A Ticking Bomber

A Ticking Bomber

Mini Teaser: There is no simple answer to the causes of terrorism. But three books offer insight into the complexities of man and his motivation to kill. These explanations come not from academic tomes, nor expositions by the burgeoning cottage industry of ter

by Author(s): Raymond Bonner

Jaafari goes to Bethlehem, from where the letter was sent, searching for a fiery imam who he has come to believe indoctrinated his wife and blessed her mission. He is warned to leave. When he doesn't, he is assaulted in an alleyway, kicked and punched, left for dead.

The next day, he is taken-by circuitous routes, and after being searched for planted tracking devices-to a house where a young man of barely thirty receives him. The man, whose name we never learn, is some sort of leader of the intifada. He begins by apologizing for Jaafari's beating the previous evening, but chillingly notes, "‘Others before you have not gotten off so cheaply.'"

Jaafari is filled with rage, jabs his finger in the man's chest, talks so close to the man's face that his saliva sprays on it. "‘It makes me very angry to think that she preferred a set of fundamentalists to me.'" (There is an element to Jaafari's anger that is highly personal: how could his wife have kept all this from him, her husband?)

"‘My wife was an Islamist? . . . I can't get this through my head,'" he says. "‘She was a woman of her time. She liked to travel, she liked to swim, she liked sipping her lemonade on the terraces outside the shops, and she was too proud of her hair to hide it under a head scarf. What tales did you tell her? How did you make a monster, a terrorist, a suicidal fundamentalist out of a woman who couldn't bear to hear a puppy whine?'"

The leader explains the differences between Islamists-political activists who want a theocratic state-and fundamentalists-extremist jihadists who dream of a caliphate from Morocco to Indonesia. It is a paragraph that Westerners who are trying to understand Islam, rather than rely on knee-jerk generalizations, would do well to memorize.

"‘We're not Islamists, Dr. Jaafari, and we're not fundamentalists, either,'" the leader explains. "‘We are only the children of a ravaged, despised people, fighting with whatever means we can to recover our homeland and our dignity.'"

"‘I want to know everything. I want to know the whole truth,'" Jaafari says.

"‘Which truth? Hers or yours?'" the leader asks. This is the truth for his people, the reality for Palestinians:

"We spend our evenings gathering our dead and our mornings burying them. Our homeland is violated right and left, our children can't remember what the word school means, and our daughters have no more dreams, because their Prince Charmings choose to court the Intifada instead. Our cities are being buried by machines on caterpillar tracks, our patron saints don't know which way to turn, and you, simply because you're nice and warm in your golden cage, refuse to see the inferno consuming us. It's your right, after all. Everyone steers his ship as he thinks fit. But please don't come here asking questions about those who are sickened by your apathy and your selfishness and do not hesitate to give their lives to wake you up. Your wife died for your redemption, Mr. Jaafari."

Finally, the leader says: "‘We could spend months and years striving for mutual understanding, and neither of us would ever be willing to listen to the other. So there's no point in continuing. Go back home. We have no more to say to each other, you and I.'"

But Jaafari can't go home. He must find the answer. His quest takes him to Jenin, the site of so much bloodshed. Even though he doesn't live far away, Jaafari had no idea what was going on there-it might as well have been another continent. He never read a newspaper or watched a news show, so great was his ignorance. "The fundamental values of humanity are lying here, eviscerated; the incense stinks of broken promises; prayers are lost amid the sounds of weapons being cocked and sentinels' challenges."

He is quickly picked up, suspected of being an Israeli spy, working for Shin Bet. A tall man, in a parachute jacket, slams him into the wall, jams a pistol in his side and forces him to kneel. Soldiers grab him by the hair, pull his arms behind his back and clamp on the handcuffs. "‘End of the line, Doctor,'" says the man in charge. "‘You shouldn't have pushed things this far. We have no patience with assholes here.'"

Handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded, Jaafari is thrown into the trunk of a car. "When the trunk lid slammed down, it took away the last shreds of my self-esteem at the same time that it cut me off from the rest of the world." This treatment is eerily similar to that meted out by American soldiers and the CIA to suspected terrorists at the "black sites" and Guantánamo. And the goal is the same: deprive the individual of all shreds of self-esteem. Make Muslim men wear women's panties; taunt them with women; and put them in isolation, cut them off from the rest of the world. Make them feel as if they are totally alone. American soldiers who were POWs in North Korea said that the sense of isolation, the psychological torture, was far worse than any physical torture.

Jaafari is tossed into a dark cave, no windows, no light. He spends six days in his "pestilential rat hole, fair game to fleas and cockroaches, living on cold soup and grinding my vertebrae against a pallet hard as a gravestone." Again, a mirror of our moment. Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-Australian, was picked up in Pakistan and secretly taken by the CIA to Egypt, where he was held for six months, in similar conditions. Binyam Mohamed had his genitals slashed with a scalpel in Morocco, where he had been shipped by the CIA.1

In literature, there is reprieve. On the seventh day, a commander, in his thirties, comes into Jaafari's cave, wearing combat fatigues, a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung on his back. He hands Jaafari a pistol. "‘It's loaded,'" he says. "‘Shoot me. It's your right.'"

Jaafari lays the gun on the floor.

"‘Conscientious objector?'" asks the commander.

"‘Surgeon,'" says Jaafari.

The commander puts the pistol into his belt, and speaks to Jaafari. It is another lengthy dialogue-a literary device to drive home the author's point.

"I don't know whether I've succeeded, Doctor, but I wanted you to experience, physically and mentally, the kind of hatred that's eating away at us. . . . Existence has taught me that a man can live on love and fresh water, on crumbs and promises, but he can never survive insults. And insults are all I've known since I came into the world. Every morning. Every evening. That's all I've seen for my whole life."

The commander gives Jaafari new clothes, which he has bought with his own money.

"So how have you spent the last six days in this stinking cellar? I daresay you've learned to hate. If not, this experiment has been useless. I shut you up in here so you could develop a taste for hatred and a desire to act on it. I haven't humiliated you as a matter of form. I don't like humiliating people. I've felt humiliation, and I know what it is. When a person has been scorned, when his self-esteem has been wounded, all tragedies become possible. Especially if he recognizes that he's impotent, with no means of restoring his dignity."

He grabs Jaafari by the shoulders.

"I wanted you to understand why we've taken up arms, Dr. Jaafari, why our teenagers throw themselves on tanks as though they were candy boxes, why our cemeteries are filled to overflowing, why I want to die with my weapons in my hand, and why your wife went and blew herself up in a restaurant. There's no worse cataclysm than humiliation. It's an evil beyond measure, Doctor."

Jaafari still cannot comprehend. Nor can a police officer and friend, Navid, who has investigated too many suicide bombings in Israel. "‘How the hell is it possible for an ordinary human being, sound in body and mind, to make that choice?'" he says to Jaafari. "‘How can he give up his plans, his dreams, his ambitions, and decide to die an atrocious death in the midst of the worst kind of barbarism?'" Navid goes on: "‘Something clicks somewhere in their subconscious, and they're off.'"

Jaafari learns that his wife had long been supporting the Palestinian uprising. She gave money, allowed her house to be used for meetings. At some point, she stepped over the precipice. Deep inside her, maybe she was hiding the wounds from growing up "among the oppressed, as an orphan and an Arab in a world that pardons neither," Jaafari muses. It was a heavy burden to carry: "all it took was a simple little click to awaken the beast that was sleeping inside her."

"When did that happen, that click?"


IN THE Amateur Spy, Aliyah Rahim wonders if something has clicked inside her husband.

Rahim, one of Washington's leading surgeons-he was a member of the team that saved President Ronald Reagan's life following the 1981 assassination attempt-is treating a senator on his deathbed. As Dr. Rahim and Aliyah head to work, driving down Connecticut Avenue, just south of Chevy Chase Circle, a Metrobus slams into a Ford SUV. Aliyah isn't sure what her husband will do. Which is stronger now: His obligations as a doctor? Or the resentment and anger that's been building in him, arising out of the humiliation-and worse-that befalls him and his family as Muslims in America after 9/11?

Essay Types: Book Review