I have spent the last two years studying the face of Terror. No, not the bearded, turbaned image of an Al Qaeda cave dweller, but another version, one that unspooled as I translated my family’s secret police file in the archives of the Hungarian Communist Party. The two faces are really not that different.
The communists, like Al Qaeda, started with a utopian dream of righting wrongs and empowering the powerless. Even the Nazis saw themselves in such a light: They would restore jobs and honor to their humbled countrymen. For all these movements, a more perfect world beckoned at the end of the rainbow. This is how they attracted their fanatical followers even as they used terror and fear to gain power.
It is Muslims who are the primary victims of Al Qaeda’s terror in the name of their religion.
I first saw the true face of fear when, as a six-year old whose parents had just been arrested, I was taken by uniformed agents of the state to the house of my mother’s best friend for shelter. But when that lady saw those agents of terror, she refused to open her front door, and my sister and I were left homeless.
Such regimes succeed because most people are not killers, and because most of us simply cannot imagine the unimaginable—the extreme brutality of these movements. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around factories whose sole product is death, or planes carrying men, women, and children suddenly turned into missiles.
Our mistake is not to see these dangers from the outset. We have to do a better job of calling terrorists what they are: enraged killers who are winning the propaganda war. For much too long, we have allowed cold-blooded murderers to label themselves and what they stand for.
But Al Qaeda is no more a descendent of the great Abrahamic religions than the communists who arrested, imprisoned, and tortured my parents were committed to creating a peoples’ paradise in Eastern Europe. If the Vatican was less than forceful in separating Christianity from the horrors of the fascists, so, too, are Islamic leaders too timid in stating that their religion does not condone or reward the killing of the innocent.
In newly opened communist secret police files, I learned for the first time that my father, Communist Hungary’s last independent journalist, was forced to stand facing a wall while two agents shouted obscenities at him for endless hours. Thus was he broken and forced to “confess” that he was a CIA agent. In desperation he tried to commit suicide. But first he tried to smuggle a letter to my mother instructing her to divorce him, marry a westerner, and make sure his children forgot him. This was the result of one of the twentieth century’s bold experiments on humans—and all in the name of the great utopian vision of a workers’ state, conjured up by a pair of nineteenth-century German philosophers, Marx and Engels.
The Nazis, too, had their grandiose labels and their promises. My grandparents did not survive that wave of insanity. For their crime of being less than 100 percent pure Hungarians (whatever that is), they were shoved into airless trains that took them to the gas chambers.
I wait for the great religious humanists of our day to say loudly and clearly that the underwear bomber has as little to do with Islam as the secret police officer who browbeat my father into a confession did with Marx’s utopia. It is true that when the Nazis were using the cover of Christianity in their persecution of Jews, the Vatican’s reaction was much too restrained. Today, it is Muslims who are the primary victims of Al Qaeda’s terror in the name of their religion. I cannot forget Mohammed Atta’s final instruction before he launched the 9/11 massacre: No pregnant woman, the killer prescribed, should be allowed near his grave, as that would “defile” his final resting place. Can any religion claim such a man as its own?
Arthur Koestler, a countryman of mine, himself seduced by the false god of communism, once noted, “a dispassionate observer from a more advanced planet, who could take in human history from Cro-Magnon to Auschwitz would come to the conclusion that our race is a very sick biological product.”
Our challenge is to prove Koestler wrong. We can start by not allowing cold-blooded killers to deceive us about who they are: murderers wearing different uniforms.
Kati Marton’s latest book, Enemies of the People – My Family’s Journey to America, is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.