What goes on in the mind of a terrorist? How can they see the world so differently from most people and so coldly commit acts of violence? Ward Just, a foreign correspondent turned novelist, addresses these questions in The American Ambassador (2003), which tells the story of (you guessed it) an American ambassador whose son becomes a terrorist.
This is a novel worth reading. The draw is the ambassador’s son, who one evening just walks away from his parents in Hamburg and finds himself a Marxist terrorist group to join. Soon he’s kidnapping, bombing and murdering with the rest of them. At one point someone asks him why the other terrorists accept him, an American, when they hate Americans, and he replies “Because I hate Americans more than they do.”
We get a good look inside the son’s head. What we see there is not Marxist cant, but a pervasive moral stance. The son believes there are two kinds of people in the world: the exploiters and the exploited, and the exploited will not be free until the exploiters are dead.
He sees his parents as exploiters who live in a dream world. When the ambassador is posted to central Africa, they employ local houseboys whose real names they do not even learn, only their “Christian” names. The parents, as the son sees it, are hypocrites who pretend to be concerned with others. The novel is fascinating in showing how he interprets people and events in a completely different way from his parents and from normal people in general. He hates Thanksgiving, for example. He distances himself from his parents. He never refers to his father as “Dad” or even “my father,” just as “the ambassador.”
He falls in love with the daughter of another terrorist. She’s damaged. Perhaps she’s a bit autistic, or perhaps she just lives in her own world. She has been traumatized by her father and one of his comrades. The son loves her because she seems like a pure innocent. He coaxes her out of her shell a bit. Soon she murders with an almost beatific attitude.
The son is a great example of how the Marxist only sees “objective conditions.” There is no allowance for good intentions or unintended consequences. Unless you’re a victim, he won’t see your side of things at all. His detachment as chilling, as evidenced by an incident when he was in boarding school in which he stood by while his roommate beat up a teacher.
Unfortunately, there is too little of the son and his angel-assassin. A lot of the novel is spent with the parents, who are nice people but not all that interesting. We follow Dad through his medical trials. As a diplomat in Africa he was almost blown up by rebels/bandits when the son was five, and he is plagued by small bits of shrapnel embedded in his flesh. One of them works its way to his neck and paralyzes his left hand. I’m sure that this is all terribly metaphorical, but I just didn’t get it. The telling of the African incident, first from the father’s view and later from the son’s, is effective, however.
Mom is a slightly interesting character. Her resentment of Dad and her occasional drunken eagerness to tell inappropriate truths in front of guests gives the reader some hint of where the son gets his problems from. This connection is underdeveloped, however.
One of the problems with Just’s novels – and this is the third I’ve read – is that he stretches a short story or novella’s worth of material out to the length of a novel. That’s somewhat less true here, but the stuff with the parents goes on too long. Absolutely worth reading for the son, however.
I admit to being curious about terrorists. I think it was Allan Bloom who said that people were drawn to them – or maybe it was to Nazis – because of their extreme existential commitment to values, a commitment that some people envy. What he means is that some people believe that you can’t derive values from reason but that you just have to commit to them by an act of pure will. Some people admire such acts of will. Some people even find this kind of “strength” sexy.
I don’t find terrorists sexy or admirable in any way. I also think we have to carefully distinguish between what the terrorist’s motivation is and what people project onto terrorists. From my limited study of the subject, I don’t believe that most terrorists are existentialists, although they do like living on the edge.
Ulrike Meinhoff as saint. A well-known journalist, Meinhoff co-founded Germany’s Red Army Faction. She was probably murdered in jail.
I’ve read a couple of Objectivist sources who say that terrorists are nihilists. I’m not sure what that means and it doesn’t seem to apply in all cases. The American Ambassador offers a plausible counter-interpretation. I think if we were to put its terrorist in Objectivist terms, he would be an extreme intrinsicist, someone who saw truth and value as things that exist completely “in themselves” with no participation of a subject. In other words, the terrorist makes no allowances for the thought processes needed to arrive at true ideas or good values. You’re just supposed to “see” truth and goodness. If it’s not obvious to you, then you’re rationalizing, and that makes you a bad person. Obviously, there is no tolerance for disagreements among people of this kind.
The son is also a member of the cult of suffering. He sees almost nothing else. He seems to have no regard for any of the good things America has produced and he has no plan for what happens after he and his little band topple the colossus. He feels the pressure of all that suffering like a weight on his head, and he can’t think of anything else.
This is all deplorable, of course, but it’s not nihilism, unless by nihilism you mean not having any positive values, only negative ones. I take nihilism to mean having no values, but maybe I've misunderstood the concept.
I think that the ultimate fascination of terrorists, for me at least, is that although they come from more or less the same culture I do, they don’t think anything like me. And it’s not just a matter of different beliefs, but a wholly different way of occupying their space and seeing the people around them. It’s like encountering someone who’s color blind – what’s that like? A color blind person doesn’t see things I do and sees things I can’t. How a terrorist reaches this point and how he or she can possibly escape it, are questions of great moral, political and psychological importance.
If you enjoyed this review you might also like my collection of essays about authenticity, Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life