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ISIL’s war on the imagination

Don DeLillo frames terrorism as a battle for territory in our collective imagination

December 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

After the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris, many commentators defined the terrorist group in grandiose terms — theorizing on a clash of civilizations or categorizing the struggle between ISIL and its enemies as a war of ideas. This discourse is sure to continue after Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, with officials claiming that one of the attackers had pledged allegiance to ISIL.

A better guide to the subtleties of terrorism than proclamations of military experts or political academics can be found in the fiction of Don DeLillo. Besides reminding us that terrorism isn’t particularly new — or particular to Muslims, for that matter — the settings in which his novels are based give a sense of the zeitgeist in which he was working. This is the context in which he still works and in which we all live.

In 1975, two years before he published “Players,” a novel about a young finance worker drawn into a plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, his native New York City was teeming with violence. The year was bookended by a January bombing of Fraunces Tavern by the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation and a still unsolved bombing of La Guardia Airport in December, which killed 11 people and injured 74 others. Four bombs were detonated in a single afternoon in midtown Manhattan in April 1975.

The motives of the terrorists his protagonists fall in with are more complicated than the brutal finality of their actions might suggest. As the 1977 New York Times review of “Players” explains, “DeLillo’s terrorists want to blow up the stock exchange … ostensibly to cause confusion by destroying the most sacred vestiges of order but actually and above all as a way of making contact with any structure that remains.” Affecting a larger public is imperative to his terrorists because their goal is spectacle, not just destruction. Violence, then, is a means of creating this spectacle, not an end in itself. As his novelist character explains in “Mao II,” “Years ago … I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bombmakers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.”

DeLillo thus frames terrorism not as a struggle of values, ideas or culture but a battle for territory in our collective imagination.

The media play a huge role in his work too. The political terrorists in “Players” who plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and the kidnappers in “Mao II” who take a writer hostage share a preoccupation with seeing their violence in the headlines and onscreen. Abu Rashid, the mastermind of “Mao II” goes so far as to have a professional photo shoot in the midst of hostage negotiations. Lyle, the disillusioned protagonist of “Players” exclaims of the terrorist groups with which he has associated himself, “It’s another media event. Innocent people dead and mutilated. Toward what end? Publicize the movement, that’s all. Media again.” 

As ISIL continues its rampage, it reminds us that terrorism is not about a clash of civilizations or a war of ideas but violent and conspiratorial raids on our collective consciousness.

Actual terrorists reflect this preoccupation: Pick at random from any of the lone-gunman attacks in the U.S. over the past decade and you’ll find the same obsession. An extreme example can be found in Vester Lee Flanagan II, the reporter in Virginia who not only captured his shooting on his iPhone but also waited until a live television camera was pointed at him to begin his rampage. And if you think ISIL’s beheading videos were simply recruiting tools, think again: The videos are the point. Terrorists are like existential pirates, commandeering the waves of postmodern communication in order to force themselves onto public consciousness.

A symptom of these raids on reality is an ever-present sense of dread. Paranoia pervades DeLillo’s novels. It’s the all too familiar anxiety that no one is entirely safe from the violence of marauding agents raiding consciousness — be they lone gunmen, religiously motivated bombings or political kidnappings. And so the meaning of things remains unsettled, the narrative always in play.

As he writes of a character in “Underworld,” “Paranoid. Now he knew what it meant, this word that was bandied and bruited so easily, and he sensed the connections being made around him, all the objects and shaped silhouettes and levels of knowledge — not knowledge exactly but insidious intent. But not that either — some deeper meaning that existed solely to keep him from knowing what it was.” In DeLillo’s work, the competition between narratives is so contentious that it makes the concept of the real itself seem almost like a conspiracy theory.

His writing on terrorism is more suggestive than literal; his prose insinuates meaning and feeling just beyond our conscious grasp. This lends his writing a conspiratorial, prophetic quality. Robert McCrum writes in The Guardian, “The war on terror is said to be foreshadowed in ‘Mao II.’ The planes that flew into the twin towers are possibly alluded to on the cover of ‘Underworld.’ Parts of ‘White Noise’ came to life — for real — in the anthrax scare of 2001, and so on.” And Chris Cumming, wrote about “Players” in The Paris Review, “The young man’s girlfriend works in the World Trade Center’s north tower at a place called the Grief Management Council; she feels that ‘the towers didn’t seem permanent’; in one scene during which she gazes at the towers from the roof of her apartment, a friend remarks, ‘That plane looks like it’s going to hit.’”

DeLillo rejects the mantle of prophecy. “Perhaps the novelist is able to see in a clearer, sharper manner what’s already there. But that doesn’t make the writer a prophet,” he said in an interview.

Being a writer and seeing what’s already there “in a clearer, sharper manner” allows him to experience the news at a remove. As ISIL continues its rampage, his work reminds us that the moment is far from unprecedented. It reminds us that terrorism is not about a clash of civilizations or a war of ideas but violent and conspiratorial raids on our collective consciousness.

And when terrorism is successful at this mission, it takes a novelist to parse what’s happening. As Lorrie Moore wrote about DeLillo in The New York Times, “Look for a writer, and you will find a terrorist. And a hostage. This is the new literary dialectic. It is also the evening news.”

Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer living in Portland, Maine. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum and The Baffler, among other places. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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