High Concept

The Death of Innocents

Terrorists’ bombs kill more than just people.

Terror bombings are not new. Europe has a history of violent protest and disruption extending back a century and more, and a genre of fiction that accompanies it. Not long ago, while writing a novel that played off this tradition, I had occasion to reread the classics of anti-anarchist literature to try to make sense of their themes and structure. The books came to mind again, this past week, in light of the suicide bombings carried out by young Palestinians. The acts both echo and stand apart from the moral imagination of those novels.

Dostoevsky, Zola, Conrad, and Henry James all addressed violent terror, some of them repeatedly. The form of the novels is rigid. At its core is a group of extremists. The plotters may, strictly speaking, be not anarchists but left-wing revolutionaries of one or another stripe. What matters is that one of their number is to throw a bomb or set a fire or commit a murder, as a means of social disruption. This man of action is either a knave or a fool. In either case, he is a bumbler. Something goes very wrong, and innocents die. In the case of naive protagonists, the casualty may be the hero himself.

Henry James used this last expedient in The Princess Casamassima. (The hero-victim is named Hyacinth.) In Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the victim is the bomber’s mentally handicapped young brother-in-law. In Zola’s Paris, the novel most sympathetic to anarchism, the victim is a lowly errand girl. Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, or The Devils, has quasi-innocents galore, but lest the point be missed, an extra character, a pregnant woman, is introduced at the last moment for the purpose of dying after childbirth, along with her newborn. For good measure, the protagonist hangs himself.

This link between politically motivated terror on the one hand and the unintended death of an innocent or naif on the other is a constant in 19th- and early 20th-century fiction. The innocent is sympathetic even from the viewpoint of the extremists. His or her death carries and clinches the moral argument. It is because civil terror results in such deaths that it can never be justified.

One might argue that their failure to anticipate the scale of subsequent terror—the Holocaust, Stalinism, and now Sept. 11—renders these novels irrelevant. But through the very end of the 20th century, the form of the genre remains constant. In Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, a bomb goes off prematurely; the only victim whose age is given is a girl of 15. Paul Auster’s Leviathan echoes Henry James. The moral fulcrum of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is a terror attempt that produces only the deaths of innocents. In each case, that unintended outcome—its absolute immorality—is the clincher, the bedrock on which subsequent discussion is built.

(A novel that wants to ask about the value of anarchism per se—absent unintended consequences—needs a farcical or absurdist tone and heroes who go out of their way to avoid the death of innocents. Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang is in this category, as is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.)

The intimate moral drama persists because it carries the culture’s values and perspectives. It reaches back, for its force, to the famous discussion between Ivan and Alyosha, the lead-in to the “Grand Inquisitor” fantasy, in The Brothers Karamazov. There, the worldlier brother asks the more saintly whether he would countenance the suffering of one innocent child in order to bring about a human destiny of happiness. Both Karamazovs answer that the price is too high. To assent would in any case be pointless since men could not be happy if they knew that their fortune arose from the suffering of a child. In vaguer fashion, the tradition comments on Christ’s Passion and Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. The death of an innocent is an absolutely central trope, the one that encapsulates the debate over ends and means.

My sense is that for us, as distant observers, the special horror of teen-age suicide bombing resides in that image and that moral standard: What do we make of explosions whose very premise is the death of innocents? Of course, from our point of view, those of us who believe that Israelis have the right to live in Israel, and in any case the right to live, every terror bombing, however initiated, intends the death of innocents. Perhaps when one begins by targeting civilians, there are no further degrees of horror. Is it worse to use adolescents as the vehicle? To the intended victims, there is no practical difference—which is to say that any difference is symbolic, a difference in meaning. And for those schooled in the Western tradition, the use of adolescents as vehicles for bombs does seem to contain a further message. It says, we have nothing in common. We don’t speak the same moral language.

Perhaps those statements repeat a banal truth. The Muslim tradition is distinct, not least in its special admiration for martial martyrdom. A CBS news segment last Thursday night contained clips of 4-year-olds in a Palestinian kindergarten in 1987; they told an interviewer that their ambition was to become suicide bombers and blow up Israelis. This curriculum speaks to the depth and chronicity of the Palestinians’ plight; it also speaks to particular notions of childhood and of ethical teaching.

In mentioning a genteel literature of terror, I am commenting less on practical politics than on the symbolic impact of events—what they are tous, recipients of a symbolic message. We interpret it in the context of our own heritage. Sending an adolescent on a suicide-bombing mission crosses a boundary; it is not only that the planners are heedless of harm to the innocent, they intend it. The instigators surpass our conventional notions of monstrosity. Wanting to establish a nation in this manner, so that its founding figures will be the adolescent bomber and the adult who sent her forth—that desire is precisely foreign to us. 

In framing this horror, I am relying on American psychiatric notions of adolescence. The teen-age years are a time of emotional instability, the age of onset of the initial symptoms, and in some cases the full syndrome, of the major mental illnesses. Teens are prone to suicidal thoughts. Simultaneously, they entertain fantasies of invulnerability. They are joiners. They are idealists. It is in that limited sense that the adolescent suicide bomber qualifies as an innocent or naif—not in terms of his or her personal culpability but in terms of our external awareness of the unformed nature of youth. 

I don’t intend to step past this comment, from within a single literary viewpoint. I understand that writers, from E.M. Forster to Paul Bowles and onward, have warned of the inadequacy of that vision across cultures. I am aware—anyone can see—that the Palestinians have reason to be desperate. And I know that Western nations induct 18-year-olds into military service for some of the same reasons that Palestinian ideologues seek them out. Still, regarding the suicide attack by teen-agers, if it discourages us especially, if it convinces us that no solution is likely, it may be because it begins where our traditional moral imagination ends, even as regards political terror. From that perspective, adults who wrap a teen-ager in explosives take a conventional limit, the collateral death of an innocent, and say, we choose to start beyond, to begin our action and discourse from outside the pale.