Terrorism

It Can't Happen Here

The fantasy worlds of war-on-terror novels

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Let us now praise the Miami Seven, the first gang to lose cred the moment it was busted. On Friday morning, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke of the "deadly plot" smashed by blowtorch-wielding agents, the facts about these sad-sack "terrorists" started to leak. The men who would have levelled the Sears Tower were, in fact, blithering idiots. They didn't know where to get explosives. They begged their "al Qaeda contact" (an undercover FBI agent) to subsidize their boots for their "Islamic army" costumes. Their leader "carried a cane through Liberty City and wore a cape or sometimes a bathrobe."

If this storyline doesn't change, the Miami Seven will prove far more useful to the Bush administration's causes than to the causes of serious terrorists. They move forward one of the key arguments of the Global War on Terror (GWOT): that the threat Islamic terrorists present is as grave, as existential, as the threat of Communism. This is an article of faith for neoconservatives and liberal hawks alike. The framework of the Cold War, which pitted the United States against a rival superpower and an ideology that ruled one-third of the world's population, is applied to the West's struggle against the violent fringe of the world's second-largest religion. To keep that narrative going, Americans need to believe terrorists can take over Omaha as easily as Nikita Khrushchev could have nuked the Miami Seven's backyard.

So it's fitting that the GWOT has finally produced some dystopian, end-is-nigh science fiction. Prayers for the Assassin, a breakout hit by the thriller writer Robert Ferrigno, attempts to do for militant Islam what Red Dawn did for Soviet Communism, and what The Man in the High Castle did for Fascism. They envisioned worlds where the wrong side had won the war; in Ferrigno's fantasy, it's the year 2040 and the forces of freedom have been overwhelmed by the forces of Islam.

If this sounds like a hard sell, it is: Prayers for the Assassin's "Islamic States of America" has all the scares of an episode of Monster Chiller Horror Theater. The novel is overrun with a goofy cast of knife-fighting fedayeen and white-bearded Islamists with names like Mullah Oxley and "The Old One." Black-robed secret police shake down women for looking at the imam of Chicago's marriage advice website: "The imam of Chicago countenances abominations!" San Francisco is a hotbed of sharia law where "they behead homosexuals at the Civic Center every week."

The Muslims of Prayers for the Assassin didn't use force to convert Joe and Jane Six-pack. Before the fall, far-thinking clerics and Saudi millionaires took advantage of America's cultural decline by boosting Islam's public image and, of course, framing Mossad for a nuclear attack on New York, Washington, and Mecca. The gullible American populace, having had quite enough of personal liberty, thank you, flooded into mosques at the prodding of pop culture icons. "Millions" of Americans took up the hijab after a Jane Fonda-style movie star praised Islam in her Oscar acceptance speech and a country music star gave Allah a shout-out at the Grand Ole Opry. This is supposed to lend the satire some believability, but it seriously misunderstands Americans' relationship with entertainers. The Dixie Chicks' venture into anti-Bush activism (obviously the touchstone for Ferrigno's Grand Old Opry joke) only managed to convert their fans into Toby Keith listeners. If Tom Cruise's embrace of Scientology convinced Americans of anything, it was that they didn't need to see M:I:3.

From his interviews and public statements, it's not clear how firmly Ferrigno's tongue is wedged in his cheek. What is clear is the deadly seriousness with which some GWOT hawks embraced the novel. National Review's John J. Miller—he of the 50 Best Conservative Songstold readers that Ferrigno's novel was "more than a thriller: It is a warning." At David Horowitz's FrontPageMag website, David Forsmark reckone d that the mass conversions of the novel had a grain of truth: "If you don't think radical chic in the United States could ever extend to radical Muslims…check out the headlines about Yale University working overtime to get the former spokesman for the Taliban enrolled there before Harvard snaps him up, at the same time Yale goes all the way to the Supreme Court to keep ROTC off its New Haven campus." It's a short leap from the fictional hysteria of Ferrigno to the real, talk radio-fed hysteria of the GWOT.

But when it comes to publicity and endorsements by war hawks, Ferrigno's got nothing on Joel Rosenberg. An old mover in DC's conservative circles (he did a stint reporting for The Limbaugh Letter), Rosenberg ventured into fiction writing and succeeded overnight with a series of novels that fictionalized the conflict between Muslim terrorists, Middle Eastern despots, and a steel-spined U.S. president. His first tripych—The Last Jihad, The Last Days, and The Ezekiel Option—has sold more than a million copies. That happened, in large part, because they were boosted by G. Gordon Liddy ("highly prescient, very real, and very informed!") and Sean Hannity ("So intertwined with modern events, it's scary!").

Rosenberg didn't get his candle-singed thumb's up from Liddy because of his exciting plots (mostly government officials yelling into phones and asking for launch codes) or Updike-esque prose (completely random sample from The Ezekiel Option: "With her playful Southern accent and honed geopolitical instincts, she was a good manager and impressive market analyst.") His novels take place in an alternate universe adjacent to Ferrigno's, in which the Islamic enemies of America are allied, organized, and practically overstocked on nuclear technology. In The Last Jihad, Saddam Hussein is a brutally effective adversary who has teamed up with terrorists and is hiding nuclear technology in the desert. The rip-roaring climax put readers in the situation room as President James "Mac" MacPherson raced against time to take out an Iraqi ICBM fitted with a nuclear warhead, finally deciding to preemptively nuke Baghdad and Tikrit to remove the threat.

Events on planet Earth have informed events on Planet Rosenberg—and that makes the rest of the series all the stranger. In The Ezekiel Option, the new Iraqi government—led by a former exile who evokes Ahmed Chalabi as played by Omar Sharif—is caught in the crossfire when Russia and Iran form a nuclear alliance to blunt America's power. Why, if Iraq is on its way to democracy, whisky and sexy, is the Middle East still falling apart? Because Rosenberg sees all of the region's conflicts as portents of a Biblical prophecy. The Ezekiel Option is named after the battle plan of Rosenberg's fictional former Mossad head Dr. Eliezer Mordechai, who sees the forces gathering against Israel as fulfillment of Ezekiel 38-39, wherein enemies "advance against [God's] people Israel like a cloud that covers the land." Rosenberg has promoted this and his previous novels by linking real-world events to his fictional crises. When one piece stops fitting into the puzzle—say, Moammar Qaddafi hanging up his supervillain trunks and normalizing relations with the U.S.—it's replaced by another piece, another bogeyman. And of course, all of Rosenberg's Middle Eastern despots and terrorists are a substitute for the villains he would have cast had he written these books 25 years ago: The Soviet Union. To move forward his doomsday fiction clichés, Rosenberg simply exaggerates the threat and organization level of America's current enemies.

Yes, all of this happens in a series of novels, racked in the "fiction" aisle of your local superstore just a few steps down from The Da Vinci Code and A Million Little Pieces. But The Ezekiel Option's plot was described in The Washington Times as "ripped from the headlines—next year's headlines." Prayers for the Assassin was seriously reviewed as a warning shot about the dangers of Islam. Hawks who want to define the struggle against terrorists as an all-consuming, generational threat need fiction like this, or trumped-up cases like the Miami Seven, to nudge that message into Americans' minds.

How long will the war on terror last? Novels like these could actually be canaries in the mine. If these novels are the first drips in a flood of war-on-terror fantasies, we can count on many years of paranoia about terrorism and militant Islam. We should hope instead that Ferrigno's and Rosenberg's works become something the authors never intended: Classic war-on-terror kitsch.