V.S. Naipaul: 'Terrorists Can Fly a Plane, But What They Can't Do Is Build a Plane'

The Nobel laureate had a brilliant, sadly ignored insight that would have short-circuited the worst cultural and political reactions of the past 17 years.


Faizul Latif Chowdhury, Creative Commons

V.S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, has died at the age of 85. He was born and raised in Trinidad and set many of his early novels there. South Asian Indian by ethnicity and a longtime resident of England, his novels and non-fiction works engage colonialism and typically level biting criticism at both the lordly and liberated classes. Raised as a Hindu who was a non-believer in his adult life, he was an early and vociferous critic of radical Islam.

His 1981 book, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, was controversial for its argument that radical Islam was merely the latest iteration of demonstrably failed revolutionary Third-World ideology and a potential source of global violence. Reason's reviewer, Paul Hornak, found Naipaul's book

a relentlessly pro-Western account of the delusion prevalent in four countries of the East: Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Khomeini's Iran. Iran, despite its monumental failures, is taken as a guiding light by the other three. The author, V.S. Naipaul, talks to an eccentric selection of Muslims. A few of them sound like they've got a mean streak, but the "hanging judge," Khalkhali, comes across as genuinely dangerous. He boasts that he killed the Shah's prime minister. Another Iranian, a communist, calls Khomeini a petty bourgeois….

Naipaul concludes that the impoverished are swelling the ranks of Islam because it validates their preconceptions. They like its message—basically, that poor is beautiful. They like its authority. It organizes the affairs of a believer down to the level of small matters of personal hygiene. It is tough on infidels, who coincidentally are the believers' enemies in the secular realm. The Western businessmen, the successful immigrants, the native rich: all will perish in the purifying flame of Allah.

"Millions will have to die," says an otherwise placid Pakistani predicting the Islamic future. Naipaul thinks so too. In calling for "a society cleansed and purified," he says, the Islamic Jeremiahs seem to long for ruin.

Read the whole piece here.

Less than a year after 9/11 Naipaul said something about Islamic terrorists that was wise, accurate, and mostly ignored:

The idea of [the terrorists'] strength is an illusion….The terrorists can fly a plane, but what they can't do is build a plane. What they can't do is build those towers.

The point, of course, isn't that terrorists such as the ones behind the 9/11 attacks couldn't be dangerous and deadly, or even take over countries. It's that it's a mistake to equate them with existential foes against whom all aspects of modern society must be hardened and regimented. Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials and supporters called for exactly that sort of permanent soft-war footing, even calling the war on terrorism a "new Cold War." That fundamental mistake gave them a fiscal and moral blank check when it came to funding operations that were as morally sketchy as they were militarily ineffective (we're still in Afghanistan, aren't we?). On the domestic front, the overreaction Naipaul warned against had a similar, mostly unchecked impact. The 9/11 attacks, I wrote in 2002,

restructur[ed] American life in myriad ways, ranging from the innocuous (continued strong sales and displays of U.S. flags) to the bizarre (airport security guards forcing nursing mothers to drink their own milk as a condition of boarding a plane).

While 9/11 hardly killed libertarianism, as Francis Fukuyama dreamed a while back in the Wall Street Journal, it has sanctioned expansive government spending (even new and improved farm subsidies managed to hitch a ride on the Homeland Security gravy train) and even more expansive government action when it comes to denying due process (hey, what's up with "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla anyway?), spying on citizens, and stonewalling various sorts of open-government protections (a John Ashcroft specialty that had even the conservative mag Insight on the News yelling, "Bush Team Thumbs Its Nose at FOIA").

Will such policies remain in place after the current crisis plays out? If the past is any guide, it's likely that they will, as citizens forget what things used to be like (who remembers, for instance, exactly when you had to start showing photo I.D. to board domestic flights?). Given all that, we can look forward to a future filled with more headlines such as this chilling one from today's Washington Post: "Secret Court Rebuffs Ashcroft: Justice Dept. Chided on Misinformation."

More here.

I'll leave it to others more versed in his novels and essays to evaluate his place as a world author. But Naipaul was perfectly on target when it came to identifying the brilliant truth about Islamic terrorists' lack of real power and strength to bring down a world that continues to move, however imperfectly, toward the mix of markets, civil rights, representative rule, material progress, and general modernity that was once proclaimed as the "end of history."

As a society, we ignored Naipual's insight at seemingly endless costs that continue to sanction indefensible military actions abroad and mass surveillance and fear of immigrants at home. We are now well into a second decade of perpetuating a political, cultural, and strategic blunder that equates flying planes into buildings with the ability to destroy our way of life. If the latter is happening at all, it's not because of Osama bin Laden or his terrorist descendants.

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  1. The Huns couldn’t build Rome. That, however, didn’t keep them from burning it to the ground. It is always easier to destroy civilization than it is to build it.

    1. ^This John.

      It has taken centuries and a Civil War to keep this country going and get us to the point of wealth where one of our national problems is obesity.

      We are literally so rich that some people eat too much.

      There are people who want to destroy everything we have built or turn it into a serf state run by TOP MEN.

      Protect what we have and that includes maximum Liberty under the US Constitution. No other major nation has lasted from the 18th Century to the present without a major change of government structure.

    2. Was that before or after the Germans bombed Pear Harbor?

      1. I didn’t mean the city, I meant the empire. Yes, the Vandals actually sacked Rome the city, not the Hun.

        Jesus Christ, you are an asshole.

        1. He’s a funny asshole, though.

    3. I admit that I am no expert on the history of Rome or the Huns, but my impressions are that

      1) The Huns had an army that, while not equal to that of all of Rome at its height, was still much closer to being on par with it (in terms of size and sophistication) than Islamic terrorists are with the militaries of the West.
      2) Rome was as responsible for its own decay and fall as outside forces, if not more so.

      My points being that the Huns are not to Rome as Islamic terrorists are to the US/West, and to the extent that the US/West is in a state of long-term decline (something that’s far from certain), it’s due far, far more to internal problems than Islamic terrorists.

      1. Quite a lot of Rome’s fall was due to a cooling climate not only changing Mediterranean climate and causing crop failures, but driving northerners south and displacing others until everyone got shoved around. Rome thrived in a great (non-Mediterranean) climate of rain throughout the year and few famines, most of which were easily mitigated by shifting grain from other areas. Once the climate cooled, crops weren’t as abundant and there weren’t as many reserves to shuffle around.

        1. So global climate warming change will return Italy to its former glory?

          1. Global climate change is too good a weapon not to be used by some nation. Maybe the Democrats going full on anti-Russia are on to something.

        2. If only Rome had implemented a carbon tax

    4. Fantastic point John. I think Nick would appreciate your argument as he focuses on the significant response post-9/11, in light of the actual threat. To be fair, there were a lot of unknowns on 9/12, so to now suggest our response was wrong in any way must enjoy the luxury of hindsight and almost two decades of intense scrutiny. As our political structure continued to ebb and flow between political parties and uncharismatic leaders, the lessons of our federal government’s actions are only now in the context that we can condemn them in. I like Nick’s writeup, but I like your amazingly simple rebuttal. Just like at the airports today, one guy tries a shoe bomb years ago, we’re all still taking off our shoes. We can’t judge a terrorist’s capability solely by a single action. If I were to say terrorists can’t build shoes, it suggests they’re too stupid to attack another way. If TSA forced all of us to strip naked because of a shoe bomber, would it be overkill? With hindsight at my disposal, I say yes.

      1. First, all of these “terrorists” were created and controlled by our very own Feds. None of them are organic.
        Second, ask any large aircraft pilot about the 270 degree turn that “Hani Hanjour” allegedly made into the pentagram, and they will tell you flat out that it is and was impossible. “Terrorists” can’t even fly planes.

        Stop buying into the false narrative.

        “The theory of good government is this: to keep the populous alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” H.L. Mencken

  2. It organizes the affairs of a believer down to the level of small matters of personal hygiene.

    Like officials in London, England!

  3. For a while there after 9/11 it was starting to look like NYC couldn’t build those towers, either.

    1. Oh come on! Thirteen measly years! That’s the snap of a finger for a pubic project in this town.

      1. I cannot believe I actually made that typo. First time believe it or not, and as good a time as any.

  4. At first glance I thought Shatner had grown a goatee.

  5. The Muslim immigration into / invasion of Western Europe will destroy their way of life. The terrorism is just the way to get people to shut up about it.

    All the quotes in the article could be re-written for 7th Century North Africa. The invading Arabs couldn’t build the cities and aqueduct systems of the classical kingdoms they were attacking. But they won – through numbers, terrorism (raids, rape, enslavement), conversions, and sheer fanaticism.

    1. The Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians had risen and fallen before Rome even existed.

    2. But they learned enough to build Granada.

      1. Did they build it or just order it built with Goth slave labor?

        1. “You didn’t build this!”

  6. We are now well into a second decade of perpetuating a political, cultural, and strategic blunder that equates flying planes into buildings with the ability to destroy our way of life.

    Whether you consider it a “blunder” of not depends on what the meaning of “our way of life” is.

  7. If the latter is happening at all, it’s not because of Osama bin Laden or his terrorist descendants.

    Great, now everyone’s going to accuse Nick of loving Osama.

    1. “Why does [t]reason want TEH TERRIRISTS TO WIN!?”

  8. It’s not the terrorists that passed the PATRIOT Act. It was our own politicians.

    Giving them power over how we choose to respond is giving them more power than they deserve to have.

    1. The American People allowed that to happen. We also allowed the War on Drugs and all the other unconstitutional government violations of the US and State Constitutions.

      Freedom isn’t free. Its always harder to rollback than to say “no” to some new law.

  9. >>>The point, of course,

    probably does not require you pointing it out.

  10. Very sad news. And a nice tribute, Nick.

    Among the Believers was the first Naipaul book I ever read, and it was fantastic because he just let his subjects tell the stories. The undercurrent of everything in the book is that you can’t really kill culture with religion; it always finds its way back into the world. But that’s Naipaul’s nonfiction, and his fiction was where it was at. A Bend In The River is the best immediately post-colonial book ever written. People always compared Naipaul to Conrad, since both were masters of English by growing up outside of it. I suppose it’s the same as comedy and Canadians.

    A few Fifth Column episodes ago, Moynihan asked who was going to be the person most trashed upon his/her death. I would propose the Naipaul method to counteract all that – get it all over in the decade leading up to it so that the worst is over and you can sail into the sunset. He didn’t produce much in the last years, so it’s sad like Reed, rather than Bowie (now, when Clive James goes…). Great man.

  11. Faizul Latif Chowdhury that’s what they said about japan prior to wwII.

  12. Even as a teenager after 9/11 I pointed out to idiots that the Muslim nuts were not an existential threat in the way the USSR potentially was. They could potentially screw with us a bit, but we’ve in fact caused far more of our own people to die or be maimed by trying to deal with them in their own countries than they ever could have hurt if we’d just bombed the shit out of them and called it good.

    The only way the Muslims can take us down is if we allow in shit tons of immigrants. In the USA they’re not an issue as yet, but in several European countries that have made the mistake of allowing in too many. Sweden is a shit show thanks to their bleeding heart moron politicians now… I hope the native Swedes get the courage to deport all these savages back to their home countries. Otherwise they’re going to be in for an eternity of mass organized arson like happened the other day, the rapes, murders, etc that practically didn’t even happen before they allowed in refugees.

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