddam Hussein, and that “the American politician whom Mahmoud Ahmadinejad most closely resembles . . . is Ronald Reagan.” (Both, it emerges, shared a belief in end-times theology.) Since Amis knows that America’s foreign policy is not motivated by Scripture, the comparisons come off as merely puerile and opportunistic.
In fact, Amis is at his best not when he is exemplifying but when he is exposing the Western compulsion for moral equivalence, especially as practiced by the Left. He has a particularly keen eye for the way in which this can serve as a cover for simple defeatism. Here is his comment on the applause greeting one audience member at a televised British talk-show who rose to suggest that the American people were just as guilty as the 9/11 terrorists:
We are drowsily accustomed, by now, to the fetishization of “balance,” the ground rule of “moral equivalence” in all conflicts between West and East, the 100-percent and 360-degree inability to pass judgment on any ethnicity other than our own (except in the case of Israel). And yet the hand-clappers [in the audience] had moved beyond the old formula of pious paralysis. This was not equivalence; this was hemispherical abjection.
Martin Amis has spent six years clinging to certain old inclinations, most notably a distaste for American power, while struggling with some newly acquired notions about Islamism and the inadequacy of the Left’s response to it. The result, on the evidence of this book, is no clear linear move rightward but a progressive if incomplete discarding of some of the leftist roadblocks that stand in the way of clarity.
So he finds himself fitfully adrift. In politics, Amis writes in the book’s final entry, “it is surprisingly easy to move from side to side while staying in the same place; and the middle ground, I discovered, was not where it used to be.” It is also easy to let your surroundings do the moving for you—and the thinking, too. For why, if not merely out of fear for the last shreds of reputation, should so outspoken a critic of radical Islam continue to deride the one major country in the world that stands today in critical opposition to it?
In an earlier collection, Amis asserted that “all writing is a campaign against clichés. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” This is not a campaign that Amis always wages, or wins.