On May 1, two Times Square street vendors saw smoke wafting from a Nissan Pathfinder SUV parked with its hazard lights on. Police were summoned to the scene and disarmed the crude car bomb before it could cause any injuries. The bomber manqué was Faisal Shahzad, and speculation as to his motives and training is, as I write, still driving the news.
Shahzad's story turned out to be distressingly familiar: a naturalized U.S. citizen, he returned to his birth country of Pakistan for training in bomb-making after becoming violently radicalized. There are many such stories in the New York Police Department's 2007 report, "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat." Its pages are filled with example after example of young men like Shahzad who have embraced, and acted on, a murderous jihadi-Salafi ideology, mostly in a progression whose four stages the NYPD calls pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization. It is a novelistic arc, and it is fitting that several contemporary novelists have taken it up. In doing so, they have given us a new kind of antihero, a ripped-from-the-headlines young man, raised in the West, affluent, smart, idealistic, who works out his salvation through other people's fear and trembling.
Sebastian Faulks has a background in journalism, and he layers his novels (nine previous, including a turn as Ian Fleming for the James Bond book, Devil May Care) with impasto-thick plots rich in newsy, knowledgeable detail. His current work, A Week in December, is a Tube-and-Thames loop around London, set in 2007 and centered around two societal threats. One is the collapse of the subprime mortgage system and subsequent economic meltdown, the chief concern of John Veals, a glint-eyed quant; the other is a terrorist plot that occupies Hassan al-Rashid, the radicalized 22-year-old son of Muslim immigrants to Glasgow. Attention is a kind of affection, and Hassan's thoughts, both pre- and post-radicalization, are touchingly earnest: "It was perplexing to him that people paid so little heed to their own salvation; he was puzzled by it in the way he might have been by the sight of a mother feeding whisky to a baby."