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

Abbas once had strong convictions about the meaning of "doctor," about the Hippocratic oath to which he had sworn. It meant you saved peoples' lives, everyone's, no matter how venal. One evening, years past, during a dinner party with their friends-one of whom delighted in provoking debate-the topic was whether it might ever be appropriate for a doctor to withhold medication from a patient. Abbas set up this hypothetical. "‘Let's say that the world's most notorious butcher, someone responsible for the genocide of thousands, suffered some sort of emergency while on a state visit to Washington, then ended up on your operating table with, I don't know, a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Would you really do everything within your power to make sure he could live to kill again?'"

"‘Addition by subtraction,'" replied the host. "‘Save thousands by maybe not doing your best for one.'"

Abbas disagreed. "‘To me there is still no question that you would do your best. Or else you're playing God. The Hippocratic oath has to count for something. We can't just rent ourselves out as medical soldiers in someone else's cause. We have to do our duty, no matter how loathsome.'"

But that was several years ago. Aliyah has an uneasy feeling that something deep within her husband has changed.

At the scene of that accident on Connecticut Avenue, Abbas does stop, to his wife's great relief.

The Ford is pinned to a lamppost beneath an oak tree. Dr. Rahim pries open the passenger door to treat a victim. Aliyah doesn't know how he stands the gore.

"‘Who's the Arab guy?'" a policeman demands to know.

"‘The Arab guy is a doctor!'" Aliyah yells back, surprised by her own vehemence. "‘He is also my husband, and he saves lives for a living. Saves lives. Do you understand this? He is trying to help those people!'"

The policeman backs off.

Aliyah's worry increases when she discovers her husband has been taking antidepressants. She knows her husband has reason to be angry. She was angry.

A couple of years after 9/11, during a family visit to New York, they took a Circle Line cruise; as the boat passed beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, their son, Faris, shot a video, perfectly understandable considering that he was an engineering student. And besides, other tourists were doing the same. But they weren't speaking Arabic, as Faris was with a friend from Cairo. The police hauled the family in for questioning. Dr. Rahim's name appeared on some computerized list, because years earlier-before 9/11-he had contributed to a Palestinian charity. He was held for two days, released without any charges being filed-and without an apology.

A year or two later, their daughter Shereen was in London with two friends after her graduation from Stanford, when her name and face delivered her fate. The day before their flight home, their passports were stolen. The American embassy issued new ones within a few hours-that is, it issued new passports to two of the girls, Catherine and Jane. For Shereen, there were complications. As her mother now fears, Shereen's encounter pushed her father over the edge. He wants revenge.

Fesperman wields his literary license here, having all of these humiliations happen to one family. But let us not forget, individually, the incidents are reality. Remember the Egyptian engineering student arrested by the FBI in October 2001, because he had a radio in his room at a hotel across from the World Trade Center? He was perfectly innocent-but he was also an Arab. As a correspondent in Southeast Asia in 2002 and afterward, I heard many stories of visa applicants being turned away, or their applications delayed, simply because they were males between the ages of sixteen and forty-five, and came from some twenty-six countries on the State Department's list. Most were Middle Eastern, but others hailed from Malaysia, Indonesia, even Singapore. Some were studying in the United States, at prestigious universities, and were trying to return after the summer break.

As Aliyah's fears mount, her search begins, told with great suspense by Fesperman, as twists and turns and more abound. She discovers that her husband is renting an abandoned pizza parlor. That former restaurant is within tunneling distance of a church where a funeral is to take place for the very senator Abbas has been treating-keeping alive. But was it "addition for subtraction"? Was Dr. Rahim only keeping him alive in order to perfect his plot?

Aliyah signs on to her husband's plot. But does she really want to help, or stop it?

To carry out his plans, Dr. Rahim needs technical assistance in making explosives. He finds a group in the West Bank willing to help. Abbas sends his wife there. She learns how to detonate explosives and asks to learn more. Here again, there is a strong parallel with real-world terrorism: while al-Qaeda may not be behind every terrorist attack, there is usually another group somewhere, most of them in Pakistan, from which the plotters have received some assistance, whether financial or technical.

There, by sheer coincidence, she runs into an American, Freeman Lockhart, a former aid worker, who is engaged in his own clandestine activities, having been blackmailed into spying on a humanitarian donor in the West Bank.

The Amateur Spy is two parallel stories. The one set in Washington, of Abbas and Aliyah. The other, highly suspenseful and full of intrigue, is about Lockhart and his stealthy exploits. Secrets are piled on top of secrets. (Incidentally, Lockhart's views on the failings of humanitarian aid-the compromises and corruption that aid workers encounter-are alone worth reading, and closely match my experiences in Latin America, Africa and Asia.)

Lockhart and Aliyah ultimately end up back in Washington, and reach the abandoned pizza parlor. They find Abbas, preparing a bomb below the church where the senator's funeral is being held. Most of Washington's highest-ranking leaders, including the vice president, are in attendance. Without revealing whether the plot succeeds or fails, suffice to know that all are arrested, Aliyah and Lockhart as material witnesses; they are not heard from again. Lockhart tells his story from a jail somewhere. And the public is never told about any of them. Why not? "Abbas Rahim is not the kind of scalp they wish to hang on their wall just now," Lockhart tells us. "If he were truly foreign, or well financed, or, better still, some sort of religious zealot, matters might be different. Instead he is a respected surgeon who has saved the lives of soldiers and statesmen, a very secular and very aggrieved parent from an affluent suburb of our nation's capital." In other words, the politicians want to blame Islamic fundamentalists or poor, uneducated Arabs-not worldly elites like Dr. Rahim. They don't want to admit that their conventional thinking may be wrong.

We don't want to be jolted from our delusions-we are more comfortable with our own version of the truth. Perhaps only the novel, with its ability to reel you in, make you feel, have you become a part of the story, can remove our ideological blinders.


MANY AMERICANS would rather not face such inconvenient realities. This is underscored, italicized and bolded by a review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist that appeared in National Review on May 14, 2007. "Anti-American agitprop," wrote Ann Marlowe, a freelance journalist who has worked in Afghanistan. But is it really that simple? Or does the book, like The Attack, tell us that even the most educated, most well-off people turn against America?

The protagonist, Changez, post-Harvard graduation, secures a highly sought-after job with an elite financial-consulting firm, and is taken under the wing of one of the partners. It's heady stuff for a twenty-five year old-flying first class, staying in five-star hotels, ordering around men old enough to be his father. Eventually, though, Changez finds it lacking, as many young people who have decided that there is more to life than making money do.

The turning point for Changez, that "click" again, occurs in his luxury hotel room in Manila, where he has been sent, as part of a team, to evaluate a company. As he packs to leave the next day, the television screen flashes pictures of the burning, collapsing World Trade Center.

"I stared as one-and then the other-of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased." He is elated that "someone had so visibly brought America to her knees."

Changez can't explain, not even to himself, why he felt this way. "I was the product of an American university; I was earning a lucrative American salary; I was infatuated with an American woman. So why did part of me desire to see America harmed?"

When he and his colleagues return to New York, he begins experiencing the fears, the anger, the knee-jerk reactions, which the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have unleashed in Americans.

Essay Types: Book Review