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The son of Yugoslav refugees who wound up in rural Kansas, Kurt Kurtovic joins the US Army out of high-school to escape a dead-end existence with his widowed mother. He readily takes to the military life and works his way into the Rangers, becoming a demolitions expert. Although raised a Catholic, Kurt develops a growing interest in the hushed-up Islamic faith of his dead father. On a behind-the-lines mission during the Gulf War, he links up with the sinister Rashid, who calls himself a Kuwaiti freedom fighter. Vaguely discontented after the guns fall silent, Kurt leaves the Army and journeys to Bosnia in search of his family's past. In the Balkans, he runs into Rashid, who opens Kurt's eyes to the genocidal campaign Croats and Serbs are waging against indigenous Muslims. Following months of hill-country combat with Islamic irregulars, Kurt goes back to New York City to support Rashid's jihad, helping to create an anti-personnel bomb built around a smallpox virus. It finally occurs to the apprentice terrorist that the shifty Rashid (who, it turns out, is an agent of Saddam Hussein's) plans more than a controlled release for blackmail or demonstration purposes. At the close, Kurt is speeding to an Atlanta sports arena to kill his charismatic mentor before he can unleash the deadly toxin.
In terms of his religious convictions and disaffection with the US, Kurt never quite comes to life. As a result, the sporadically suspenseful narrative lacks the menace it obviously was intended to have in recounting the metamorphosis of a likely all-American lad into an alienated avenger.
Christopher Dickey: It's my pleasure to be here.
Christopher Dickey: I'd like to say right off the bat that he is not based on Timothy McVeigh. I was interested in creating a character who would exemplify a certain kind of alienation in American society. A very dangerous kind. And I started work on the novel in early 1994. The character of Kurt was developed completely in the first few months of writing. It was just a frightening coincidence, if a predictable one, that a real terrorist act would be carried out by a man so much like the man I had in mind.
Christopher Dickey: I write nonfiction every week in Newsweek magazine. But there is a lot of excitement -- intellectual excitement -- in writing fiction, because you can explore character in a way that is almost impossible to do when you are writing nonfiction.
Christopher Dickey: Yes. The jacket design is close to the design that was first shown me by Simon & Schuster. But I insisted that the eye be as blue as possible. I did not want any confusion about the ethnic background of this terrorist. And I thought if the eye were anything less than icy blue, people would think the character was some kind of "foreigner." For better or worse, when you say all-American, people still think that means blond hair and blue eyes.
Christopher Dickey: I think the American media concentrate far too much on violence as something that is purely sensational, or if you will, purely visual. Television loves violence, because it attracts your eye. What is lacking is any clear sense conveyed to the public of what is behind so much of the violence that we see. We tend to live in a world where all violence takes place on the screen as if it were completely isolated from other events and there were no relationship between cause and effect. Yes, as a journalist I often covered events that are similar to the ones in the book and went to the places where the action in the book takes place. But it was precisely this sense that there was a logic behind violence and that to stop the violence that logic needed to be understood, that drove me to start writing this novel in the first place.
Christopher Dickey: Of course, I keep track of the wire services, CNN and the French equivalent of it, as a kind of constant background to what I am doing all day long. The best single bit of "background noise" for news is probably the BBC. For more in-depth reporting one of the most interesting sources is the Foreign Broadcast Information Service in the United States and BBC Monitoring in the UK. These give you original documents and news reports and speeches from all over the world, unfiltered.
Christopher Dickey: I think so. First of all, I think McVeigh is less in the tradition of the kinds of terrorists we came to know on the international scene in the 1970s and '80s, and more in the very American tradition of the "angry loner." In a real sense McVeigh is the spiritual heir to Lee Harvey Oswald. He took a sense of personal alienation and failure and made the government accountable for it. In the 1960s such men focused their anger on individual politicians. Today they tend to focus that anger on the government as a whole. The other important fact about Timothy McVeigh is that he had been to war and had seen how many people could be killed in the name of a "good cause." Once he joined his personal anger to the idea, in his own mind, that he was waging a personal war for a good cause, then it is not hard to understand how in his own head he could rationalize what he did.
Christopher Dickey: I think they are a threat when they are forced to interact with the American government, and ultimately they always are. They deny the responsibility or the authority of the government to effect their lives in any way, because they say it is a government that does not obey its own laws -- as they interpret them. The dangerous thing is that they hold their personal interpretation to be above all others, and this is a key element of fanaticism. Whether it is nationalist fanaticism, libertarian fanaticism, of religious fanaticism, the conviction that you have the right to kill because you are in direct touch with the Truth is extremely dangerous for your neighbors and the society in which you live.
Christopher Dickey: There is a breaking point. But he arrives at it through a slow process. Kurt is searching for his identity. He is looking for a way to put value on his life and into his life. In a sense, this is the same spiritual search many Americans now find themselves pursuing. But in Kurt's case, each time he believes that he has found a place to be and a person to become -- in the army, with his fiancée, in the homeland of his parents -- that is taken away from him. That's why eventually, at his weakest moment, he is such a perfect tool for someone who understands his need and preaches the notion that violence can answer it.
Christopher Dickey: The Middle East is in very grave difficulties right now and on the verge of violence such as we have not seen since the beginning of this decade. What was a peace process based on cooperation and a positive vision for the future has been turned by the acts of a few fanatics -- Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, being one of them -- into a process of confrontation, humiliation, and anger. I do not see any way out of the spiral toward greater violence unless the Israeli government changes its views about the nature of peace and Arafat changes his view that all power must be held in his own hands. We were supposed to be building trust in the Middle East these last five years. Now all we are building on both sides is hatred. Sorry I can't be more optimistic than that.
Christopher Dickey: Rashid is not a cult leader. He is more like an intelligence operative gone freelance, a case officer, if you will. I don't think he could affect large numbers of people, but he doesn't have to. He only needs to effect Kurt and two or three others to get the job done. The obvious parallel would be with Ramzi Yousef, who was able to pull together the completely incompetent conspirators planning to blow up the World Trade Center and actually carry out the plot.
Christopher Dickey: It is a symbol of his childhood and his desire for discovery. Specifically, his search for faith and meaning in his life. But also, I personally have always loved Advent calendars, and it was one of those elements that seemed to introduce itself into the narrative without my planning or expecting that it would be there.
Christopher Dickey: The trend, as is very well documented by Bruce Hoffman at the Center for the Study of Terrorism at St. Andrews University, Scotland, is toward an ever-greater religious component in terrorist activities. The point I was making earlier about fanaticism and the sense of being in touch with a personal Truth is a key element that members of the Aum cult in Japan, or McVeigh in Oklahoma, or Yousef in New York have in common. That's different from the secular political motivations and widespread organizations with government links that characterized terrorist groups in the 1970s and '80s.
Christopher Dickey: Initially it was the drama. The first revolutions I covered were in Central America, and I suppose I was infected to some extent with the left-wing romanticism common to a lot of people who graduated from college in the early 1970s. But that didn't last long. What came to fascinate me was precisely the causes and effects of the violence, and I actually thought that if I could reveal those causes and effects in all their details on both sides of the conflict without taking any ideological stand, then I would be helping somehow to reduce the violence that I saw in front of me every day. I can't say that I was successful. But that is still what I am trying to do.
Christopher Dickey: Until recently I would say almost all of them were "under our radar." Just as armies tend to fight the last war, intelligence services and the police tended to use models of terrorist activities without much relevance to the current battlefield. The most frightening thing about this is that the technology for murdering not only hundreds of people but thousands or hundreds of thousands is readily at hand in the form of homemade or inadequately protected biological and chemical agents. One reason the public and the police tend to miss so many dangers is that they tend to ignore terrorist plots that fail. But in the United States alone in 1995, three separate white supremacist organizations were discovered to be stockpiling ricing toxins capable of killing hundreds of people in very minute doses. One was even successful in ordering samples of bubonic plague. As luck would have it, all these plots were stopped, but we should not confuse good luck with good security.
Christopher Dickey: I don't know. Many people think it appropriate material for one. But the alchemy that Hollywood uses to concoct its formulas for moviemaking these days is utterly unpredictable. We'll see which of the pending offers comes through, and then we'll have to wait and see if it ever makes it to the screen.
Christopher Dickey: Frankly, not a lot. I think that in the euphoria of the moment, many of the young people here would make pious and idealistic statements, but I do not expect that the lives of many of them will be transformed by their experiences in Paris this week. That said, people do want hope, and they do want direction, and young people today, particularly those in the West and in America who feel no great sense of threat from any outside source, no external factor to direct their lives and give them purpose, will search where they can for meaning. Those who find that meaning in mainstream religion are the lucky ones and help to build society. Those who find it in fanaticism are the ones who help to tear it apart.
Christopher Dickey: I'm working on a memoir, which should be out late next spring, called THE SUMMER OF DELIVERANCE. It's basically about my father, the poet and novelist James Dickey, and our often painful relationship.
Christopher Dickey: Yes. I guess at this point in one's career, the question is not whom you read, but whom you reread. And I tend to reread stylists whose essays are often as good as their fiction, and in some cases better. I love Graham Greene, at least up until the last decade of his career. He was writing about the kinds of places and the kinds of people that I know, in ways that taught me things I would never otherwise have suspected or expressed. Joan Didion is someone I idolize as a writer, and I've been lucky to be her friend as well. George Orwell, especially his four volumes of collected essays, is indispensible. I don't like Gore Vidal's novels, but I love his articles and essays. I guess I'd have to say that my father's work influenced me as well, but less through choice than through osmosis. There are also a few scenes in INNOCENT BLOOD, you might note, that are pretty obvious homages to his work.
Christopher Dickey: Not really. I think the questions gave me a great opportunity to talk about the issues that were most important to me in this novel. But I'd also like to thank you, Elke, online for your patience and skill typing my responses. And barnesandnoble.com, of course, for giving me this opportunity to meet with so many people in so many places.