It’s Good, But is it Believable?

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It’s good, but is it believable? – Aristotle said that there are certain things you shouldn’t put into a work of imaginative literature, because people won’t believe them, even if they’re historically true. People will accept a plausible lie before they’ll accept a flamboyantly ridiculous truth.

Aristotle’s theory came irresistibly to my mind last night, when I watched a television documentary on the life of Sept. 11 terrorist Mohammed Atta. The guy was just too good to be true. The pinched little worried face that would have been handsome, if it hadn’t spent most of its time peering out at the world – or at least the wicked Western camera – with hatred and envy. The moronic resentment against America, because AUa had grown up in a country (Egypt) where there weren’t a lot of easy job opportunities for people like him, as there were in America. The furious contempt for the cheapness of American culture, which was presumably a main topic of conversation for AUa and his fellow terrorists during their last night on earth, which they chose to spend sleeping in a Comfort Inn, dining at a Pizza Hut, and visiting a nearby Wal-Mart. It’s all a perfect, and perfectly incredible, portrait of the evil that is envy and arrogance. But if you put it into a satirical novel, it just wouldn’t work. It would be too cartoonish. Yet that’s what Mohammed Atta was. He was a cartoon.

I don’t need to tell you that the same thing could be said about Taliban Johnny Walker Lindh, except that this time most of the color and detail on his section of the funny pages would come from the true-life stories of modern liberal America and its literally incredible self-conceptions. The allegedly brilliant, caring, and above all “nice” parents, who were brilliant, caring, and nice enough to send their 17-year- old son for a year’s excursion to (you’ll never guess! and what a perfect choice!) the Republic of Yemen, so that he could learn to read the Quran in circumstances more congenial to his newly adopted fanaticism. The broken English that the “kid,” the “youngster,” the “nice young man” affected, even after he was discovered to be a homegrown product of the U.S.A., as if he was entitled by birth to continue telling any kind of stupid, obvious lie he wanted, whether anybody caught on to him or not. The furious umbrage shown by the good citizens of Marin County, “perhaps the wealthiest and best-educated county in America,” when it was suggested that the atmosphere of the place might conceivably have had something to do with the way that T.J. turned out. And, best of all, the liberal papers and pundits that worked themselves

Mohammed Atta was a perfect, and perfectly cartoon-like, portrait of the evil that is envy and arrogance.


into a froth about the possibility that this sweet young child could actually be punished for adhering to·the enemies of his country, and giving them aid and comfort. Where, pray, could the constitutionally required two witnesses to his overt act – fighting in an enemy army – possibly be found? Pundit-by-the-grace-of-God Eleanor Clift suggested th~t Johnny’s ill-fated journey to spiritual discovery qualifies him less for a prison cell than for employment in the CIA – since he knows so much, you understand. Comes from such a good family, I presume.

Well, those are just a few things you couldn’t work into a novel, not without being laughed to scorn. And I suppose you’ve noticed that whenever Osama bin Laden wants to denounce the Satanic nature of the West, he wears some Western military fatigues over his nightgown. A nice touch, a very nice touch. But you can’t use it in fiction.

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