A central scene in Simon Stephens’s Pornography is the monologue by a suicide bomber that I have mentioned in the previous post. As it is well known, the four terrorists who caused the 7/7 attacks were English men: non-white, like so many Britons, yet English all through. The point that Stephens wants to make with the monologue is that they were by no means the Other but ‘one of us.’ He stresses not only their full humanity (for him, they were not monsters) but also the idea that what caused the bombings is the state of decadence in England. That the bombs, in short, were the result of certain problems in national English life and not an odd import from foreign lands. Fair enough.

Accordingly, he refuses to characterise specifically the terrorist in his play, so that even though the character refers to ‘his wife’ it’s quite possible to play it as a woman (as I did). A white one. If I am correct, there was even a production in which the bomber was played by a white actor costumed as a businessman. The monologue itself is, actually, stream of consciousness spoken out loud and, as such, it contains plenty of trivial observations inspired by the journey to London that the bomber is taking (he craves for an almond croissant, comments on a passenger picking his nose…). There is no mention of religion, or race, and the ideological content (an attack against trashy food, trashy childhood and trashy media) could be put in the mouth of millions.

I myself find the monologue, as one of my students noted, bland. I applaud Stephens for being brave enough to let the terrorist speak, as this is not what we are used to in real life. I believe that we need to listen to these criminals in order to understand how the gap between discontent and delinquency is bridged; no, they are not monsters but they do commit monstrous acts and we need to learn why. Stephens, however, tries to be so politically correct that his terrorist ends up being anybody and, so, nobody. He trips himself up. Even though my students and I agreed that the monologue seems likely or realistic enough, we expected more: we get no insight into how this person is feeling about what he is about to do (and this is not just kill but also die).

In the ensuing debate with my students, we discussed how real life belies Stephens’s theory: few people actually become terrorists, so there must be indeed a distinct factor that makes particular individuals believe that killing and maiming strangers in horrific ways makes sense. The recent Boston bombings by the Tsarnaev brothers strongly suggest that terrorists actions are the product of individuals who feel rejected, or marginalised, and who feel, in the company of others like themselves or on their own, the need to strike back, take revenge. It’s a theory. Race and ethnicity, as a Norwegian Erasmus student reminded me, are secondary: their local horror, Anders Breivik, is white and so are/were ETA and IRA members. I’ll leave aside the fact that most terrorists are (disempowered) men…

There have been other attempts to deal with terrorism from another angle –of which, the weirdest one is no doubt the English comedy film Four Lions. There, the point raised is that the English terrorists who decide to attack the London marathon (yes…) are incompetent buffoons. Very ordinary guys, yes and quite stupid, yes, but still very dangerous… which the film cannot satisfactorily account for. The problem with Stephens’s monologue is different: his terrorist is neither an evil monster nor a moron, yet it’s hard to believe that someone carrying a backpack with that content would spare not a single thought for his own death and that of his victims. This has to be faced.

Stephens fails then (honourably) in his bold attempt to humanise the terrorist. He does succeed in making him ordinary; we may gain glimpses of his ordinary humanity, indeed, in the fact that wife and baby daughter wait for him at home. Yet, Stephens crashes against the inevitable moral barrier: either we admit that the need to kill people at random is as human as the need to eat an almond croissant (and think to what chaos this would lead), or we admit that there are monsters. Human but monsters, meaning by this not so much individuals that are evil all through their lives but who, given a certain set of circumstances, can perpetrate evil acts in cold blood.

Stephens gets this almost right but the sad mystery of what makes a human being decide to kill other human beings remains, unsolved beyond drama and beyond all our fictions.

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  1. Brought to mind the phrase «the banality of evil»… An focus on terrorists risks making them sound interesting, which they are not particularly, or empathizing with them, which we should not.The question of understanding terrorists, like other big criminals, is interesting, but should always be secondary to that of how to detect them and stop them.

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