So that, for me, has been the sort of enduring, emotional legacy of Sept. 11 --
actually an expression of love. I mean, so many people did it. There was one
gentlemen -- I think he lived somewhere on the West Coast -- who could actually
bear to stand by his answering machine for a TV crew while they filmed him
listening to his wife's message in just that way. We also heard it from the
airplanes, too. I sort of cling to that, actually, as an assertion of something
very basic, human, and defiant.
I think you used the phrase, "We were compelled to imagine our own last
moments, what they would be like, who you would call." Did it have that effect
on you, that sort of confrontation with your own mortality?
Absolutely. Probably the most terrifying thing about it is that we have to
imagine ourselves in the position of people on those planes. That's the thing
that only the imagination can do. No amount of reportage or good filmmaking can
do [that] for you. Imagining yourself into the minds of other people is, I
think, a fundamental human act of empathy, which lies at the base of all our
Now, I'm an atheist. I really don't believe for a moment that our moral sense
comes from a God. ... It's human, universal, [it's] being able to think our way
into the minds of others. As I said at the time, what those holy fools clearly
lacked, or clearly were able to deny themselves, was the ability to enter into
the minds of the people they were being so cruel to. Amongst their crimes, is,
was, a failure of the imagination, of the moral imagination.
You cannot be cruel to someone if you fully understand what it is to be them.
You have to somehow screen that out. You have to say to yourself, "They're not
really humans." Or you have to bring into line some sort of powerful ideology
or some crazed religious certainty in order to blot out that human instinct.
There was one particular image, ... of two people jumping, holding hands.
Even people who haven't seen the image talk about it. ... Did you see it? And
if you did, or heard about it, what kind of effect did it have on you?
I didn't see any television or newspaper images of people leaping from the
building, holding hands. I didn't see that on Sept. 11, but I did see pictures
of people jumping. I can't remember if I saw people jumping, holding hands. But
I certainly saw solitary figures falling through the air. To me, it just seemed
the bleakest possible image of the whole thing. Actually, I couldn't find a
scrap of hope in it. What I saw was utter desperation. Jumping to certain death
rather than dying in pain in a fire. It spoke to me of sheer panic. Humans
brought to this ... furthest edge of despair. I found no hope in that at all. I
found it utterly chilling.
It struck me, too, how life can generate these extraordinary moments of sort of
accidental catastrophic change. From in a space of 10 minutes, you could be at
your desk, pursuing your morning chores -- making a call, sending a fax. Ten
minutes later, you've decided to jump to your death from the building. ...
Personally, I felt very differently from the people you've quoted on this. I
saw it as a form of total degradation, the people forced to take their lives.
What is your own concept of evil? Do you think it's something that is
explainable by psychology and sociology? Or is [it] ... larger and more mysterious?
I don't really believe in evil at all. I mean, I don't believe in God. I
certainly don't, therefore, believe in some sort of supernatural or
trans-historical force that somehow organizes life on dark or black principles.
I think there are only people behaving, and sometimes behaving monstrously.
Sometimes their monstrous behavior is so beyond our abilities to explain it, we
have to reach for this numinous notion of evil. But I think it's often better
to try and understand it in real terms, in ... either political or
There's something at the same time, very, very attractive about this word. ...
It's a great intensifier. It just lets us say that we thoroughly abhor this
behavior. But it's quite clear, as a species ... in our nature, we are capable
of acts of extraordinary love and kindness, inventiveness and mutual aid.
On the other side, we are capable of acts of extraordinary destruction. I think
it's inherent. I think one of the great tasks of art is really to explore that.
... I personally think the novel, above all forms in literature, is able to
investigate human nature and try and understand those two sides, all those
many, many sides of human nature. But I'm a little suspicious of the way we
want to throw up our hands and just say, "Well, it's evil."
It's us. You know? And any reflection on, for example, the Holocaust, probably
our greatest, lowest moment in modern history, has to finally reflect on what
it is we seem to be able to be capable of, especially once we have the power of
technology to kill on a vast scale. ... I don't know, quite honestly, whether
the world suffers from people not believing enough in things, or believing too
much in things.
In fact, as I get older, I begin to feel that actually what we need more in the
world is doubt; more skepticism, less crazed certainty. I feel that religious
zeal, political zeal, is a highly destructive force. People who know the answer
and are going to impose it on everybody else, I think, are terrifying people.
What I would like is skepticism and doubt amongst political leaders. I want it
in people who express love and belief in their gods. There are many, many gods
and many, many religions. It's that sort of certainty that "My God is the one
true God and all the others are just pagan fantasies." I find those kinds of
assertions terrifying. ...
How would you describe the actions of these terrorists, or someone like a
bin Laden, laughing and giggling about the deaths of the people inside the
buildings? Are there degrees of cruelty? ... Have they introduced anything new
to the discussion of, if not evil, in the cruelty?
... When I watched that video footage of bin Laden simpering and giggling over
the success of the mission, it was particularly chilling, of course. I guess he
was at that moment intoxicated by power. I don't think it is anything new,
quite honestly. His delight in the fact that these buildings collapsed in ways
that nobody could have really foresaw, that it was all a lot more destructive
than even he had imagined, and how pleased he was by all that, it just seemed
to me the awful gloating of a man who felt he had, at that moment, acquired
colossal power, power to have transformed the historical process.
But I think that's ... an enduring feature of our darkest sides. There are
always leaders like that who emerge like sort of scum to the surface of events.
It's very bleak. I mean, I don't think it's anything new. ... Stretching right
back through history, to Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, there've always been those
excesses. Again, I don't think we should try and avoid the fact that we're
looking into a mirror here. We see human nature or what human nature is capable
of. ... But we must never lose sight of the fabulous redemptive quality of our
capacity for love, too. We just have to somehow hold both those things in
... Would you talk about the darkness at the heart of religion in relation
to what drove those men to do what they did? ...
I don't believe there's any inherent darkness at the center of religion at all.
I think religion actually is a morally neutral force. It's clearly deeply
stitched into what we are. You find forms of supernatural belief in all
cultures, Christian and Judaic visions of "sky gods" or whatever. I think it so
completely absorbs and reflects human nature that it does just as much good as
evil. I don't think it's a particular force for good. I don't think it's a
particular force for evil, either. I think it simply channels what we are into
sort of available and acceptable form.
But now and then, people rise up and perform terrible things in its name, just
as people perform extraordinarily fine, courageous things in its name. The most
Christian nation in Africa, it's always worth remembering, is Rwanda. The genocide there, a sort of orgy of destructiveness, shocked the
world. Religion was helpless before it, and even was part of the process. But I
don't think it caused it.
My own view of religion is that people must be free to worship all the gods
they want. But it's only the secular spirit that will guarantee that freedom.
What is it then, that underneath religion -- which is just a construct, in
your view -- could lead to the glory of religion or the darkness, in relation
to Sept. 11?
We're told that the men, the terrorists on that plane -- and I think it's
probably correct -- expected to be in paradise as a consequence of their
actions. There are all forms of paradise. Utopia is another kind of sort of
earthly form. I think it was Isaiah Berlin who warned us that the people we
should beware of most are the ones who thought they could bring us, deliver us,
to the blessed kingdom -- Utopia. ... People who feel they are on the path to a kind of eternal bliss are people to beware of. As I come back again to
this notion of doubt, a moment's doubt, a little bit of skepticism, would have
done those terrorists and the citizens of New York a great deal of good. It's
belief, faith -- this word that is spoken as such a good thing by religious
people, such a marvelous thing -- it just seems to be me nothing more than
Unreasonable belief in things for which there is no proof. Sometimes -- not
always, but sometimes, of course -- terrible, destructive, awful things are
done in the name of these unreasonable beliefs. Sometimes, too, people perform
marvelous things. Again, I think, religion is morally neutral in this. It takes
us neither towards a clearer understanding of the destruction or the loving
aspects of our nature. It's there anyway.
So as an atheist ... I don't blame religion as some of my colleagues have felt
that it was religion that drove these planes into the side of those buildings.
I come back again and again to a side of human nature which sometimes seizes on
the one simple solution that will take us to paradise or Utopia or the blessed
kingdom. It is a very, very destructive force.
Was your atheism gradual, incremental? Was it always there? Was it sudden?
Was it easily won? ...
My atheism certainly was not easily won. I've dabbled around the edges of all
kinds of belief and wrote a novel called Black Dogs, in which the
narrator -- rather like myself, in a way -- sort of slithered along this axis
of belief and unbelief. But I think my cumulative experience of life suggests
to me that the distribution of misfortune is completely random. Children die of
cancer and bad people live a long time. Good people get crushed by a truck.
In other words, if there is a God, he's a very indifferent God. The idea of
prayer seems to me almost infantile, this appeal to an entity who could
intervene -- who clearly hasn't intervened. Or if he has intervened, he's done
so malignedly. It sort of makes me rather feel sad when I heard priests talking
about Sept. 11 and reminding us that God moves in mysterious ways. Well, spare
me this God, I say. I prefer to regard this in human terms.
Are there any times ... that you've doubted your doubt?
Rather like Darwin when his favorite daughter died, it rather confirmed my
doubt. ... When those planes hit those buildings and thousands of innocent
people died and tens, twenties, hundreds of thousands of people started to
grieve, I felt, more than ever, confirmed in my unbelief. What God, what loving
God, could possibly allow this to happen? I find no resource at all in the idea, and it saddened me to see, hear, listen to priests tell us that their "sky god" had some particular purpose in letting this happen, but it was not for us to know it. It just seemed to me sort of irrelevant, at least. And I could probably think of stronger words for it -- an offense to reason really. We have to understand the events of September the 11th in human terms. ... The healing process, too, is one that's in our hands. It's not in the hands of the "sky gods." It's only for us to try and work it out.
... [Novelist] Jim Crace ... said, for him, as an atheist -- a passionate
atheist and a lyrical one as well -- that he was totally disoriented by Sept.
11. ... Does it resonate with you at all? His idea that this was a harder event
No it doesn't because there have been other acts of extraordinary cruelty. This
is not the first. ... I think we have to beware, too, of treating Sept. 11 as
the only and most spectacular event of human cruelty. There have been many,
many acts of cruelty, some of them on an even larger scale. So I can't accept
the notion that somehow this punctures our understanding of human nature.
We have before us, [in] the 20th century alone, acts of unbelievable depravity.
Deliberate, methodical, bureaucratic, technological, destruction of human lives
in the Holocaust, for example. We've seen it in a way. We see it again now in
those men, in those awful lunatics with their fixed beliefs. We see it again.
I was wondering if you would read a paragraph of ... from here to here. ...
This is your article. Your words.
"The mobile phone has inserted itself into every crevice of our daily lives.
Now in catastrophe, if there is time enough, it is there in our dying moments.
All through Thursday, we heard from the bereaved how they took those last
calls. Whatever the immediate circumstances, what was striking was what they
had in common -- a new technology has shown us an ancient human universal.
A San Francisco husband slept through his wife's call from the World Trade
Center. The tower was burning around her, and she was speaking on her mobile
phone. She left her last message to him on the answering machine. A TV station
played it to us, while it showed the husband standing there listening. Somehow,
he was able to bear hearing it again. We heard her tell him through her sobbing
that there was no escape for her; the building was on fire; there was no way
down the stairs. She was calling to say goodbye. There was really only one
thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst
pop songs in movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen: 'I
She said it over and again before the line went dead. And that is what they
were all saying down their phones -- from the hijacked planes and the burning
towers. There was only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set
against the hatred of their murderers.
Last words placed in the public domain were once the prerogative of the mighty
and vain and venerable -- Henry James, Nelson, Goethe, recorded and sometimes
edited for posterity by relatives at the bedside. The effect was often
consolatory, showing acceptance or even transcendence in the face of death.
They set us an example. That these last words, spoken down mobile phones,
reported to us by the bereaved, are both more haunting and true.
They compel us to imagine ourselves into that moment. What would we say? Now we
home + introduction + questions of faith and doubt + our religions, our neighbors, our selves + interviews
discussion + producer's notes + poll: spiritual aftershocks? + video
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