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Facts have no place in a climate of fear

In this post-9/11 world, paranoia rules: Anyone can be a suspect.

By VIKRAM JOHRI
Published May 6, 2007


The Unknown Terrorist

By Richard Flanagan

Grove Press, 336 pages, $24

Richard Flanagan's fourth book is a bleak look at the post-9/11 world, where governments routinely raise the terror alert to create a sense of fear without any basis in fact. A pole dancer, Gina Davies, becomes a pawn in this game when she is found to have spent a night with terror suspect Tariq al-Hakim. The irony is that al-Hakim is not a terrorist, only a drug dealer, but his Muslim name and the climate of fear make him the prime target in the investigation of three unexploded bombs at Australia's Homebush Olympic Stadium.

Davies, referred to throughout as the Doll (a metaphor for how she becomes a toy in the hands of the powers that be), is trying to build a life in a seedy Sydney dance club. That life is upended when she becomes a suspect, and Flanagan skillfully traces her journey over the next five days. An interesting aspect is her observations, as when she pities a Muslim woman wearing a burkah in the intense Sydney heat: "It struck the Doll as a particularly humiliating thing for any woman to have to get about in gear as bad as a burkah. But then the Doll remembered the television creep telling her how humiliating it must be to be a pole dancer, and she felt strangely confused."

Which brings us to the book's other major theme: the dangers of the media being hand-in-glove with the government. TV anchor Richard Cody must pump up his falling ratings and manufactures an extraordinary tale of terror, sex and drugs to implicate the Doll. So enamored is he of his "discovery" that he will let nothing - least of all the truth - get in his way. So Davies becomes a homegrown terrorist, a woman waiting to strike Australia as revenge for her impoverished childhood. This, Cody declares, is the new face of terror: slick, beautiful, completely unspottable.

When truth becomes a casualty of paranoia, Flanagan suggests, we may believe something tangible is being done to curb terror when really only innocents are being compromised.

Vikram Johri is a freelance writer in New Delhi.