For the first time in a long time I have just read a longer piece, in its entirety, on the screen. I usually print interesting things out and take them home. But as I am at home and have no printer, well, I guess I was forced to read it. Then again, perhaps it was the ghoul in me that pressed me on.
Martin Amis has written a short story on the imagined last day of Mohammed Atta. You can read it at the Guardian.
Although I felt it started rather badly:
Then to the bathroom: the chore of ablution, the ordeal of excretion, the torment of depilation. He activated the shower nozzle and removed his undershorts.
I persisted. I couldn’t help myself. Having read nothing previously, that I can recall, of Amis’ I didn’t know if it was just his style that was putting me off or whether it was actually going to continue to be like this.
Mohammed Atta is probably the only one of the 9/11 hijackers that has stuck in my mind and I suspect I am not alone in this. The passport photo of him, published widely after the attacks, seemed to show a man with no feeling, with no emotion. Something less than a man, then. He became the face of terror made real.
I suppose I was drawn to Amis’ story due to this very fact. The picture I had built up of Atta, was (John Howard would be proud), of someone with an unswerving, almost psychotic commitment to his beliefs. Amis’ piece actually brings out a little more humanity, a little more realism. Amis’ description of Atta is of a person not particularly rabid in his beliefs but that of someone who has other, social, difficulties which have contributed to the situation in which he finds himself on the morning of September 11. In other words, he’s tried to build up a complex, contradictory character.
And this is not the sort of thing that lends itself to Western views of September 11. Amis’ imagining of the cadre of hijackers is that there was a fair amount of animosity, of school-boy peer-pressure and bickering. To imagine that such an event could be orchestrated by a group that is, well, just like the rest of us, makes life rather uncomfortable. To think that the group was not a bunch of Muslim automatons would no doubt make some shift in their seats a little. Of course, no one would ever doubt the gravity of their offences. It does make it easier for us to deal with the event and the subsequent grief though if we imagine the perpetrators as aliens.
I think Amis’ short story, although at times the writing made me cringe, asks a lot of questions and is a reasonably good example of fiction being able to cut through the two-dimensionality of media and politics and forcing us to ask questions.
How long do you listen to someone else’s grief? How long should we recognise their grief as placing them apart from the rest of us? Is some grief ‘better’ or ‘more worthy’ than others?
Why am I asking these weird-arsed questions?
I stumbled upon a mention of Anne Coulter’s new book and the claims she makes that September 11 widows have outstayed their welcome.
These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9/11 was an attack on our nation, and acted as if the terrorist attack only happened to them…I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much. . . . And by the way, how do we know their husbands weren’t planning to divorce these harpies? Now that their shelf life is dwindling, they’d better hurry up and appear in Playboy.
Aside from the WHOLE HEAP of problems I have about Anne Coulter, it did raise a few immediate questions.
Apparently there is a use-by date for some grief and there is some grief which pales in comparison to others. To any keen (or even intermittent) watcher of the media, such a grading of grief is not such big news. Some pain is bigger than others, depending on it’s newsworthiness. But if you are seen to be milking the media for the benefit of your own pain, then you may just overstep the line. Then again, some milking is ok, if you are the right person.
And what is the right person? Well, that just depends upon the media conditions of the time. Often there seems to be a correlation between the level of grief recognised and whether you are black or white, whether you inhabit a third or first-world country or whether their are ‘moral’ aspects to the grief. (What causes more grief to the victim’s family: the death of a grade-A student teenager or the death of a prostitute daughter? And which form of grief is more recognised?)
All grief is relative apparently. And according to Anne Coulter, you should never put yourself ahead of the collective good. (Smells like socialism to me…)
I marked this for posting a couple of weeks ago but have been rather slovenly of late, what with holidays, small children, general malaise. Anyway, enough of my excuses, this website is looking for your favourite word. I think another reason I took so long was that I was trying to think of my favourite word and I’m still dithering. Today my favourite word will be ‘clavicle’.
(I knew a man once who couldn’t stand the word ‘condiments’. He had an almost physical reaction to it. Weird.)
One of my favourite books is Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. It is about Germany and the burden of history. I say favourite not because it was a particularly easy or enjoyable book to read but because it was a book that resonated at the time I read it and continues to do so. It’s about history and forgiveness on a grand scale and a personal level. It’s about loving beyond forgiveness. It explores the inevitable fact that time moves along and at some stage we have to deal with what has passed but also conjure a way to live in the present, despite what has happened in the past.
I am thinking about this book now as it is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and I have this evening watched the disturbing story of a Holocaust survivor on the 7.30 Report. Worth reading is Theodore Dalrymple’s story of Dresden today and the difficulty of living with the past. The Germans are perhaps unique in having to live in modern times with a history so repugnant to most people, even though this repugnance is brought about by only a relatively short period of the country’s history. As every day we hear reports, neither verifably true or false, of torture carried out by those supposed to be ‘on our side’ one realises that this kind of behaviour is not confined to a single time or place. One day we may live with a history blighted with an ugliness that refuses to allow us to live in the present. (Admittedly, we already do, but it could possibly get a lot worse).