Imagining the Unimaginable

The terrorist in my novel versus the real ones. 

In my new novel, Look at Me, I set out to examine the impact of image culture on human identity. How, I wondered, has America’s emphasis on display—on appearances, literal and metaphorical—altered the makeup of people’s private selves? One of the novel’s several protagonists works as a fashion model—a job one might call the apotheosis of image culture. Another is a terrorist.

In the days since Sept. 11, I’ve fielded countless calls and e-mails from spooked friends remarking on the parallels between “my” terrorist, one of whose several names is Z, and the emerging portraits of the men who destroyed the World Trade Center. Z is in his 30s, well-educated, and comes from a moderate Muslim family. He was radicalized in his early 20s, at which point he developed a consuming hatred of what he regards as the American conspiracy: a plot to enslave the world to a corrupt consumer culture, destroying ties of blood and history that have held people together for centuries. Z abandons his family and drifts among several countries as part of a shadowy network of people looking to make trouble for the United States. Eventually he comes to America—first to Jersey City then to the Midwest, where he works as a high-school math teacher. At one point he muses over the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: “Witness the World Trade Center fiasco; only seven people dead of the many thousands who worked in those buildings, seven including an unborn child! Structural damage completely underground. In short, nothing to see! Nothing to see but hundreds of people coughing and weeping.” Later, he predicts the end of American supremacy, telling the fashion model to expect “An explosion of violence you can’t possibly imagine, sheltered and spoiled as you are.”

On the evening of Sept. 11, I looked again some of those passages and felt an awkward commingling of fear, excitement, and guilt. Having spent a fair amount of time inhabiting the mind of a man who wishes to bring America to its knees, I felt complicit, as if inventing a person who craved such violence meant that I had craved it, too. At the same time, I was suffused with jittery righteousness. I knew! I thought. I saw this coming! They should have listened to me! But these were lies: I watched the buildings fall with the same sense of awed incomprehension as everyone else. I didn’t see anything coming. I made it up.

I did a moderate amount of research. I read about fundamentalist groups in the Middle East (Z begins as a member of Hezbollah, radicalized by the arrival of Israeli troops in Lebanon). Several years back, I began amassing a fat file of newspaper clippings on terrorists. A New York Times headline dated Aug. 14, 1996, reads, “Funds for Terrorists Traced to Persian Gulf Businessmen,” one of whom was the then-little-known Osama Bin Laden. I talked with people who had worked in counterterrorism and could give me a sense of the textures of life for someone newly arrived in America as part of a terrorist cell: the cramped lodgings and sharing of beds in shifts; the low-level jobs and scant funds and loose organization. Above all, the need to perform acts that would be maximally photographed: After the Okalahoma City bombing, one source told me, while the media were busy speculating that Middle Eastern terrorists might be involved, those in the know knew better—terrorists would never strike at a place so remote, this person said, because a majority of countries would not have news correspondents stationed there. The splash would not be big enough.

The average terrorist was described to me as callow and bumbling, but I made Z older, well-educated, a master of languages and assimilation. This seemed to me a greater challenge: to create a character of some sophistication and experience who could still be moved to an act of suicidal violence. But in Look at Me, no violence takes place; Z’s assimilation ultimately dismantles his terrorist identity. Here, sadly, is the where he diverges from the Sept. 11 attackers; not because Z grows enamored of American life, as some have suggested those men might have—should have—after living so long in our midst. Nor is Z softened by a newfound empathy for Americans. It is simply that the longer he remains here, the more he comes to doubt that a conspiracy underlies our domination. What he observes instead—a celebrity culture as beguiling to Americans as it is abroad, a culture that proliferates not through some grand Machiavellian scheme but through sheer demand—is, from his own perspective, even more insidious. But acts of violence can’t defeat it.

Like Z, the Sept. 11 bombers lived in neighborhoods, went to restaurants, and put out their garbage at night. One man took his children to Disneyland. They embody precisely the paradox I was using Z to explore: As purveyors of images, terrorists epitomize the modern, Western era they abhor. They are as emblematic of it as fashion models.

When Z’s anger finally dissipates, the freedoms and comforts of American life rush in to fill the void it leaves. He becomes an aficionado of movies, he packs up his car and heads west. But the Sept. 11 bombers were apparently oblivious to the ironies and contradictions they manifested. They set about their ugly work, knowing that the cameras would arrive.