The morning after 9/11 attacks we woke up to a different world. Suddenly, not only have we become a part of the terrorized world, but also we were introduced to questions we couldn’t quite formulate. Most of us here in the U.S. started with, Why? Then, Who are these people?
The same questions resurfaced on the Patriots’ Day, April 15, when two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding over two hundred people.
Yesterday, April 27, The New York Times published an article by Deborah Sontag, David M. Herszenhorn and Serge F. Kovaleski, titled A Battered Dream, Then a Violent Path, in which the authors are tracing the lives of the two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for the bombings, to answer the same questions, Why? and Who are these people?
A science journalist, an author, and Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey, John Horgan wrote a brave and provocative piece for the Scientific American, How Can We Condemn Boston Murders but Excuse U.S. Bombings of Civilians? which sparked an avalanche of comments from the ones that challenged Horgan’s position to the ones that tried to understand this, to say the least, uncomfortable point of view.
In the midst of the TV coverage, articles on the web, and most of all thousands of comments from readers, I am asking the same questions, and thinking of the edge that pushes some to commit the unspeakably atrocious acts of violence against civilians.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we will never know. Not because it is a mystery, but because there is no one answer, or to be precise, there are many answers, and they vary from incident to incident. Probably, in many cases we will see Islam being used like a shield that is to ensure the “nobility” of the cause, but I would risk to suspect that the religion is only a smoke screen, and the edge is somewhere/something else.
Perhaps the edge for Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the unexpected end of his boxing career. Or maybe it was the long waiting for his American citizenship? Perhaps it was the fact that he was practically jobless, with his wife working up to 80 hours a week to support the family, while he was taking care of their 3 year old daughter. Perhaps it was his flamboyant taste is clothes that was not satisfied? Perhaps the reason was different and we will never find out. Perhaps he himself would not be able to answer this question truthfully.
And what was the edge for the younger brother, Dzhokhar? Was it his fascination, maybe even devotion to his older brother? I can imagine the bond, the love that drives an innocent, naive man to follow the strong and convincing one. How many days, how many nights did they spend together talking about life? Did they talk about what is really important, and why we are here on this planet? We don’t know what questions they explored, but we can imagine which one of them provided the passionate answers.
The bombings in Boston reminded me of 9/11, and brought me to the same place of sadness and hopelessness. I reached for my novel, To Kill the Other, in which I explore the “makings” of a terrorist, to find an excerpt in which the main character, Taher, is driven over the edge with something that happens in his life, and decides to join Al-Qaeda.
Here is an excerpt from To Kill the Other, and my interpretation of the “makings” of a terrorist. This excerpt shows a vision or a dream Taher had after the incident that pushed him over the edge.
A dead man is like a piece of wood or a rock you throw in the water, it’s an object—like there was no life before. Nothing stays with the body, with you; nothing stays after you, except a piece of wood or a rock.
Is there a life or is there only my life?
Is there a truth or is there only my truth?
Is there God? Or is there only my God?
Is there evil or is there only their evil?
That night Taher lay on the floor in the room of meetings. The room was dark; he couldn’t see the walls. The floor wasn’t obsidian the way it was before. It was translucent and illuminated with lights, and he lay in the illustrious center.
He didn’t have to look down to see everything. It simply came to him and filled his hollowed body, seeping through his skin that separated the space from here to there. The outside of his skin was cold, and the inside of his skin was hot, refining the time, differentiating now from then.
The city buildings made of glass and mirrors stood on an island surrounded by waters connected with sky. The same clearness and the same lightness of both made them seem one, with no beginning and no end; with the horizon appearing and disappearing in the bird’s eye.
The gates of the world encircled the city on an island, opening and closing, inviting and refusing, throughout the ages, throughout the millennia.
On the south sphere of the city there were the gates of Cairo with aged Ahmed leaving the prison. He says, “I didn’t recognize you. You are someone else, Taher.”
Am I betraying myself? Am I betraying my brothers? Where do I begin and where do I end? Who am I?
On the east sphere there was the yellow basalt Gateway of India in Mumbai with British troops—the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, the last ones to leave India. The date on the banner read February 28, 1948.
On the west there was Madrid’s Puerta del Sol with the square and the clock whose bells mark the traditional eating of the twelve grapes—with each new beginning, a new year. In the middle of this square stood the old watchmaker from Afghanistan. He was holding a shield made of clock dial with no arms, just Roman and Arabic numbers running in a snail trail from the center of the shield all the way to the edge.
And on the north sphere of the city was the Crane Gate at the Baltic City of Gda´nsk with Nazi soldiers marching in perfect order, their boots echoed on the cobblestones of Długa Street. They lead the sea of naked men, women, and children with David’s stars tattooed on their chests, above their hearts. Behind them another sea of men, women, and children followed under signs in red, “Solidarity!” They all sang “Ave Maria.”
The soldiers going to battle were everywhere, among them girls with blonde hair, blue eyes, and such young, young faces. Their uniforms were encrusted with thousands and thousands of tiny mirrors reflecting the explosion fires that lit up the night sky. They screamed as they charged into battle.
Taher saw mothers breastfeeding their infants in a hospital on a hill in Cairo, and a sea of cars flooding the narrow paths of the metropolis below them. Their husbands stood with armfuls of white roses, waiting for the bells to give a signal for the coffins to be lowered into the moist soil of the grave—for their children.
And there was one grave with a headstone that read Marek Aaron Abdullah Kowalski, and under the name was the poem Taher remembered from their last meeting in the park in New York City.
Lying in the center of the bright pool, Taher heard himself reading the poem. His voice was pure. Taher means pure in Arabic. It rose from Taher’s skin to his throat, becoming an extension of his flesh, like truth—easily defined. The words unwound in a language understandable, yet heard for the first time. English? Polish? Arabic? German? Russian? None of them and all of them at the same time.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man …
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world.
There will be no other end of the world.
—Czeslaw Milosz, “A Song On the End of the World”
Pictures in this post are from: (1) here, (2) here, (3) here