The Second Plane. September 11: Terror and Boredom [NOOK Book]


A master not only of fiction but also of fiercely controversial political engagement, Martin Amis here gathers fourteen pieces that constitute an evolving, provocative, and insightful examination of the most momentous event of our time.

At the heart of this collection is the long essay “Terror and Boredom,” an unsparing analysis of Islamic fundamentalism and the West's flummoxed response to it, while other pieces address the invasion of Iraq, ...
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The Second Plane. September 11: Terror and Boredom

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A master not only of fiction but also of fiercely controversial political engagement, Martin Amis here gathers fourteen pieces that constitute an evolving, provocative, and insightful examination of the most momentous event of our time.

At the heart of this collection is the long essay “Terror and Boredom,” an unsparing analysis of Islamic fundamentalism and the West's flummoxed response to it, while other pieces address the invasion of Iraq, the realities of Iran, and Tony Blair's lingering departure from Downing Street (and also his trips to Washington and Iraq). Whether lambasted for his refusal to kowtow to Muslim pieties or hailed for his common sense, wide reading, and astute perspective, Amis is indisputably a great pleasure to read—informed, elegant, surprising—and this collection a resounding contemplation of the relentless, manifold dangers we suddenly find ourselves living with.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Warren Bass
…the argument in The Second Plane bristles with intelligence.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

These chronologically ordered essays and stories on the September 11 attacks proceed from initial bewilderment to coruscating contempt for radical Islam. Novelist Amis (House of Meetings) rejects all religious belief as "without reason and without dignity" and condemns "Islamism" as an especially baleful variant. Amis attacks Islamism's tenets as "[a]nti-Semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic" and characterizes its adherents, from founding ideologue Sayyid Qutb to the ordinary suicide bomber, as sexually frustrated misogynists entranced by a "cult of death." He also takes swipes at Bush and the Iraq war, which he describes as botched and tragically counterproductive, if well intentioned, but scorns those who draw a moral equivalence between Western misdeeds and the jihadist agenda. Amis's concerns are cultural and aesthetic as well as existential: terrorism threatens a reign of "boredom" in the guise of tedious airport security protocols, pedantic conspiracy theories and the dogma-shackled "dependent mind" fostered by Islamist theocracy. As much as Amis's opinions are scathing, blunt and occasionally strident, his prose is subtle, elegant and witty-and certainly never boring. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Amis has a reputation, well deserved, for being an intellectual provocateur. This reputation will only grow with the publication of these latest musings on life in what he calls "the Age of Vanished Normalcy." As John Updike, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and others have before him, Amis seeks to make sense of a world in which passenger airplanes are used as weapons of destruction and religious fanaticism has muscled out reasoned deliberation. His critique of Islamism may seem enlightened to some, imbecilic to others. Amis rejects the chimera of moral equivalence between modern, secular civilization and radical Islamic jihadists. He argues that he is not Islamophobic but rather Islamismophobic-that is, opposed to militant Islam. Amis contends that the West shares no common discourse with jihadism and contrasts the Western, secular mind of intellectual curiosity with the strident, noncurious mind of the likes of Mohamed Atta. The most impressive of these 14 pieces is "Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind," in which Amis mounts his own crusade against religious violence and secular triumphalism. Amis is intentionally and controversially combative in this work, which makes it essential reading. Recommended for all libraries.
—Stephen K. Shaw

Kirkus Reviews
Fourteen essays on the theme that "our understanding of September 11 is incremental and can never hope to be intact and entire."Islamism (Islamic fascism to some, Islamofascism to others), notes the ever-provocative British novelist and essayist Amis (House of Meetings, 2007, etc.), may be associated with Saudi Arabia, but it had its modern origins in Greeley, Colo., in 1949. "The story is grotesque and incredible," he writes, "but then so are its consequences." One of those curious consequences, familiar to anyone who has experienced war, terror or extreme stress, is boredom, for in such endeavors when one is not scared witless there is by definition not much going on. The war against Islamist terror has, Amis hazards, an especially boring additional component, our presumed inability to begin to communicate with "a mind with which we share no discourse." Amis's alignment as a self-described "Islamismophobe" puts him in a similar orbit with sometime friend and sometime rival Christopher Hitchens, save that, unlike Hitchens, Amis does not support the war in Iraq, as one of the pieces, an in-flight interview with Tony Blair, makes clear. (But then, that interview hints, Blair didn't much like the war either.) Amis is rather less blustery than Hitchens; one piece is a surprisingly empathetic attempt to get inside 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta's mind. As always, Amis proves eminently readable, his observations enlightening. Who other would ascribe to Kuwait City an "almost artistic cheerlessness" that speaks to the deadening touch of women-hating fundamentalism "under a sinister mist of damp dust"? Amis may not make any friends among the PC set, but he makes clear and inarguable the fact thatthe Islamist enemy is an enemy of reason, just like Hitler and Stalin. "The only thing Islamism can dominate, for now, is the evening news," Amis concludes in good fighting spirit. His book fires a welcome, left-tending salvo.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Is there any reason for us to take an interest in what a novelist, even a very good one, has to say about current affairs? When -- as seems to be the case -- every major historian, political scientist, and journalist in the Western world has written about September 11th and its aftermath, resulting in more expert commentary on the subject than one could possibly absorb in a lifetime, is there any reason to read a novelist's thoughts on the matter?

Possibly, if that novelist brings skills to the task that only an imaginative writer commands. In Martin Amis's case, one doubts that he is the man for the job. He is undoubtedly a brilliant observer, but his work is characterized by an almost inhuman coldness and a preference for ruthless judgment over imaginative empathy, and he has never shown any particular aptitude for analytic thought or historical reflection. As he himself has said, correctly, "[N]ovelists don't normally write about what's going on; they write about what's not going on."

The Second Plane is Amis's bid to join the folks who write about what's going on. These 12 essays and reviews and two short stories, published between September 18, 2001, and September 11, 2007 -- the sixth anniversary of the terror attacks -- collectively establish Amis's chosen position: that of an atheist and rationalist appalled by the "institutionalized irrationalism" of religion in general and Islamism in particular. "Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any race or creed," he says, "let us start disparaging all of them. To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful.... [I]f God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion."

Amis lays the blame for all terrorist acts in the Middle East on religious fanaticism. (Data collected by the Gallup World Poll, by the way, indicates just the opposite: there seems in fact to be no correlation between personal piety and radical views in Muslim countries, as John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed have pointed out in their analysis of the Gallup material, Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and the more radicalized Middle Easterners generally come from the best-educated sector of the population.) Amis denies being an Islamophobe, instead defining himself as an "Islamistophobe": "Naturally we respect Muhammad. But we do not respect Muhammad Atta." Good enough; but it's clear that he doesn't respect Muhammad, either, and in any case he quickly loses sight of the distinction and begins to speak of Islam and Islamism almost interchangeably. In reference to the subjection of women, for example, he writes of "the obscure logic that denies the Islamic world the talent and energy of half its population." Here he indiscriminately lumps countries like Iran and Iraq, in which women make up a significant portion of university students and the work force, with regimes like that of Saudi Arabia. Amis rejects the liberal piety that would have it that all men are brothers: "[A]ll men are not my brothers," he says. "Why? Because all women are my sisters. And the brother who denies the rights of his sister: that brother is not my brother." This kind of self-righteous piety suits Amis very badly; after all, he has built an entire career on witty, politically incorrect misogyny.

Most irritating of all is Amis's habit of making broad generalizations based far more on emotion than knowledge. The experts he invokes -- Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, John Gray, Sam Harris, Mark Steyn (and since when have Sam Harris and Mark Steyn been experts on the Middle East anyway?) -- are almost exclusively Western; the only Arab writer he seems to have read is Sayyid Qutb, the "father of Islamism," and he has obviously perused Qutb's work more with an eye toward the author's sexual neuroses than his political philosophy. He doesn't seem to talk to many Arabs, either, though at one point he cites an unnamed Sunni military man as authority that "Iraqis 'hate' Iraq -- or 'Iraq,' a concept that has brought them nothing but suffering" -- a statement that would come as quite a surprise to the many Iraqi authors, bloggers, and journalists I have been reading since the war began.

Amis's dramatic hyperbole in describing the September 11th attacks ("in that instant America's youth would turn into age"; "this moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era"; etc., etc.) is a function of the stunning historical provincialism of the baby boomers, who for half a century led an existence more sheltered than any in history and came to take it for granted. Our parents, who lived and fought through the Second World War, experienced not only Pearl Harbor but Auschwitz, Stalingrad, the enslavement of France, the bombing of London, the destruction of Berlin and other German cities, and the atomic humbling of Japan. That generation, I remember, was not as shaken up by the 9/11 attack as ours was, apparently seeing it more as one in an eternal stream of atrocities that have been committed by every race and creed in history than as some uniquely horrible and unprecedented act.

While so much of The Second Plane is jejune and overwrought, there are still some exquisite moments that remind you of how good Martin Amis can be when in his natural element. "On the Move with Tony Blair," a piece originally published in The Guardian (and later added to and embellished) is a wickedly observant portrait of the prime minister as he makes his way through official functions in Washington, Belfast, and Baghdad -- the kind of imaginative journalism that can only be done by a novelist. And the two short stories included here, though marred by a pompous didacticism that has no place in fiction, contain some touches that only a master can pull off. Here, for example, the author imagines the last moments of Muhammad Atta as his plane hits the Trade Center:

American 11 struck at 8:46:40. Muhammad Atta's body was beyond all healing by 8:46:41; but his mind, his presence, needed time to shut itself down. The physical torment -- a panic attack in every nerve, a riot of the atoms -- merely italicized the last shinings of his brain. They weren't thoughts; there were more like a series of unignorable conclusions, imposed from without.... How very gravely he had underestimated life. His own he had hated, and had wished away; but see how long it was taking to absent itself -- and with what helpless grief was he watching it go, imperturbable in its beauty and its power. Even as his flesh fried and his blood boiled, there was life, kissing its fingertips. Then it echoed out, and ended.
This is more like it. When Amis is capable of descriptive prose on this level, it is a shame for him to waste his energies on blimpish and obtuse political commentary. --Brooke Allen

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307269287
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/1/2008
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 923,521
  • File size: 258 KB

Meet the Author

Martin Amis
Martin Amis's best sellers include the novels Money, London Fields, and The Information, as well as his memoir, Experience.

From the Trade Paperback edition.


The son of legendary English writer Kingley Amis, Martin Amis was born in Oxford in 1949 and attended a number of schools in Great Britain, Spain, and America. By his own admission he was a lackluster student. He spent much of his youth reading comic books, until his stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, took him under her wing, introducing him to literature and encouraging him to study for university entrance. After months of furious cramming, he was accepted into Exeter College in Oxford, graduating with First Class Honors in English.

After graduation, Amis went to work as an editorial assistant at The Times Literary Supplement. In 1973, at the tender of age of 24, he published his award-winning debut novel, The Rachel Papers. Rife with the mordant black humor that would characterize all his fiction, this comic coming-of-age tale was a fitting debut for a career that would be fixated on sex, drugs, and the seamier aspects of modern culture. It also proved to be the first in a long string of bestsellers.

Amis is often grouped with the generation of British-based novelists that emerged during the 1980s and included Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes; but it is safe to say he has generated more controversy than his esteemed colleagues. No one feels neutral about Amis's novels. In a 1999 profile in Esquire, Sven Birkerts put it this way: "He is seen either as a cynically chugging bubble machine, way overrated for his hammy turns, or else as a dazzler, the next real thing."

In addition to his provocative fiction, Amis has grabbed more than his fair share of attention for antics off the page. Graced with youthful good looks, he enjoyed a reputation as a notorious womanizer (not unlike his famous father). Much photographed and buzzed about, he was dubbed early on the "enfant terrible" of English literature -- two parts writer, one part rock star. He attracted headlines like a magnet when he left his wife and children for a younger woman; when he fired his longtime literary agent, the wife of his good friend Julian Barnes; and when his new agent (unaffectionately nicknamed "the Jackal) secured for him an advance of 500,000 pounds, 20,000 pounds of which Amis spent on expensive American dental surgery.

Although reviewers are divided over Amis's long-range literary legacy, even his harshest critics begrudgingly acknowledge his stylistic genius, verbal agility, and biting, satirical wit. The novels for which he is best known (and most respected) comprise an informal trilogy: Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995). In addition, he has written short stories, essays, a nonfiction work on 20th-century communism, and an acclaimed memoir, Experience, detailing his relationship with his father, his writing career, and his convoluted family life. He also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines, and journals.

Good To Know

Amis attended more than 13 schools while growing up in Great Britain, Spain and the United States.

He was named the "rock star of English literature" by the London Daily Telegraph in 1996.

Amis was profoundly shocked and grieved to discover that his long-lost, beloved cousin Lucy Partington, thought to have simply disappeared in 1973, had fallen victim to Fred West, one of England's most notorious serial killers.

In a much-publicized reunion in 1996, Amis met for the first time a young woman named Delilah Seale who was his daughter from a brief 1970s affair.

Amis has been influenced by several American novelists, including Philip Roth and John Updike, but none so profoundly as Saul Bellow, who became a mentor and something of a father figure.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Martin Louis Amis (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      Oxford, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 25, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Oxford, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., Exeter College, Oxford

Read an Excerpt

It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by affect (“emotion and desire as influencing behavior”). That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.Terrorism is political communication by other means. The message of September 11 ran as follows: America, it is time you learned how implacably you are hated. United Airlines Flight 175 was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, launched in Afghanistan, and aimed at her innocence. That innocence, it was here being claimed, was a luxurious and anachronistic delusion.A week after the attack, one is free to taste the bile of its atrocious ingenuity. It is already trite but stringently necessary to emphasize that such a mise en scène would have embarrassed a studio executive’s storyboard or a thriller-writer’s notebook (“What happened today was not credible” were the stunned and wooden words of Tom Clancy, the author of The Sum of All Fears). And yet in broad daylight and full consciousness that outline became established reality: a score or so of Stanley knives produced two million tons of rubble. Several lines of U.S. policy were bankrupted by the events of last Tuesday, among them national missile defense. Someone realized that the skies of America were already teeming with missiles, each of them primed and cocked.The plan was to capture four airliners in the space of half an hour. All four would be bound for the west coast, to ensure maximum fuel load. The first would crash into the North Tower just as the working day hit full stride. Then a pause of fifteen minutes, to give the world time to gather round its TV sets. With that attention secured, the second plane would crash into the South Tower, and in that instant America’s youth would turn into age.If the architect of this destruction was Osama bin Laden, who is a qualified engineer, then he would certainly know something about the stress equations of the World Trade Center. He would also know something about the effects of ignited fuel: at 500°C (a third of the temperature actually attained), steel loses 90 percent of its strength. He must have anticipated that one or both of the towers would collapse. But no visionary cinematic genius could hope to re-create the majestic abjection of that double surrender, with the scale of the buildings conferring its own slow motion. It was well understood that an edifice so demonstrably comprised of concrete and steel would also become an unforgettable metaphor. This moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era—the era of images and perceptions. Wind conditions were also favorable; within hours, Manhattan looked as though it had taken ten megatons.Meanwhile, a third plane would crash into the Pentagon, and a fourth would crash into Camp David (the site of the first Arab-Israeli accord) or possibly into the White House (though definitely not into Air Force One: this rumor was designed to excuse Bush’s meanderings on the day). The fourth plane crashed, upside down, not into a landmark but into the Pennsylvanian countryside, after what seems to have been heroic resistance from the passengers. The fate of the fourth plane would normally have been one of the stories of the year. But not this year. The fact that for the first few days one struggled to find more than a mention of it gives some idea of the size of the American defeat.My wife’s sister had just taken her children to school and was standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eleventh Street at 8:58 a.m., on the eleventh day of the ninth month of 2001 (the duo-millennial anniversary of Christianity). For a moment she imagined herself to be on a runway at Kennedy Airport. She looked up to see the glistening underbelly of the 767, a matter of yards above her head. (Another witness described plane number one as “driving” down Fifth Avenue at 400 mph.) There is a modest arch that fronts Washington Square Park; American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles was flying so low that it had to climb to clear it.We have all watched airplanes approach, or seem to approach, a large building. We tense ourselves as the supposed impact nears, even though we are sure that this is a parallax illusion and that the plane will cruise grandly on. My sister-in-law was right behind Flight 11. She urged it to swerve, to turn into the plentiful blue sky. But the plane did not turn. That afternoon her children would be bringing refreshments to the block-long queue waiting to give blood at St. Vincent’s.Now the second aircraft, and the terror revealed—the terror doubled, or squared. We speak of “plane rage,” but it was the plane itself that was in frenzy, one felt, as it gunned and steadied and then smeared itself into the South Tower. Even the flames and smoke were opulently evil, with their vampiric reds and blacks. Murder-suicide from without was now duplicated within to provide what was perhaps the day’s most desolating spectacle. They flailed and kicked as they came down. As if you could fend off that abysmal drop. You too would flail and kick. You could no more help yourself than you could stop your teeth from chattering at a certain intensity of cold. It is a reflex. It is what human beings do when they fall.The Pentagon is a symbol, and the WTC is, or was, a symbol, and an American passenger jet is also a symbol of indigenous mobility and zest, and of the galaxy of glittering destinations. The bringers of Tuesday’s terror were morally “barbaric,” inexpiably so, but they brought a demented sophistication to their work. They took these great American artifacts and pestled them together. Nor is it at all helpful to describe the attacks as “cowardly.” Terror always has its roots in hysteria and psychotic insecurity; still, we should know our enemy. The firefighters were not afraid to die for an idea. But the suicide killers belong in a different psychic category, and their battle effectiveness has, on our side, no equivalent. Clearly, they have contempt for life. Equally clearly, they have contempt for death.Their aim was to torture tens of thousands, and to terrify hundreds of millions. In this they have succeeded. The temperature of planetary fear has been lifted toward the feverish; “the world hum,” in Don DeLillo’s phrase, is now as audible as tinnitus. And yet the most durable legacy has to do with the more distant future, and the disappearance of an illusion about our loved ones, particularly our children. American parents will feel this most acutely, but we will also feel it. The illusion is this. Mothers and fathers need to feel that they can protect their children. They can’t, of course, and never could, but they need to feel that they can. What once seemed more or less impossible, their protection, now seems obviously and palpably inconceivable. So from now on we will have to get by without that need to feel.Last Tuesday’s date may not prove epochal; and it should be the immediate task of the present Administration to prevent it from becoming so. Bear in mind: the attack could have been infinitely worse. On September 11 experts from the Centers for Disease Control “rushed” to the scene to test its atmosphere for biological and chemical weapons. They knew that these were a possibility; and they will remain a possibility. There is also the integrally insoluble hazard of America’s inactive nuclear power stations (no nuclear power station has ever been dismantled, anywhere). Equivalent assaults on such targets could reduce enormous tracts of the country to plutonium graveyards for tens of thousands of years. Then there is the near-inevitable threat of terrorist nuclear weapons—directed, perhaps, at nuclear power stations. One of the conceptual tasks to which Bush and his advisers will not be equal is that the Tuesday Terror, for all its studious viciousness, was a mere adumbration. We are still in the first circle.It will also be horribly difficult and painful for Americans to absorb the fact that they are hated, and hated intelligibly. How many of them know, for example, that their government has destroyed at least 5 percent of the Iraqi population? How many of them then transfer that figure to America (and come up with fourteen million)? Various national characteristics—self-reliance, a fiercer patriotism than any in western Europe, an assiduous geographical incuriosity—have created a deficit of empathy for the sufferings of people far away. Most crucially, and again most painfully, being right and being good support the American self to an almost tautol- ogous degree: Americans are good and right by virtue of being American. Saul Bellow’s word for this habit is “ange- lization.” On the U.S.-led side, then, we need not only a revolution in consciousness but an adaptation of national character: the work, perhaps, of a generation.And on the other side? Weirdly, the world suddenly feels bipolar. All over again the West confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system which is essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence. The old enemy was a superpower; the new enemy isn’t even a state. In the end, the U.S.S.R. was broken by its own contradictions and abnormalities, forced to realize, in Martin Malia’s words, that “there is no such thing as socialism, and the Soviet Union built it.” Then, too, socialism was a modernist, indeed a futurist, experiment, whereas militant fundamentalism is convulsed in a late-medieval phase of its evolution. We would have to sit through a Renaissance and a Reformation, and then await an Enlightenment. And we’re not going to do that.

From the Hardcover edition.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2008

    A Portrait of Self-importance

    'Intellectual provocateur' is how some of the high-brow reviewers describe Amis, but I'm not buying it. The entire book seems to be an excercise in using fancy language and slick metaphor. And politically, he's 'Old Europe,' though I know he would bristle at that tag.

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    Posted September 8, 2010

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    Posted November 18, 2010

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