The terrorist bombings and the literature of rejection

A carte de visite (19th-century calling card) of John Wilkes Booth

A carte de visite (19th-century calling card) of John Wilkes Booth

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you know that one of its motifs – which also occurs in my forthcoming novel, “The Penalty for Holding” – is what I call “the literature of rejection,” that is the disproportionate rage at rejection found among certain antiheroes in literature and among assassins, mass murderers and terrorists.

I was reminded of this – or rather, my sharp-as-a-tack blog administrator reminded me of it – in reading an interview with Arie Kruglanski, co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), founded in 2005 at the University of Maryland with funds from the Department of Homeland Security. 

Kruglanski has walked the walk. He was born in Nazi-occupied Poland and spent 15 years teaching psychology at Tel Aviv University. In this interview he echoes 19th-century psychologist-philosopher William James’ view of heroism as a primary spur in human nature, even unto, and perhaps especially if it means, death itself. Kruglanski picks up on this theme:

“Personal significance is a motivation that has been recognized by psychological theorists as a major driving force of human behavior. Terrorists feel that through suicide, their lives will achieve tremendous significance. They will become heroes, martyrs. In many cases, their decision is a response to a great loss of significance, which can occur through humiliation, discrimination or personal problems that have nothing to do with the conflict in which their group is engaged. Sometimes, this loss of significance is felt by individuals who are deviating from the norms of the group, such as women who are infertile or were divorced by their husbands or are accused of extramarital affairs. In traditional societies, they suffer a tremendous amount of humiliation. To compensate for them, some of them do something that is held in extremely high regard by their community: self-sacrifice for the sake of their cause.”

I would argue, however, that personal significance is not the motivation but rather how the terrorists perceive personal significance. John Wilkes Booth was one of the theater’s great action heroes in the 19th-century. The notion that he was a bad, unsuccessful actor is simply not borne out by history. He was well-paid, catnip to the ladies and, if he wasn’t the classical tragedian older brother Edwin was, well, he made up for it with dashing charm.

But John Wilkes cast himself in a wider role on the world stage – as avenging angel for his beloved South and so assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. He could’ve fought for the South as the noble Gen. Robert E. Lee did. He could’ve worked for its Reconstruction. Instead, he chose to visit death and chaos on destruction. (Or, as I’ve written time and again, unlike his brother Edwin, he failed to understand that playing Hamlet was different than being Hamlet.)

So it is with the terrorists in the Russian, Beirut and Paris bombings. They aren’t Achilles, Lucifer or Heathcliff, who exist on a page. They aren’t playing, painting or writing about these. They aren’t engaged in a creativity that allows you to explore the darkness safely and that is a kind of heroism. They are a flesh-and-blood perversion of religion and masculinity. They could work for the construction of a homeland that could live in peace and prosperity with other nations. Instead they choose evil.

Is it a lack of talent? A lack of intervention? Or is it moral blindness?

Perhaps it comes down to nothing more than creativity requiring hard work and perseverance. Destruction takes but a moment. The terrorists may not be cowards, as Bill Maher pointed out after 9/11. But they sure are lazy.

Or maybe that laziness is a kind of cowardice. We’ve seen countless examples of men and women throughout history who’ve turned abject tragedy into triumph.

“It’s easier to pick up a paintbrush than a gun,” the photographer-filmmaker-composer Gordon Parks, himself a witness to early poverty and racism, told me.

If only that were true for everyone.