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“The Second Plane”
Martin Amis Against Islamists

Don't mess with Amis

The British writer Martin Amis’ collection of 9/11 essays and stories, “The Second Plane,” was published in the United States last week. The response was vicious: “chuckleheaded,” “pretentious,” “preening,” “undeniable hubris,” “potty,” “the embarrassing uncle screaming at the television,” and “riddled with basic misunderstandings,” were just three reviewers’ responses. They’re right to some extent. The book is mostly 9/11-inspired rubble (reviews, columns, a few essays, two-and-a-half short stories). And there is a lot of shouting and preening.

But there’s also something else: The angry admission that as things have been since the attacks six years ago, the attackers have been made victorious by the world’s insistence on giving them more credit and power than dull, death-obsessed and only rarely successful Islamists are due. Maybe what critics don’t like is to be told so bluntly and glibly how easily the West is being had.

Amis’ last two books (“Koba the Dread,” an extended “J’accuse” about Stalin, and “House of Meetings,” a novel about Stalin’s gulags), are studies in the delusions of oppressors and the self-delusions of their apologists. Amis extends the theory to 21 st century oppressors, substituting Islamism for communism. As such, the book is heavily indebted to Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” (Norton, 2003), where Berman analyzes the sibling DNA between the totalitarian movements of the 20 th century (Nazism, communism) and the totalitarian ideology and methods of Islamism. But where Berman unfurls, to use his phrase, “a marvelous display of contempt and disdain” at liberals who would in any way rationalize the terrorism of Islamists, Amis can’t quite bring himself to indict wholesale the impulse to explain, and perhaps even to understand it.

And so out of “The Second Plane” rubble rises, like two towers of irony, two short stories that are almost by themselves worth the price of the book. “In the Palace of the End” is the morbid first-person confession of one of “the doubles of the son of the dictator” (Uday or Qusay, the bloodletting late sons of Saddam Hussein, are models to Amis’ imagination). The double describes the tortures and absurdities he endures in the job—sitting in for disfigurements according to the way the son of the dictator has been disfigured in the latest attempts on his life, for instance. “One vast lesion: that’s what I am,” he complains, an allusion to the condition any dictator (and those who play into his hands) will inflict on his country.

As its title implies, “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” is more ambitious, because more dependent on a flint of imagination Amis can’t entirely control. Atta was the 9/11 hijackers’ leader, and, apparently, the group’s most devout specimen. Amis follows him during his last days and hours and deconstructs Atta’s own preening piousness all the way down to his bowels: It’s September, and Atta “had not moved his bowels since May.” Amis saves the detail from vulgarity by hitching it to Atta’s sordid, perfectly rationalized sense of mission all the way to its climax. Maybe that’s another thing critics didn’t like: Reducing the most cataclysmic event of the 21 st century to the squalid, common idiocy of a few men.

The book has its problems. The second-longest longest piece, a gossipy thing he wrote for Vanity Fair after hanging out with Tony Blair in his waning days as prime minister of Britain, would have felt dated even if Blair was still prime minister. Blair was so much the shadow of George W. Bush that his absence from the scene isn’t as noticeable as it might have been, had Blair lived up to his promise. Several pieces are more entertaining for their one-liners than for insights into the books under review (“the village-idiot vigilantes known as the Taliban,” or referring to President Bush as “a tax-cutting dry drunk from West Texas” who overnight “became the most powerful man in human history”). And Amis makes the silly claim that God and religion, never secularists, terrorize and exterminate (Stalin and Hitler did not shout “God is great!” through their genocides).

It’s part of the Amis charm to drop a few outrageous generalities. It’s also a fair price to pay for his moving outrage, never calibrated to please but to dare the reader to quit fearing that some truths may, and must, offend. Besides, he redeems his generalities with blazing observations, like this: “And doesn’t Texas sometimes seems to resemble a country like Saudi Arabia, with its great heat, its oil wealth, its brimming houses of worship, and its weekly executions?” And this, about Bush: “From September 11 to the autumn of 2003, he had the body language of the man in the bar who isn’t going anywhere till he has had his fight.” The only inaccuracy here is the end date. The man is still looking for a fight.

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