faith and doubt at ground zero
a photo of ian mcewan
INTERVIEW: ian mcewan

So many people we've spoken to, as they watched the events unfold, were riveted then and are still riveted now by particular images -- images of people either jumping or those cell phone conversations, those last final moments, unedited and raw. ... Could you talk about that? ...

I suppose one of the most chilling aspects of being sort of just a helpless television watcher was, first of all, the curious kind of silence of those images, of the very first images, while the towers were still standing, but on fire. You could only imagine the human panic and distress inside those buildings. ... I was surfing between various channels, news channels. I was struck by the way in which nobody was wanting to talk about that at that stage. There was just smoke billowing from windows. It had a sort of distancing public appearance.

It was that gap between what we really knew must be going on and the fact that you couldn't actually, in those first instances, see any human distress. Later we saw pictures, harrowing pictures, of people jumping from windows.

But I was also very, very struck by the ways in which the cell phone so completely penetrated daily life, even dying moments when people were trapped in buildings and rooms they knew they couldn't get out of. They responded to some basic human instinct, which was to phone the person nearest them. Last words have always been the prerogative of the grand and the great who have respect for relatives taking down these words, and maybe polishing them up for history. Here we had a sort of democratization of this basic matter.

Many, many people have cell phones, and they said those three words. As I wrote at the time, I was very struck by this. These three words, "I love you." No amount of the worst art in the world can ever quite reduce it. That was the message. It was extraordinary enough. With all these pictures, that were the consequence of religious zeal and hatred, this was all they had to put against that. I mean, this was their last, as it were, defined moment. I'm sure they didn't feel that at the time. I'm sure they felt only they had to have that human contact.

Ian McEwan is the author of several novels, including Atonement (2001), Amsterdam (1998), which was awarded the Booker Prize, and Black Dogs (1992). As an atheist, McEwan does not blame religion for the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, he says religion is a "morally neutral force," and acts of extraordinary cruelty are best understood for their human, rather than religious, dimensions. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in April 2002.

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 moral understanding.

We have to beware 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.

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 psychological terms.

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 balance.

... 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.

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 for atheists?

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 love you.'

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 know." ...

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