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Couch Commandos

They have imagined apocalypse. But fact emerges deadlier than fiction.

Couch Commandos
Couch Commandos
The fevered imaginings of "airport thriller" writers have now been matched by real events. Airport thrillers—fat enough to last through a trans-Atlantic flight and horrific enough to take the passenger's mind off his own fear of flying—have always competed on one simple parameter: how large a catastrophe/ how large an evil empire does the hero take on and avert/ defeat. Tuesday, September 11, just raised the bar for Tom Clancy and his ilk.

Did Osama bin Laden get his idea from Tom Clancy's Debt of Honour, whose climax has a Japanese fanatic commandeering a 747 and crashing it on the Capitol Building, killing the US President and most of the US Congress? We will never know. But those interested can read the end of this 900-page tome to get a description of exactly what happens when a large aircraft strikes a building. An excerpt: "One hundred tons of jet fuel erupted from shredded fuel tanks, vapourising from the passage through the stone blocks. A second later, it ignited from some spark or other, and an immense fireball engulfed everything inside and outside the building. The volcanic flames reached out, seeking air and corridors that held it, forcing a pressure wave throughout the building, even into the basement." Clancy's research in these matters has always been impeccable.

More than a decade before Clancy blew up the Capitol, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, in their last collaboration before Lapierre found joy in Calcutta, had Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi hiding a nuclear bomb in New York and holding the US to ransom. And in Thomas Harris' first novel Black Sunday (the only one which doesn't feature the epicure Hannibal Lecter), the Arab terrorist organisation Black September came within a whisker of blowing up the Super Bowl in New Orleans with the US President inside the stadium. An Israeli agent foiled the scheme, but the death toll was still 512, with the President suffering cuts and bruises "when 10 Secret Service men piled on top of him". Harris was clearly influenced in his 1975 work of fiction by the fact of the 1972 Munich Olympics attack on Israeli athletes.

Other such fictional atrocities include charming master-criminal Peter Branson holding the US President and two Arab leaders hostage on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (a la Carlos holding opec ministers hostage in 1975) in Alistair Maclean's 1976 novel Golden Gate. Maclean continued his California destruction in Goodbye California where a terrorist called Morro unleashes a 20,000-foot tidal wave to wash the entire state of California into the sea. LA goes, the rest of the state is saved.

Starting from Auric Goldfinger planning to steal all the gold in Fort Knox, to the dozen novels in which Robert Ludlum diligently served up yet another secret organisation in the last stages of taking over the world, the plot-driver—or McGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock termed it—has essentially been the same: the scale of the catastrophe that'll visit mankind if the hero can't switch off the button just before the countdown reaches zero. India's own Vikram Chandra, in The Srinagar Conspiracy, has Islamic jehadis planning to assassinate Bill Clinton during his visit to India last year.

Indeed, many have already moved to the next stage, Armageddon. Doomsayers have begun muttering about the coming WW III and quoting Nostradamus (who predicted that the third Anti-Christ would be "a strong master of Mohammad" who will come "out of the country of Greater Arabia" and trigger off a 27-year-long Great War by sending "fire from the sky" on "the great new city"). WW III is a theme dear to many. Clancy has done his own take in Red Storm Rising,the which has the US and Soviet Union facing off in divided Germany. The US wins. A more scholarly work, and a huge non-fiction bestseller in the early 1980s, is The Third World War by General Sir John Hackett. NATO fight the Soviets. Birmingham and Kiev are obliterated in nuclear strikes, and the result is nato 1, ussr 0. Closer home, Humphrey Hawksley co-wrote Dragon Strike (US vs China) and then produced Dragon Fire, where India and China go to war over Tibet. China's nuclear missiles strike Mumbai and Delhi, killing off the entire Indian government. However, Hawksley's shaky grasp of sub-continental geography and a penchant for amalgamating well-known media bylines to name his characters (eg. General Prabhu Ninan) lessens its potentially nightmarish impact for Indians.

The break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the US-Soviet Cold War sent thriller writers scurrying across the world to find new villains. Their wait is now over. I have not heard of any book written yet with bin Laden as villain, but it is surely a matter of months before the first one hits the stands. Hollywood, though, has been tapping the rich Islamic-fundamentalism vein for some years now, most prominently in James Cameron's True Lies (which even features the hero tying the Arab villain played by Indian-born Art Malik onto a missile and shooting it through a skyscraper) and the Bruce Willis-Denzel Washington starrer The Siege, where NY is handed over to the US Army after a series of terrorist attacks. Eerily, a satellite channel was showing The Siege in India while the planes were crashing into the wtc and the Pentagon. Fact couldn't merge with fiction any better than that.
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