This week at the Guggenheim party I ran into a number of people who were surprised I was writing a novel based in Pakistan. Perhaps they asked because a Pakistani man confessed to the almost-bombing last Saturday in Times Square. They wondered what motivated him, and whether Lahore, where my novel is based, was a place I had visited. Was it safe there? The last question is easy–mostly Lahore is safe, but every so often they have bombs that actual explode, in which women, children and the elderly die or are wounded. Pakistan is at war, an ally who is trying to root out militants in its remote regions. Sometimes, we kill civilians when we bomb from our drone aircraft. And Saturday night, someone from Pakistan tried to bring the war to New York.
I can’t pretend to know what motivated Faisal Shahzad. My first novel Harbor is about the allure of terrorism to young Muslim men from a small town in Algeria called Arzew, but it doesn’t seek a definitive answer the way policy makers or young men writing non-fiction books on terrorism do. It’s a book that dwells in possibility, to borrow from Emily Dickinson. One of the things I learned from talking to Algerians was how little religious ideology was the inspiration for their first contemplating radical violence. They wanted their lives to have meaning in the midst of a lingering sense of helplessness. Sometimes they felt this because of politics, but more often it sprang from the frustration of being born into societies in which humiliation and indignity seemed inevitable. More than anything, it was a sense of emptiness that agitated them. But that of course doesn’t fit into the language of policy conferences, scholars, punditry or the non-fiction books serious readers seem to prefer to read.