Updike’s Terrorist

Is there anything you would die for? Your friends, family, country, or God, perhaps? Is there anything you would kill for? Now for a harder question: is there anything you would kill innocent people for?

Yesterday I sat and brooded as I watched the BBC’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt. It was so impossible to comprehend: what goes through a person’s mind when they kill innocents?

When terrorists attack worshippers in Iraq, tourists in London or runners in Boston people try to explain it. They suggest the terrorists had some political or religious goal of some sort. They say they were alienated or brainwashed or evil or what-have-you. But these explanations, while logical, never really satisfy me. What was really going on in the head of a terrorist? What were the steps, what were the processes, a person would go through to kill innocents?

This led me to thinking of John Updike’s 2006 book Terrorist. The main character is a young American who becomes radicalised, groomed, and finally chosen to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan.

The book is very believable. By that, I mean the entire plot and evolution of Ahmed’s character was logical. I could understand how the terrorist plot was conceived and carried out. Ahmed’s actions and thoughts made sense.

In fact, Ahmed was a sympathetic character. And here lies the crux of the issue. Updike was a masterful storyteller. He made the terrorist a character the reader could understand and emphasise with, but this made the conclusion of the story inevitable. Ahmed stepped back from the brink, and chose not to detonate the bomb.

This ending was obvious from the outset. The reader could never sympathise with someone who would actually kill innocent people. The reader could never understand it. Ahmed was forced to become the good guy and refuse to kill because of the rules of storytelling.

A good novel can tell us much about the world, but Updike’s Terrorist fails on this score. This might be why it is one of his worst books. It doesn’t explain how or why someone could actually become a terrorist and carry out terror attacks. But this may be asking too much of even the master Updike. To explain such evil, I think, might simply be impossible.

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