A conversation with an aspiring terrorist
Originally published in Dionysus Unemployed Spring 2006.
It was a normal autumn night in Paris, a little cool, a little damp. Clouds had covered the city for what seemed like weeks. At night the sky shone a luminous green, from the reflection of the city’s many lights off of the clouds and smog. The green sky phenomena might have only been true for the seventh arrondisment and surrounding area, where the green glow of the Eiffel Tower was so prominent, but that doesn’t matter too much.
My girlfriend was visiting from the States, my tiny chambre de bonne offered little more than a bed with a pleasant view. When we had had enough of that bed with a pleasant view as our bodies could physically stand we decided to venture out. The seventh offered little nocturnal entertainment other than an Irish pub which was frequented by international students and expatriates. So we ended up there, wanting to do something, but not wanting to travel far.
The bar was crowed for a Sunday night, the air rang with a dozen tongues, but French and English were dominant. We found a corner table, sandwiched between a wall of Guinness posters and a group of chain-smoking Russians. At the bar I waited for two beers for what seemed to be a half hour, enough time for the effects of the shared bottle of wine to have worn off. When I returned to the table there was a man seated on my stool talking to my girlfriend, which was no big deal, every guy likes to know his girlfriend is attractive to others.
The man saw me approaching the table with a pint in each hand. He rose from the seat greeting me with a smile and a hello. I introduced myself while taking the seat and encouraged him to pull up another. His eyes were large and commanded contact, yet they were far from intimidating, they only sought to create a direct link with whom he addressed. He was a little older than myself, but close enough to my age that we interacted more as peers than anything else. The polite formalities were rushed through, to get to the topic of something larger, something that no longer required the polite formalities of etiquette. One’s perception of truth can never be put politely.
—I am learning how to make bombs.
He said it with such matter of fact coolness that I really wasn’t caught off guard.
—So you’re studying to be an engineer?
I had a few friends who who had up morality for money taking jobs designing tactical missile systems for government contractors.
—Well, not exactly. What do you think of the men who flew planes into the Twin Towers?
—They took the lives of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, so I can’t say I think very highly of them. I guess, they’re men whose passion led them astray.
He looked at me with a laugh.
—You speak like a politician. You don’t have to choose your words so not to offend me, for what I have to say will offend you. My life’s goal is to die like the men who piloted the planes into the two towers; I want to die with the glory of God.
Our eyes held contact for a great while, the many tongues speaking a dozen tongues disappeared, there were now only two tongues speaking one. I broke eye contact with a glance toward my girlfriend, who looked to be deeply preoccupied with counting the number of bubbles in her beer. With an unhealthy amount of adrenaline flowing through my veins I brought my eyes back to meet his. There was no hostility in our shared stare; there was only surprise and contemplation. I lit a cigarette and offered one to him, he accepted with a smile.
—Well, you said you are from South Africa, how did you come to the decision that you want to sacrifice your life to take out a few thousand innocent Americans?
—They don’t have to be American; France, England, Germany, they all treat Arab and African populations like dirt. Whoever they are, they are definitely not innocent.
—I’m assuming that there is some degree of innocence in ignorance. But, how did you get where you are right now?
He presented himself as being educated. He was black and from South Africa. I could only assume that he had a good deal of spite toward the whites of his country and those of countries who supported South Africa during official Apartheid.
—I was a paratrooper in the South African Army; I was a very good soldier. I earned a good living, even compared to many white people in my country. But for whom was I fighting? I secured boarders against black refugees wandering in search of something better, I quelled uprisings of my own people who only sought resources to help develop their communities, to treat the sick and to feed the poor. I could not do that any longer, so I deserted my life as a soldier for the state and decided to become a soldier for God.
My mind could not help but wonder. Questions arose in my head of this man’s intentions for the moment; naturally I assessed the risk to myself and to my girlfriend. Would this man blow himself up in a Parisian bar taking the lives of forty people who probably disagreed with US foreign policy as much as they would disagree with his ultimate intensions? Probably not, this man spoke with such aspirations of grandeur that taking out a bar of that kind would be beneath him.
I scanned the crowded inside, the bartenders were Irish and had little interest in any peripheral activity outside their demanding patrons cowering over the bar top. There was a group of students, many of them acquaintances, playing a surrealist game in English with side conversations in Portuguese, French, and Swedish. There were various other groups talking and carrying on. A group of women were enjoying the free drinks men bought them, but would enjoy rejecting their passes in a few hours even more. And the group of chain-smoking Russians was still next to the table taking no notice of us. Yet, there were two men seated at the bar who were all too aware of our conversation. They were not staring but their eyes kept drifting our way. With one of my glances they noticed me looking their way. One, an Arab man, who looked to be North African, coolly scanned the bar after our instant of eye contact, but the other, a tall African with a skull cap, kept his gaze for some time. His gaze was not so comfortable, so I cowardly diverted my eyes.
Jonathan did not notice this, chatting with my girlfriend who was taking drink orders. I could tell that she was equally as entranced by Jonathan, he was a conversationalist who knew how to engage people, he spoke with such charisma that it was hard for me to keep in mind the fact that this man thought I would be better off dead. She went to order a bottle of the house red, and Jonathan and I continued on.
—So, are you involved with al Qaeda?
—I have some friends and teachers specifically involved with the work of that organization, but I am not directly affiliated. I’m African, most Arabs are racist, they would never truly accept me. Just look at what is and has been going on in Sudan, Arabs massacring Africans.
—But you are Muslim, right?
—Well, that is the religion I most affiliate with but I am no fundamentalist, there is too much wisdom in the world to limit myself to one doctrine.
He reached into his coat and pulled out a book on bushido, the code of the Samurai.
—With hara-kiri the Samurai knew how to die a glorious death.
—The Samurai were mercenaries who fought for whatever noble gave them the best food and shelter.
—That may be true, but there were many concessions they never made. They would die before they would be dishonored. The West is dishonorable, as a part of the West—even if I am on its margins—I am dishonoring myself, dishonoring God. The only way for me to retrieve dignity is to die a death of great honor, to become a martyr.
—Killing yourself won’t make you a martyr, killing thousands of people will not give you glory.
My voice rose as I finished the sentence, I almost lost my cool. Jonathan gave me a surprised look as if I had broken our unspoken code. I shrugged my shoulders and filled our glasses, lighting another cigarette as he solemnly continued on.
—My people are suffering, my people are starving. All of Africa is being consumed by AIDS and famine. For publicity America may be giving some deal of aid to Africa, but their intentions are not genuine. The US wants Africa to be dependent on them; through dependence there is control. AIDS is the easiest way for the West to deal with undesired populations; they feel the entire continent of Africa is an undesired population. There are even CIA agents actively proliferating the HIV among these populations. You have the medicine available to totally change the situation over the next 20 years, but you keep it to yourselves. A strong African continent is something the West is afraid to see, a strong economy would lead to a strong military, and you can’t help but think that Europe and the Americas are deserving of some kind of punishment for the centuries of slavery, rape, oppression, and death.
—The only way to defeat America and other Western nations is through terrorism. At this point Islamic groups give the Third World the best means. But it is not Islam that you should be worried about; it is the Third World that should scare the West. Even if the Islamic fundamentalists are able to rally the Muslim world to take up arms against the West, they only number in the hundreds of millions, but the Third World is in the billions. Of course, there are no resources for an Western-style army to organize in the Third World. We do not have the military means to use “civilized” Western battle strategies. Any formal attack would be disastrous. The US would bomb the fuck out of us, giving them justification to take out take out the Third World faster than AIDS already is.
He stopped for a brief moment and glanced toward the two men sitting at the bar. For the first time in our conversation he lowered his eyes, and he slowly said,
—There is no other way; there is no other way. Think about it, with the technology that the US and Europe possess it is impossible to do any significant damage to their militaries. We must goes after the civilian population. If those countries are in fact democratic then it is the people and not the military who are responsible for the atrocities committed against my people and others across globe.
—Just because we may call ourselves democratic doesn’t mean that people have a say in foreign policy.
I was speaking to a man I could relate to, the son of a horrific angel and a beautiful demon. I was in existential vertigo; the gravity of truth disappeared, leaving me in a vacuum of relativity. It was not that I thought this man was right, it’s that I could see myself in his situation. This was not an evil man, just a man who wanted to give his people a better life. He saw his cause as much bigger than himself, and he saw his situation, as being so desperate that he felt the only solution was to take his life while taking many other lives whose weight was smothering his people.
Suicide bombers are thought of as perpetrating the ultimate act of evil, disrespecting life on all levels, being cowards for taking themselves out, thus not having to face the finite consequences of their actions. But on the other hand, they are selfless. They see their lives as being of little value in comparison to a cause much greater than themselves. The act is atrocious, but is it any worse than dropping a bomb from a plane or launching a missile from a battleship? If anything, a suicide bomber displays more courage and more knowledge of the act than a fighter pilot. Dropping bombs from a distance and programming a computer to send missiles to the desired target removes the murderer from the scene of the act, it allows them to sleep better at night because they didn’t get to see the results of their actions. It sanitizes the horror of the act, the indiscriminant death of men, women, and children, the blood, severed limbs, and mutilation.
I wondered who in the bar would stay if they knew that someone who was learning how to commit mass murder was partaking in libations along side them. I was sure that some else in the bar had had some military training that had led to the loss of life at some point in their lives. The oldest of the chain-smoking Russians standing directly behind Jonathan could have easily been an officer in the Soviet Army, his erect posture and well-coiffed hair didn’t quite fit with his bohemian-chic attire. He could have taken the lives of many Afghans who were fighting for their independence. He could have dodged US bullets fired from US guns given to the Taliban zealots to defeat Soviet occupiers, the same guns now being used by the same soldiers to fire Russian bullets at US soldiers.
I noticed an acquaintance sitting across the bar, in a far corner where she was talking with a few friends who I had often drank with at that Parisian Irish pub. She had a slender build but was far from frail, a Uruguayan Israeli who had served time in the Israeli Army. One night after many drinks she opened up to a few others and me about her two year “sentence” in the military. She told a story of how she forced a Palestinian family out of their home. There were young children, an elderly grandmother and grandfather, a nursing mother, all of whom she and her follow soldiers forced from the house at gun point. She said they took the house for its ideal position, being on the corner of two quiet side streets not far from a Hamas stronghold.
After that story she began to tear up, her watery voice dribbled of how displacing families was far from the worst thing she was apart of. She spoke of three Palestinian children who were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers for running after a soccer ball that had rolled onto an unauthorized area near a checkpoint at the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. She did not fire the shots, but she was there, gun in hand, to hold back the crowd who ran after the slain children. After that she was given the afternoon off and a few Xanax to pull herself together.
But she also spoke of the suicide bombers she had avoided in her second home of Tel Aviv, how a good friend of hers had not been so lucky, how after school one day, her friend who had been so patient with transition from Spanish to Hebrew, died taking a public bus home from school with her mother. While consoling herself about the slaughter of three Palestinian children she remembered her friend, who died at about the same age of the fallen soccer players. She finished by saying that thought did not make her feel any better; it only made her feel worse about the situation.
As I glanced at her from across the bar at this Latina Israeli, I saw her laughing about one of life’s small comedies with some friends; she caught my glance and gave me a nod, which I returned. To this my girlfriend gave me a sharp glance; she considered every female friend of mine as a possible partner in an infidelity. In the face of contemplating global relations this small interaction brought me back to realities of daily life. People are more worried about the actions of love loved one’s in relation to their own lives than to the effects their nation’s policy has on other lives, policy that can make or break the lives of millions of people they will never meet.
Returning my gaze to Jonathan’s, I could see he was waiting for me to say something.
—I know, I mean, I am aware of the horrors in your country and many others at the hands of American foreign policy, but an act targeting civilians, women and children, will not help your cause in any way. You will only alienate yourselves from the Americans and other Westerners who want the situation to change, the ones who feel that this imperial method of global distribution is criminal. Acts of terrorism will only give these governments more reason to tighten their grip on the Third World as well as increasing military action and occupation.
—And that will only give the Third World more to rally around. We see this happening in Iraq right now, the US as an occupying nation has lost the support of those who initially believed that Sadam needed to be relieved of his rule. Who knows, in a few months I may end up in Iraq. Just as the fight against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan trained and strengthened the current wave of militant liberators, your so-called terrorists, Iraq will be the training ground for the next. But I am African, black-skinned insurgents in Arab nations have never been greatly welcomed. Then again it would create quite the dilemma for the black American soldiers. The way things appear to me they may be more willing to kill a white—what do you call it?—ah yes—cracker from the south of America than they would an African.
With that he let out a bellowing laugh to which I could not help but to laugh along to the absurd irony of the situation he presented. When we regained our composure I coolly asked him the question I was dying to ask, yet already knew the answer to.
—Would you kill me? We have been conversing for some time now, and a feel that we have made a personal connection that has allowed us to be completely open.
—Would I kill you?
—Yes, would you kill me?
—I would never seek you out above anyone else, and for that matter I would probably rather you not be present at my coming moment of glory. But, if you were, it would not change my actions.
He paused with a smile and then asked.
—Would you kill me?
—Yes, if I were present at your so-called moment of glory I would take your life before you could take mine and the lives of many others.
Sitting across the table of this man brought to mind a powerful passage I had read in Stephen Mitchell’s adaptation of the Tao Te Ching. I recited,
—His enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself. He doesn’t wish them personal harm. Nor does he rejoice in victory. How could he rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men? He enters battle gravely, with sorrow and compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.
It’s funny how in moments of intensity you are able to recollect obscure passages, poems, and phrases that seem to articulate your thoughts better then you are able to.
—That passage is from the Tao Te Ching, I have read it many times. There is much truth to that. Do think that I am happy about the path a have chosen for my life? Do you really think it makes me happy to know that I am going to take the life of a mother, a daughter, and a sister? That I will more than likely take the life of a child whose chosen life has yet to begin. This very fact may be the reason I am here drinking right now. The thought torments me in many ways. But this is what it comes down to, as I said earlier; there is no other way. The UN is an impotent organization that caters to the interests of the powerful, of the wealthy interests around the world. There is an elite class among the poor nations of the world, they rule countries but care little about their people. They will blindly follow the policy of the US, UN, WTO, or whoever, just because it is in the best interest of their personal situation.
At this point I was not surprised that he was able to pick out the quote. This man was no mindless drone, he had had an esoteric education administered by his own curiosity. It was getting late, the bar was starting to clear out. Although we took notice, it did not divert us from our goal of finishing an unfinishable conversation. Going back to my earlier comment about my willingness to kill he said,
—Its good to know you are no pacifist.
We looked at each other and looked away, for the first time in the conversation there was a lull, both of us had so much to say, so much to ask. Thinking of something to say I asked again a question I presented to him earlier in the conversation.
—Why are you here?
He seemed surprised at my question, but then a huge smile appeared on his face, a smile that exposed all of crooked yet remarkably white teeth. He said with a laugh,
—My father did not have access to condoms; I am from a predominantly Catholic village.
With that comment my girlfriend laughed for the first time in since we arrived at the bar.
—I like your sense of humor, but why here, why Paris?
—For the same reason you have decided to study in Paris.
—What brings you, an aspiring terrorist, to an Irish Pub on a Sunday evening?
—First of all, it is easy for the West to label people like me as a terrorist, but that is a belittling term to my cause. I want to be a liberator, a freedom fighter, or whatever the right word may be. I may terrorize but my ultimate goal is not terror. As to this situation, I know, I am very hypocritical. Look at me, drinking and smoking, polluting my body with this filth!
He had a look of disgust more telling than his words. He pushed his glass away and put out the cigarette he had casually smoked.
—But all this will be forgiven, as I give honor to my life and to God.
—Do you know the hijackers did on September 10th?
—I know, do you?
—From what I hear they spent their evening drinking in strip clubs.
—There is some truth to that.
—Are you expecting to be rewarded with seventy virgins upon death?
—Don’t mock me. That’s ridiculous. That might be true for some, and has been focused on by the Western media, to portray jihadists as crazed delusional zealots, but that is not the case. Given the opportunity I would fly a plane into the Super Bowl, but it infuriates me to think that people would believe that I would commit such an act for a seventy virgins.
—Come on, that is a huge score; there aren’t a seventy virgins in the whole city of Paris.
—Leave it to an American to make a joke like that in a time of seriousness.
I felt embarrassed for making that comment, I had so much wanted to present myself in a way that would not play into any of the preconceived notions he had of an American student like myself. But I was naive, I am sure he saw me as a cliché.
The two men at the bar began to rise; Jonathan suddenly became rigid, and seemed no longer to have any interest in his conversation with me.
—Who are those men? Are they your teachers?
—Yes, I guess you can say that. Have you noticed them before now?
—Yes, I noticed them watching us long ago, it was hard not to.
They walked up to our table, giving me a polite nod. Then with discrete force they drew Jonathan from his seat. No words were said, but I was overwhelmed with Jonathan’s fearful respect of them. As he was being escorted out of the bar he turned to me and said,
—I like you, so if I kill you it is nothing personal.