Terrrism and the English Language: This Year's Crop of Books Offers Thrills over Insight

By Adams, Lorraine | The Washington Monthly, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Terrrism and the English Language: This Year's Crop of Books Offers Thrills over Insight


Adams, Lorraine, The Washington Monthly


WE ARE COMPLEX AND SHADOWY IN a growing worldwide network. The Hamburg and Brooklyn cells are closely linked. Our translator drives, curling dagger and pager on his century-old embroidered belt. Clue: Sleepers are friendly but standoffish. Over the sand and through the wind, to bin Shajea's compound we go; kidnappers are near, but our Jeep is strong ... Wait, on this map, Al Gama'at al Islamiyya and Al Muhajirou are in Philadelphia.

Lost? Your location is the world of terrorism non-fiction. We are not in an airport paperback or violent teen video. Authors who wrote these words and scenes wish the books that contain them to be taken seriously. We are reading a Harvard law professor, a Middle East scholar, a CNN analyst educated at Oxford, and a PBS documentarian. These voices come to us from Simon & Schuster, W.W. Norton & Co, and Yale University Press. Scrambling reduces these works unjustly. Yet it is impressions, rather than the revelations their blurbs promise, that stay in mind when reading the terrorism books debuting this fall.

The professor teaching Western Terrorism Literature 1970-2002 might open with the observation that the works of the period have their roots in The Hardy Boys adventure stories--The Sinister Signpost, The Secret Warning, While the Clock Ticked, Mystery of the Desert Giant. A common leitmotif: Only real men are capable of saving an affluent, soft society from foreign predation and apocalypse. The period's overarching theme: Terrorists are bad.

Such a literature might be all we needed before 19 men incinerated 3,000 innocents by flying commercial planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field a year ago. Reading the post-attack books, I thought often of George Orwell's 1945 words on bad writing: "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then rail all the more completely because he drinks." Bad writing works the same way, Orwell wrote. It "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" I have always believed this. But in truth, I had forgotten about it. It took these books during these times to bring this prodigal back to creed.

Not all of the rail terrorism books will be slovenly or foolish. But they will come in great numbers. "Whether publishers are motivated by plucky optimism or cannibal instincts, they are pushing an astonishing number of September 11-related books into the market," Publishers Weekly warned this summer. "Estimates for the fall season range from 65 titles (a number floated at BookExpo America) to 150 (the number calculated by Ingram)--clearly a high-water mark for book tie-ins to a single news event."

In such a crowded field, the author with name recognition has an advantage. As in political campaigns, television is mainlining, newspapers only snorting. Television is expensive. But writers never pay for it as candidates do. Or rather, they pay, but the currency is not cash. It is the degree to which they are willing to leave out what they know. Some might call this intellectual dishonesty. But they're not really lying. Lying is when your mother asks you if you ate the cookies and you say no. This is cookie eating for gifted adults.

Terrorism writers who were on television the most this past year made the bestseller lists this past year. After September 11, Peter L. Bergen, the author of Holy War Inc., has been on the airwaves (and sometimes the radio waves) at least 800 times. Bergen has been a CNN producer in foreign postings for a decade. He went from behind the camera to onscreen as its terrorism analyst after the September 11 attacks. With a British accent and an Oxford history degree, he was calm, reasonable. His book made the New York Times list, and others. Right behind him was Steven Emerson, author of American Fihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, with almost 400 appearances. …

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