Helen MacInnes and the Politics of Terror

Until 9/11, we Americans had gone through over a century without any serious warfare on our soil. And that made us very different from the people in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But now we’ve joined the majority of the world, and we’ve become far more interested in why people become terrorists and what we can do to stop them.

Helen MacInnes was an extraordinarily popular writer of suspense novels who published her first book, Above Suspicion, in 1941. She and her husband, Gilbert Highet, were British and came to the U.S. in 1937 when he started teaching at Columbia University in New York City. He joined British Intelligence during World War II, then came back to the U.S., and in 1951 they both became American citizens.

I’ve given you this short biography because it’s what made MacInnes such a perceptive observer of Europe after World War II. And her observations are what made her novels more than just genre fiction.

The novel that speaks most pointedly to our present condition is Decision at Delphi, which was published in 1960. The basic plot has the usual romantic/suspense spine: a ruggedly handsome man and a breathtakingly beautiful woman meet, run a gauntlet of danger together, fall in love, almost lose each other, and end up making marriage plans. But surrounding this spine is a body of accurate and intelligent commentary about nihilism and terror that could also describe our own situation today.

The story takes place mainly in Greece, where a man is hunted because he has photographs of a leading citizen who had committed atrocities against his own people while a partisan fighting the Nazis during World War II. We often forget that Greece almost became Communist after the Nazis were routed, and that when the Communist guerillas lost the civil war, they kidnapped 50,000 Greek children and took them to be raised in Communist Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

That civil war really began at the end of World War II, when the Communists began killing the partisans who refused to join them. And for some of the fighters, the violence and degradation and blood lust became so overwhelming that they turned into nihilists.

We don’t talk much about nihilism nowadays, but during the years after World War II, it was an edgy and seductive philosophy, particularly among intellectuals. It preaches that there are no useful values and beliefs, and that life is senseless and useless. As MacInnes wrote on pp. 179-180,

It is simply that there are people in this world who want to build and there are others who want to destroy. And all the nastiest human failings fall into that group: spite, revenge, false pride, greed, ambition, and just plain hate. Oh, they doll up their politics with fine phrases and slogans; they find excuses for their anger. But it all ends in anarchy and destruction.

Sound familiar? Osama bin Laden and his buddies may claim they want to build a new Islamic empire, but from everything I’ve seen, they’re far more interested in spreading hate and destroying whatever they can get their hands on.

MacInnes was also prescient in describing what happens when terrorists become successful. On p. 216 she wrote,

…they create so much violence and bloodshed that the extreme right can step in and seize control. Then bang goes an elected government, predominantly left of center but moderate, at least, and what happens? Dictatorship.

And that is precisely what happened in Greece.

And, in some ways, it’s also happening here, in the U.S. The president’s press secretary proclaims what we should and should not talk about. The members of Congress pass The Patriot Act without even reading it. The NSA starts spying on domestic phone calls. The Attorney General and his assistant declare that the courts should not review presidential decisions. And regular folks, like you and I, have to be careful about the websites we visit for fear of having the FBI break into our homes and seize our property.

So how do we fight back?

I don’t know, precisely. So I try to keep an open mind, I try to control my fear, I try to live beyond my prejudice, and I try to remember that the Constitution has pulled America through rougher times than these.

In other words, I refuse to be terrorized.

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