Terrorism and the Media in Ian McEwan’s Saturday

Writing from my room in Connaught Hall, Bloomsbury


One upsetting connection I’ve seen in our contemporary society is that whenever a bombing, plane crash or other tragedy happens, the initial reaction is to suspect terrorism from Muslims. Look back to the initial response to the recent bombing of the marathon in Boston, Massachusetts. This article  from National Geographic speaks of the racism and anti-Islamic hate the boils to the surface in the wake of national tragedy. In the post 9/11 world we live in, racism comes to light at the first sign of danger.

Saturday takes place two years after 9/11, and McEwan’s portrayal of the media and Henry’s response to the plane crash that occurs in the opening of the novel is spot on when it comes to talking about terrorism. Immediately following the plane crash, Henry goes downstairs and tells Theo, his son, about what he just witnessed. Theo’s gut response is to pick “up the remote from the kitchen table and turn on the small TV” that the family specifically keeps “near the stove for moments like this, breaking stories.” The fact that the Perowne family has a television in the middle of their kitchen, a place normally associated with the safe haven of family and home, speaks volumes to the post 9/11 world they inhabit. Having a tie to the media and being prepared to hear of a terrorist attack at a moment’s notice has become a part of the family’s daily life. Henry considers terrorism and the media in both his life and Theo’s in the next few pages:

“His (Theo’s) initiation, in front of the TV, before the dissolving towers, was intense but he adapted quickly. These days he scans the papers for fresh developments the way he might a listings magazine. As long as there’s nothing new, his mind is free. International terror, security cordons, preparations for war- these represent the steady state, the weather.”

When it comes to knowledge about terrorism and threats to the country, Theo and his generation turn almost blindly to the all powerful media to make sense of what’s going on. His generation viewed the atrocity from the protection of their living rooms or kitchens, experiencing the trauma in completely different way than those in America. Because of the detachment from not only America and that nation but also from watching it unfold on a television screen, it  makes sense that they now turn to the television for all updates. Watching 9/11 in this manner possibly leaves the viewer thinking, “what about my country? Are we safe? Is ____ a result of Muslim terrorists?” yet simultaneously keeping the viewer simply a viewer. Theo doesn’t question what is going on around him; he subdued and sort of numb to these horrors now.

Henry, on the other hand, discusses his state of mind in the next paragraph:

“Despite the troops mustering in the Gulf, or the tanks out at Heathrow on Thursday…Bin Laden’s promise on tape of ‘martyrdom attacks’ on London, Perowne held for a while the idea that it was all an aberration, that the world would surely calm down and soon be otherwise, that solutions were possible, that reason, being a powerful tool, was irresistible, the only way out; or that like any other crisis, this one would fade soon…Against his will, he’s adapting.”

Henry still feels he has a reaction to terrorism and national threat but realizes that he, too, is becoming numb to tragedy. What’s interesting is how he believes that obvious threats, such as the plane crash, affect him greatly (though that’s up to debate. Remember how he kept thinking about his job all throughout the crash?), yet domestic terrorism doesn’t cross his mind. That is, until it directly happens to the Perowne family.

What McEwan’s Saturday says about transnational identities and terrorism is that the post 9/11 society associates terrorism with those viewed as “outsiders.” Muslims have become the “other,” and are immediately assumed to be the perpetrators of terror and violence against the nation. Saturday has Baxter, a Londoner just like Henry, become the terrorist. Henry underestimates the threat that someone he identifies as both a part of his country and a member of a lower class than him could potentially pose, and in the end faces the truth: danger and terrorism does not solely originate from a faraway land one feels is easily recognizable and the “other,” but from all around us.


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