Thursday, November 18, 2010

Five books about who terrorists are

Jessica Stern is the author of Denial: A Memoir of Terror, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, and The Ultimate Terrorists.

With Daisy Banks at FiveBooks, Stern discussed five books about who terrorists are, including:
A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Your next book, A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, takes us to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

This is a complicated and moving book about the nature of good and evil. Pumla is a South African psychologist who spent a lot of time in prison interviewing people like Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of state-sanctioned apartheid death squads. He is currently serving 212 years in jail for crimes against humanity. He directed ‘the blood, the bodies and the killing’ against apartheid’s enemies. She walks us through her recognition, ‘that good and evil exist in our lives and that evil, like good, is always a possibility’. Anybody can say this but because she exposes us to what happens to her as she is interviewing de Kock, we come to a more visceral understanding of this capacity for evil. She explains how she ends up really empathising with him, and possibly even sympathising with him.

De Kock oversaw the killing of innocent people and it is incredible that this black South African psychologist was able to sit down with him and physically touch him. She recognised a side of him, a capacity for good, that unfortunately never evolved. He was responsible for truly horrific crimes. And yet she came to empathise with him. It’s extremely uncomfortable for her, and for the reader, to recognise the capacity for good in persons whose actions we condemn as evil.

What about you – when you have met with terrorists have you felt something similar?

Yes. There were a few terrorists I talked to who seemed to have become truly evil. They seemed to have lost their capacity for empathy. You get this feeling that the hairs are standing up on the back of your neck. But that wasn’t the case for the majority of terrorists I spoke with. In many cases I felt that they were caught in a web of lies, that they were vulnerable boys who had been manipulated by leaders to do terrible and terrifying things.
Read about another of Stern's five books.

--Marshal Zeringue