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Jewish World ReviewSept. 15, 1999 /5 Tishrei, 5760

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Fictional "Masterminds of Crime" are No Patch on Real Horrors --
AS MOST INTELLIGENT OBSERVERS predicted, the streets of Dili are now, horribly, the scene of a bloodbath, some areas festooned with severed heads. Several parts of the world – East Timor, Sierra Leone, Kosovo – indicate a surrender to the spirit of fictional anti-heroes of dismemberment created by celebrated high-brow crime novelists like Thomas Harris, Brett Easton Ellis, and most recently Boris Starling. Perhaps it’s not New York but Dili that’s book country.

In these books, tales of slaughter undertaken by intellectually superior characters like Hannibal Lecter have been fascinating large and discerning publics in the US, UK, and France. Of course in the real world the machete-wielders are scarcely the ubermenschen depicted in these books. What’s ironic is that the slaughter in the streets of Freetown and Dili, the free-fire zone on Serbs that Kosovo has become, has been, as we say, “enabled” by the thinking of highly intelligent, morally superior types in the government of the U.S., the U.K., and the U.N.

There are nice, intelligent people who find these pretentious crime novels interesting and significant. Tina Brown has put her seal on this fashion by forcing Martin Amis to dissect in excruciating detail the faults of Thomas Harris’s sequel to “Silence of the Lambs” (to do so was a worthy task, but resulted in a piece so long that not all the gold of “The Spectator”—a sort of London version of “Taki’s Top Drawer”—could tempt Toby Young actually to read it, in preparation for Arriviste’s magisterial celebration of Amis’s 50th birthday). But despite Amis’s skewering, there is a distinct public for this work; a real taste to be fascinated by villains like Lecter who elevate himself, through his crimes and what motivates them, above the rest of us.

We and our counterparts in Europe’s more stable bourgeois democracies are suckers for criminals who are superior—show real class. To admire these characters, to find them impressive and authentic, is in one sense only a piece of harmless innocence on our part. The emigrant hero of Nabokov’s tragic novel “Pale Fire," surrounded by naïve Americans insulated from history, had to remind himself that Darwin was wrong when it comes to murder. He insists that Darwin had it wrong, that the man who kills is always inferior to the man he kills. And our inability to believe in the truth of this wisdom leads to great trouble.

The best and brightest of our political minds tend to display the naivete of the reading public rather than the tragic wisdom the situation requires. In each case I’ve mentioned, the slaughter in Dili, in Kosovo, and in Sierra Leone, has been made worse not better by Western intervention. To have encouraged elections in East Timor without a large armed force in place to protect the population—to handcuff the military advisors placed in Sierra Leone by the private company Sandline International for reasons of morality as the British did in the last year—to intervene without qualification on the side of a guerrilla organization in Kosovo—all these decisions have been the result of good intentions translated into policy. But they also display the deep innocence which marks the characters of the liberals who lead current Western governments. The futility of the outcome could have been predicted had the actors not been so blinded by self-regard.

Our current leaders, schooled in left-wing student politics and liberal high-mindedness, tend to think that violence is an abnormality, generated in otherwise peaceful types by great injustice, great passion, deep feeling. They have a sneaking admiration for hooded men who kill in the name of ideas—whether they are members of the KLA, the IRA, or Shining Path. Our nice leaders’ hands are always itching to sign pardons for them, to sacrifice civilian populations to them, and to hamper the forces which struggle against them-- sometimes, admittedly, with “excessive violence,”-- in the streets.

(This is what the British government is about to do to the RUC.)

What they don’t understand is that terrorism works because it’s an efficient way of delivering strength against the weakest and unprotected, not because of what “motivates” it. And that it’s cheap and easy for violent men to find others who will stand up – preferably far away from where the trigger is pulled – and explain the bitter injustices that motivate the slaughter. This scheme of things fits into our preconceptions.

Consider the reaction to the recent Los Angeles neo-Nazi shootings. Common wisdom agrees that the shooting must be the result of a deeply-rooted conspiracy against minorities, an upsurge of anti- Semtism. And there’s more--this conspiracy could not have thrived without the unwitting complicity of those opposed to the proper kind of gun-control laws. But the fact is that the man who killed the mailman and shot the children was someone well known to be psychotic, who 50 years ago would have been kept, harmless but against his will, in an insane asylum.

Another example: the “Times’s” moving account of the reconstruction among the peasant villages of Peru in the wake of the Shining Path war. There’s an air of discovery about the piece, as if the “Times” has for the first time understood that the peasants --in whose name the intellectuals and gangsters of Shining Path fought—are those who suffered the casualties.

The world is so full of evil for those interested in such things, and which it is our duty as the world’s policeman to understand. To turn away from the evil all about us and seek it in badly-written fantasies about glamorous serial murderers is a bad sign. Our inability to confront the real nature of evil means that the “lambs” will continue unnecessarily to suffer.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman