“It’s okay, he thought, seeing the reflection of his lips move. He closed his eyes, faced the ceiling, and took a deep breath. It’s okay, he whispered. It’s okay.” In the opening paragraph of To Kill the Other, Danuta Hinc depicts the process of a thought becoming a silent action, then morphing into a whisper until what was once unmentionable becomes reality. Similarly, Hinc’s novel traces the internal and external influences that contribute to transforming a sensitive and idealistic child into a person capable of committing mass terror. Based on the September 11, 2001 hijacking and terror attack on the World Trade Center, To Kill the Other is the fictional story of a young boy, Taher, who grows up to become a terrorist.
Taher’s journey from a wealthy Egyptian family into a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan is a coming-of-age story that shows how perspectives can become distorted into trauma-induced delusions of victory and revenge. In Taher’s early life, Hinc often emphasizes his naiveté. When Taher passionately proclaims that the Russian government lies about its motives, he is rebutted with, “Do you think there is a government that doesn’t twist the truth? For the common good of its people?…Are you sure that your governments don’t lie?” Hinc later shows how Taher’s characteristic gullibility is what drives him to believe that becoming a martyr, sacrificing his life while killing others, actually serves humanity.
The belief that murder and violence can bring peace and serve a greater good is the dichotomy that Hinc explores throughout the novel. The characters’ initial justification is that the person being killed is “other” and that killing the other somehow preserves one’s own life. “It’s not me; it’s her dying. He tried to read his own thoughts and convince himself against the new feeling. It’s not me; it’s her dying, he tried to reason with himself.” The ability to convince oneself that all life is not connected and that killing the “other” ensures survival creates a mentality that manifests in mass shootings and other acts of terrorism.
This mentality of killing is the product of the culture of war that normalizes death and destruction while thwarting family and community bonds. Hinc depicts the reality of a youth attempting to survive social unrest and political turmoil without guidance. Taher’s cousin, Ahmed, is recently released from an Egyptian prison on false charges of conspiring with fundamentalists. The years of imprisonment and severe abuse that Ahmed is forced to endure develop his fanatic beliefs. “We were one family in suffering and in the words of the Holy book. We supported each other, even, or maybe most of all, when we were forced to turn on each other.” Ahmed’s trauma leads him to join the community of fundamentalists that he is now bonded with. After listening to Ahmed’s stories of captivity, torture, and community, Taher resolves to accompany him to Afghanistan to tend to the wounded fighting the Russians. Ahmed insists that Taher cannot go without his parents’ permission, but both Taher’s mother and father have passed away. It is easy to give into the idea that Taher’s life, and the lives of countless others, may have been different, had one or both of his parents been alive to dissuade him from going to Afghanistan.
Throughout the novel, Hinc depicts the power of the belief in “the other,” and how our minds are able to construct narratives that match our beliefs more closely than they do reality. In Afghanistan, Taher befriends Marek Kowalski, a Polish soldier who left Poland to fight the Russians. When Marek was a young child, he witnessed his mother, nine months pregnant, shot to death by Russian soldiers. “All I remember is snow around the wet dark soil of the grave and red lights of cigarettes in the darkness. Red lights of cigarettes of agents surrounding us in a distance…I want to kill those red lights. I want to kill them once and forever. For her.” It is not until much later that Marek learns that the soldiers shooting unarmed Polish factory workers and their families, including his mother, were in fact Polish, not Russian. For years the people of Poland had adopted a collective narrative of Russian soldiers killing Polish civilians. It is often easier to blame the other, than to accept that we commit these crimes against ourselves.
Before Taher began fighting in Afghanistan, before watching young children shot to death, and before witnessing his cousin’s death, he said, “But killing someone is killing yourself, don’t you see?…Spilling the blood of the other poisons your own blood, and this is what kills you.” Intuitively, young Taher understood that violence only perpetuates greater violence, but loss, fear, and anger distorted his beliefs. To Kill the Other shows the traumatic events that changed Taher’s life and beliefs, but Hinc does not promote trauma as an excuse or justification for committing such acts of violence. Taher often remembers his father’s words, “Every man needs to recognize his destiny. Every man needs to know what to choose.” The characters continually remind us that we always have a choice, and that we must take responsibility for our decisions. The choice to disengage from the belief that language, culture, and religion separate us from one another allows for a new narrative rooted in compassion.
Hinc’s To Kill the Other reminds us that the path to reconciliation and peace, the only way to counter terrorism, is through compassion and an understanding of the interconnectivity of all life. Years after fighting beside Taher in Afghanistan, Marek is living in New York with his wife and young children. When Taher visits, Marek’s wife asks, “If you could achieve anything just by wishing it upon yourself, would you choose to kill your enemy, or would you rather choose changing him into your dearest faithful friend?” Taher, at this point, believes that killing is the only way to change the world. He chooses a dead enemy over a faithful friend, and as he flies the plane into the towers, he kills Marek and his family.