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On September 11 2001, four passenger airliners were hijacked over the USA’s north-eastern seaboard. Two of them were flown into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York; the third was flown into the Pentagon in Washington DC; and the fourth nose-dived into a field in Pennsylvania after its passengers tried to overpower the terrorists. A worldwide television audience of millions watched the Twin Towers collapsing in flames in real time. Almost three thousand people were killed in these attacks, more than during the strike on Pearl Harbour that had tipped the USA into the Second World War.

The USA was young again. 9/11 came with all the promise of a global “War on Terror,” or a new and suitably flattering role for a bored and bloated superpower. What followed, however, were a few more desultory wars, which nobody won and the USA and its allies mostly lost. Rather than opening a “new chapter” in history, 9/11 turned out to be a comma in an existing story, a story of long-term geopolitical decline.

The destruction of the Twin Towers was readily interpretable as a lesson in human hubris. After all, the sinking of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912, with the loss of around fifteen hundred souls, had been previously regarded as unparalleled in its symbolic implications. The Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in New York and this obviously phallic imagery – far more phallic, in fact, than a big flopping boat – gave an extra keenness to the punishment. The USA – modernity, even – had been castrated. One of the plainest symbols of global neoliberalism had been chopped off!

The USA had been wounded before, at the Little Bighorn River and during the fall of Saigon, but these events had done nothing to lessen the fervour of the American project. The Native Americans’ culture would be frittered away and Vietnam would inevitably abandon Communism. Conversely, with the 9/11 attacks the unstoppable USA seemed to have finally crashed into an immovable object. For the first time an Other appeared to be rejoicing in its otherness and even wilfully pursuing otherness to gratuitous extremes.

The jihadists’ baffling ideology did not become explicable however many more recruits it attracted or however much it was fleshed out. Indeed, Al-Qaeda, the original movement or network behind the 9/11 attacks, was eventually superseded in Iraq by the more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The earlier maniacs were now recast as moderates and conservatives who had reportedly disaffiliated from ISIS due to the latter’s brutality.

Jihadism’s suicide bombers make the ultimate sacrifice, giving their life and all of their human potential, but for what? Never has, it seems, so much been spent on so little. The bombers die to spread nothing but raw terror, with the chiding insinuation that there should be some sort of caliphate as well. In any Western democracy, the founding of a caliphate would require an inconsequential ethnic minority to take over the state, seize the means of production, and massacre millions of non-believers. The logistics of this demand, with so much beheading and so few executioners, are out of this world. Such a carefree, fantastical politics more than suits the computer-game violence that it inspires, a cursory storyline to justify scene after scene of Grand Theft Auto mayhem. Nonetheless, ever more recruits are willing to die for a project that can never get off the ground in any respect.

Why are educated young men and women across the UK – who are usually the proud products of the British education system – and who are in fact fourteen times more likely than normal people to have engineering degrees – attracted to the medievalism of a caliphate? Particularly since they live in a world that is richer, healthier, better educated, and simply more of a success than the Middle Ages? Every time that I hear of a suicide bombing, I think that the perpetrator might have been stopped in their tracks had they read the words of Kingsley Amis’ fed-up medievalist Jim Dixon:

Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they’d been in the Middle Ages?

The only thing that compels you to take today’s devotees of a caliphate seriously is their preparedness to die for its complete nonsense. Suicide attacks are not a twenty-first century invention; they were used by the Nazis and the Japanese military when they faced defeat in the Second World War. In 2002, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, the Hamas leader in Gaza, admitted that his organisation only used suicide bombers “because it lacks F-16s, Apaches, tanks and missiles, and so we use any means that we have.” But suicide attacks have regressed from featuring in guerrilla warfare and militaristic terrorism to becoming the modus operandi of disconnected teams or even secretive, psychopathic individuals. Fortunately for the West’s shoppers and cafégoers, the format that is always most prevalent amongst amateur dramatics is the pantomime.

This new terrorism for the twenty-first century has not only plumbed uncharted depths in its barbarism and general incomprehensibility, but also in its propensity for slapstick. Who can ever forget the amazing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had tried to ignite explosives that were hidden in his underpants, in a plane over Detroit, and ended up setting fire to his own genitalia? It later transpired that the explosives had “degraded” because the bomber had worn the same underpants for over two weeks. What about the incredible Bilal Abdullah and Khalid Ahmed, whose firebombing of Glasgow airport had climaxed with them firebombing themselves and getting beaten up by bystanders. Or what about the dazzling, er, Nicky Reilly, whose attack on a café in Exeter was foiled after his nail bomb exploded prematurely in a toilet cubicle. He was described in court as “the least cunning person” ever to have been charged with terrorism.

At the head of all of these figures stands a Zero. Abdulmutallab, Abdullah, Ahmed, Reilly, the reportedly over 3,500 individuals in the UK today who are plausible suicide bombers and the 23,000 jihadists who are “persons of interest” are all fully enclosed within Zero’s shadow. I can imagine Zero offering them his heartiest encouragement; I can imagine him commiserating with them, his eyes bright with self-recognition, when things didn’t go according to plan. He is the perfect, plaster patron saint for all of these farcical terrorists to flutter around like sparrows. He is, needless to say, not a jihadist, not a Muslim, not an inhabitant of the twenty-first century, and not even real. He appears in More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (1885), a portmanteau novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson.

RLS put together The Dynamiter in the winter of 1884-5. At least two of its episodes had been originally invented by Fanny, to entertain him whilst he was bedridden in Hyères, a resort on the French Riviera. As RLS’s biographer Claire Harman has noted, though, Fanny “never claimed responsibility for the final draft.” She actually referred to her role in the book’s production as that of a “scapegoat.” For this reason, the following family of essays, articles, notes, and observations will refer to “Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Dynamiter,” and the reader will have to remain conscious that the attribution has been rounded up to a tidy figure.

In this book, the suicide bomber is taking his first toddling steps. Readers of The Dynamiter will be struck by the horrific possibility that one of the first characters in English Literature to resemble a suicide bomber is an Irishman. Our pioneer is named M’Guire and Zero is his boss:

“I… made a strong appeal to his patriotism, gave him a good glass of whisky, and despatched him on his glorious errand.”

Knowing very well how this world works, I hesitate to unveil M’Guire in marble, on a plinth, as “the first suicide bomber in English literature.” It is generally agreed that the first ever victim of a suicide bombing was Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who was blown to kingdom come by anarchists in 1881, four years before the publication of The Dynamiter. There was ample time in this intervening period, in copious short story magazines, for some anonymous author to depict the first suicide bomber in English literature. I can imagine what this story might read like – its nonedescriptiveness – its mousy drabness – its mousy furtive tunnelling behind the skirting-boards of Victorian literature. It is easier to imagine this story, of course, than it is to locate it, wherever it is, in an archived edition of The Union Jack or Tit-Bits.

The literary critics Terry Eagleton and Mary Ellen Snodgrass have both (independently of each other) affixed the label “the first suicide bomber in English literature” to the Professor from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 espionage novel The Secret Agent. An important distinction, in the evolution of the concept, is that the Professor wears his bomb in his coat and that it can be detonated by squeezing an India rubber ball that is always ready in his trouser pocket. Stevenson’s bomber, for his part, has more in common with the assassin of Alexander II, Ignacy Hryniewiecki. There were comedic riches to an attack from Hryniewiecki’s organisation, the People’s Will, which are clearly mirrored in The Dynamiter: Hryniewiecki’s code-name was “kitten” and a signal to the Tsar’s assassins was provided when a fellow anarchist blew her nose in a handkerchief.

To settle this for good, it might be best if the hunt for English literature’s first suicide bomber continued elsewhere. The suicidal nihilist Kirillov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons (1871) is recognisably the modern suicide bomber in embryo. Beyond this, everything is faintly tenuous. Hryniewiecki was only a suicide bomber because it was not yet possible for him and his colleagues to detonate dynamite using a timer. The People’s Will were required by the limitations of their technology to throw the dynamite after they had activated it, and their own distance to the explosion was, as a rule, fatal. They did not choose to die with the same spiritual relish as modern suicide bombers; neither did they use explosives in order to achieve a maximum and indiscriminate death toll. Conrad’s Professor includes a primed bomb amongst his wardrobe to deter the police from arresting him, rather than as an active means of generating terror. Zero blows up his own headquarters, and later himself, purely by accident. And nobody is killed in M’Guire’s first excursion, not even M’Guire himself.

His original instructions are to plant a bag containing a bomb in Leicester Square, but when he arrives, with his bomb ticking down to detonation, there is a policeman on the spot. M’Guire flees in dismay. He roams panic-stricken around the London streets, unable to dispose of his bomb unobserved and thus remaining enforcedly attached to the device. Hilariously, he urges an unsuspecting mother to carry it for him, “in the name of your babes that wait to welcome you at home.” He tries to leave it in a cab. Finally he flings the bomb into the Thames, along with himself, where, perhaps incongruously for dynamite, the device still detonates.

This story (which is entitled “Zero’s Tale of the Explosive Bomb”) actually predates everything that it evokes. The attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory, which M’Guire’s mission appears to be based upon, would occur in 1894, over a decade after the publication of The Dynamiter. Like M’Guire, the Greenwich bomber, Martial Bourdin, was a lone man who was attempting to dispose of explosives. Unlike M’Guire, Bourdin was killed after the bomb went off in his hands (the cowardly M’Guire later dies “of fear” on thinking that his fellow revolutionaries are on the way to murder him). Conrad, whose The Secret Agent is inspired by Bourdin’s disaster, recalled in 1920 that “the outer wall of the Observatory… did not show as much as the faintest crack.” This is to virtually mention Stevenson’s own terrorist mastermind, “the redoubted Zero,” by name.

With Zero and M’Guire, we even appear to walk exactly the same emotional landscape as the farcical jihadists do over a century later in Chris Morris’ 2010 satirical movie Four Lions. We look down at these clowns who are scraping out their dubious farce on the floor of an unnervingly deep immorality. Zero selects Leicester Square as a venue for his atrocity because “the seats in the immediate neighbourhood are often thronged by children, errand-boys, unfortunate young ladies of the poorer class and infirm old men–all classes making a direct appeal to public pity, and therefore suitable with our designs.” Morris’ jihadists plumped for the London Marathon.

You might marvel at how Stevenson was not prevented by being a nineteenth-century children’s author from accessing the world of 9/11 and the so-called Islamic State. It is as though he has a small, unmistakable piece of our own world in his hand. Zero demonstrates attributes of a modern suicide bomber to an extent that is unsettling to come across within a Victorian novel. Stevenson has bequeathed to us a complete toolkit for ridiculing the terrorists in our own era. It has passed through the hands of Conrad and G K Chesterton, the author of The Man Who Was Thursday (1907), but these writers have only given Stevenson’s tools an extra polish. After reading about M’Guire, we might be almost convinced that the narcissism of the modern terrorist is not an exotic twenty-first century phenomenon, but timeless, or at least a timeless feature of modernity:

…he was conscious of a strange abstraction from himself; and heard and felt his footfalls on the ground, as those of a very old, small, debile and tragically fortuned man, whom he sincerely pitied.

As with the modern suicide bomber, Zero’s political ambitions are wildly impractical and his motivations are nonsensical. He is supposedly a Fenian but he has otherwise no apparent connection to Ireland. One might suspect that he identifies with Ireland in much the same way as Nicky Reilly, a Cornish teenager, had converted to Islam: to locate the most user-friendly pretext to commit violence. Despite his obvious silliness, and the fact that he inhabits an openly farcical novel, Zero is still committed to mass murder and the suffering of innocents. It is only his incompetence that prevents him from being monstrously evil. This Zero is a zero because his farcical gaiety and evil cancel each other out, leaving an unsatisfactory muddle of incompatible characteristics.

It is the same problem that afflicts Chris Morris’ Four Lions. How can Morris’ jihadists be funny, evil, and realistic all in the same breath? Although the hilarity often runs clear in Four Lions, I am not sure that Morris’ comedic bombs ever realistically hit the target. Morris has himself described reading about the “staggering” incompetence that was on show during a real jihadist attack and thinking that “it was like an Ealing comedy.” Even so, he will not disturb the jihadists on their home ground of belief and he largely tries to keep their faith in the background.

Over a century beforehand, Stevenson had failed in the same way. After decades of terrorist bombings across the world, it is unthinkable that any author could now describe a terrorist attack as flippantly as Stevenson does the destruction of the superfluous mansion. The quaintness of the language (“Somerset turned in time to see the mansion rend in twain”) and the protagonist Paul Somerset’s scolding of the terrorist may paradoxically offend modern readers with their innocence. The very tone of this terrorist attack will strike us as being crassly inaccurate.

So there is a danger here of reducing nihilistic terrorism to some ahistorical essence. Morris is waging a liberal satire upon intolerance whereas Stevenson’s pinpointing of the nihilist had altogether more conservative implications. Whereas suicide bombers are today typically viewed as an abomination against modernity, almost as medieval revivalists with explosives, Stevenson’s terrorist represents modernity’s reductio ad absurdum.

Zero is an extreme incarnation of all of the things that Stevenson and his heroes usually represent: freedom, fantasy, romance, adventure, and irresponsibility, with some added impracticality chucked into the mix. If you get too close to him you will, like Somerset, concede to the inescapable, conservative, rather lamentable wisdom of “the Common Banker.” Of course, 9/11 was not supremely silly and Zero can never kill three thousand people, but many Common Bankers would die upon the most famous altar of jihadist folly.

The following series of notes proposes that it is high time to reassess The Dynamiter. In idolising the ways in which “Chance, the blind Madonna of the Pagan, rules this terrestrial bustle,” initially to a point of almost religious mania, The Dynamiter looks forward with unnerving sharpness to our own age of mega-cities, mass immigration, and the seemingly infinite possibilities for discovery and pleasure that are opened up by the internet. When reading this novel, one gets the sense that Stevenson has accidentally opened a fortuitous door and that a cold, rousing draught is pouring through history, straight down from his time to our own.

[The following instalments are more likely to be published every month than every week.]