NYTBR, 11 September 2011
Ten years ago today, nineteen people, including fifteen Saudis–using funding from the House of Saud and led by a distinguished member of that House–used airplanes to attack the U.S., destroying the World Trade Towers, damaging the Pentagon, and being prevented from attacking the White House only by the heroic efforts of passengers on board the fourth plane and a suicide mission by an unarmed U.S. fighter jet.
Fortunately, there was quick action from President Bush and his Administration. They detained all fourteen of Osama bin Laden’s relatives in the United States, interrogating each. This was followed by the execution of surgical strikes within Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden himself was hiding. By the time Special Forces troops captured him in the caves near Tora Bora, in part due to intelligence gained from his relatives, domestic uprisings and U.N. support led to the overthrow of the Taliban government.
There were rumors there would be war with Saudi Arabia. But he Administration enacted high-level discussions (using, allegedly, some still-classified data as incentives) that were quickly followed by regime change in Saudi Arabia. That country’s new leaders provided compensation for costs and victims, as well as intelligence on previously unknown Pakistani participation.
On the domestic front, Rudolph Giuliani–who had moved the NYC Emergency Response headquarters from the safety of the basement of One Police Plaza to the 25th floor of a building that had been attacked eight years before, and who declared spending money on upgrading communications equipment for firefighters a waste–was barely saved from a Lynch mob of New Yorkers. He is rumored to have moved to Arizona, having been shunned by the President and the news media.
So now, ten years later, we find some American authors writing alternative histories about that time. The most recent, and one of the most absurd, is Philip Roth’s Becoming Who We Are, in which the Bush Administration assists the Bin Laden family in flying out of the United States (even before domestic commercial flights resume), becomes even closer to the Saudi leadership (there is a scene in the novel of Bush holding hands with the Saudi King while posing for photographs), and declares war on Iraq.
Even more problematic, Roth imagines Giuliani being touted as a hero, while the Bush Administration tortures prisoners, committing what most readers will correctly view as war crimes.
Perhaps saddest of all, Roth postulates an uprising of “Christian Conservatives” who vociferously and repeatedly applaud both of the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and wanton torture of prisoners—and who, in this novel, are largely credited with re-electing President Bush despite those revelations and an economy driven to stagnation by war—cheering the mere suggestion that an execution, even of someone who is clearly innocent, will occur. After Roth’s frequent but appropriate mention of “blood libel” in The Plot Against America, one probably ought not be surprised that some “Christian” characters of this novel would act in such a manner, but it is a daunting leap of faith nonetheless. (That Roth’s narrator is aware enough to note that it is not the “Christians,” but rather those in the highest income brackets who are—for the first time in United States history—not taxed to pay for a war who make the difference in the 2004 election arguably is even more damning of his portrayal.)
Roth has had a long and noble career, and his recent forays into alternative history–most notably his portrayal of leading isolationist Charles Lindbergh [link added] in the aforementioned novel–have been based in a deep knowledge of the way those personages acted publicly and privately. That he would undermine that with an absurdist piece in which the President of the United States squanders opportunities and weakens his own country by starting multiple wars is unfortunate at best. We can only hope Mr. Roth’s next work recovers the historical veracity for which he is known, rather than this deranged flight of fancy.
Becoming Who We Are, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, 432 pages, $27.