Do terrorists have remorse? Do they sleep well? Apparently they do and they don’t, according the old memories slowly leaching from Dr. Joseph Macleod, the aging terrorist kingpin in Julian Samuel’s recently published novel Radius Islamicus. Macleod, also known as Javid Mohammad or perhaps some other identity undisclosed, is an arrogant crank residing in a senior’s residence outside of Montreal. His memory is still there but is beginning to unravel into forgetfulness, repetition and dementia. He has landed there some time in the 2040’s or thereabouts after a spectacular career as a successful and undetected terrorist. Among the most high profile attacks pulled off by his gang are the targeted killings of Noam Chomsky giving a lecture to adoring students at a Montreal University, commuters in London and Toronto and countless other acts of carnage meant to prick the hide of the Capitalist Beast created by Anglo-American and European monied interests. In Joseph’s mind the real criminals are the Western overlords and their officials in Governments aggressively pursuing Imperial domination through a clumsy pattern of destructive mis-adventure. If certified war criminals such as Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger sleep well why not Joseph? They have no remorse for the millions of deaths they have caused, thus the motivation for counter measures in Dr. Macleod’s mind is wholly justified. That the terrorists choose innocent victims for wanton destruction, instead of targeted hits on the rich and powerful, is in direct response to the collateral damage of people destroyed in wars fomented by the West. Targets such as Chomsky and innocent civilians are sacred untouchables equal in symbolic newsworthiness to a Saddam Hussein or a Gaddafi. This junction, where terrorism meets anarchism, fuels Joseph’s ideology, augmenting his self importance as a notorious historical figure. Where did he come from? Why a life dedicated to such a profession? Why, in spite of his motivations, does he feel a pang of guilt of his actions? Could it be that beneath the monster is a decent being wanting simply to age gracefully?
Dr. Macleod is horny. He has a superiority complex. He is prejudiced. He is human after all, a product of the colonial system left in place by the British in India and it’s post partition spin off Pakistan. Joseph drops hints that he was educated at a private school run by Catholics, that he was radicalized in Britain at a Madrasa run by a charismatic, fervent Imam. One could imagine he came from a well to do family complete with servants and all the trappings of wealth and privilege yet in his adopted England his “brownness” led to disadvantage and discrimination, pushing him into the radical fold. In his quest to become an efficient and prosperous terrorist Dr. Macleod cultivates ties with wealthy and influential donors willing to fund his plans to blow up the infidels. Among these donors, the Indonesians, just like the Gulf State Emirates and Saudi’s are useful for their financial help but generally stupid. The primary character traits of the Islamic terrorist, according to the bigoted Macleod, are ones of extreme discretion, intelligence and a scientific frame of mind. Those from the Middle East – the Palestinians, Syrians, the Arabs in general are portrayed as inferior and often outright idiots but useful as foot soldiers. The true terrorist is likened to a scientific genius, a physicist – he cures the ills of Imperialism with a boom boom eye for an eye explosion, a particle accelerator body parts detector making headlines on world media outlets.
In his adopted Canada Macleod portrays Canadians as naive colonials, imbeciles, hypocrites. It is hinted that the Quebecois are both genial and provincial, but frequently racist. He does not fit in here, was forced into exile here, but likes the creature comforts of his hide-out country. Macleod is a cultured man in the Western sense, but just how deeply has he embraced the radical Islam he purports to have worked on behalf of? Like Yukio Mishima, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Joseph bristles at the triumph of post World War II capitalism but enjoys the fruits of consumer culture. He enjoys jazz and abstract painting – and has an intolerance for what he calls bad art – one of his attacks destroys a Group of Seven exhibition. Islam discourages representational art and Joseph prefers abstract painters to those trucking in figurative Provincialism. This just happens to be a lucky confluence of personal taste and Islamic traditions. Although his scathing views add a touch of humour to his being it is not quite enough for the reader to embrace him as an empathic fellow human, and the grumpy Joseph seems to like it like that. One of the repeated points in the novel is to attack the cherished, whether it be public safety in the transit system, Noam Chomsky the champion of the left, or the Group of Seven, Canada’s sacred landscape artists. The high brow intellectual dispensing sarcastic art criticism is an unlikely mix within the personality of a terrorist but it works. This seems to be proof that Joseph is not a religious zealot. He is more a sober stateless spy figure acting on behalf of a personal agenda, clearly enjoying revenge. I believe this contradiction is what Julian Samuel is ultimately exploring in his protagonist, how culture and radicalism can live side by side and why terrorists often come out of the educated classes. If education and common sense lead to a more peaceful secular population willing to dispense with intolerant, restrictive thinking, why are the United States, most Islamic nations and many other countries turning more religious and conservative in the present age? In Joseph’s mind the prosperous nations of the West, rather than being a benign force for positive change, are reapers of havoc. As a force in this world he believed he acted as a counterbalance, making a decent living at what he sees as a necessary task.
At one point, remembering his youthful terrorist self stuck in an airport waiting lounge Joseph asks himself: “Am I the man at the airport waiting for the flight to equality?” True, he is viewed as unequal by a great majority in the West. This is however a lame justification for terrorism, as he could return to his mother Country and find “racial” equality but not the intellectual freedom and tacit equality among like minded peers offered in the West. Unfortunately he would be a target for opening his mouth in a blasphemous Salmon Rushdie kind of way. Proof of his permanent exile lies in the manner in which he blasphemes Islamic traditions, going on about shaved uncircumcised Muslim vaginas and other dark, funny, surly obscenities. And even though the Muslims, like most other cultures, have a grand tradition of filthy thought, cursing the sacred, celebrating the profane, these thoughts, if uttered aloud, would surely mark him an infidel. He is stuck. He can’t go back to the filthy, urine smelling intolerant countries of his heritage. He would be targeted for elimination just as he targeted innocents in the West. This is where his conscience bites him. Perhaps Joseph is coming to the conclusion that his isolated acts of violence merely fed the political mill for nationalism and across the board conservatism rather than revolution. In other words he was a failure. What is truly missing in the story is a transformative experience in the character’s personal life that would open the gates allowing forgiveness and the defusing of the chronic anger he had held to so closely to his identity all those years. The main character needs to tilt the scales in his personal life towards love vs hate. His actions for justice lack the necessary foundation in experiential empathy and care and nurturing. He needs to understand his inner self emotionally and then extend that to his family, community and all mankind. Maybe he has built his life from the top down instead of the other way around. His reality is a hyper masculine one in which he has repressed his feminine side and tragically continued to do so in his final days. He uses his terrorist friends and lovers as pawns to fulfill empty social functions, both carnal and societal. He knows he risks the legacy of being a pathetic asshole, and being under cover, it is only he that can know this as an ultimate truth. He has committed crimes against humanity and still does not get it. He cannot undo his folly. It is too late.
In the end Joseph Macleod becomes slightly more human in the face of mortality. As the indignities of old age descend upon him, his world, a world which has always reeked of urine, blood and bile, becomes more tragic. His erectile function needs Viagra. The resident Octogenarians surrounding him in the home are dying off, leaving the smell of piss and death behind. His fellow terrorist cronies are losing their minds. He is losing his mind. As his world crumbles he has a tang of remorse. One suspects it is more than a tang. He is not exactly a psychopath who sleeps well at night. In an age of gross inequality, economic disparity, environmental degradation and political instability the author has given us a revealing portrait of an unsavoury creature willing to sell his soul to a lost cause.
Gregory Shea is a writer, lounge pianist and barber living in Vancouver, Canada. Most days you can find him cutting hair in his barbershop where, through joint discussions, mock trials and a hint of irony, all the world’s problems seem to be resolved.