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.


Transitioning Back Home

Writing from the plane to Newark

Transitioning back feels equally alien and effortless. My mind adjusted to the streets of Bloomsbury after a few days; the storefronts and people working inside of them began to look familiar, Connaught Hall began to be referenced as “home.” My body felt that it became part of the city. The ebb and flow of the traffic navigated me down and across the streets.

I’ve always been fascinated with cities and how you can walk around for hours and forget your identity. At the crosswalks, the ground tells you which way to look for oncoming traffic and the lights tell you to “WAIT,” the green man tells you when to go. Familiarity with the streets makes thinking about where to go or if you’ll get lost obsolete. One of the excursions we went on, the Mrs. Dalloway Walk, helped me understand Clarissa’s journey and just how far she traveled throughout the novel. Right in he beginning of the novel, Clarissa is walking down Piccadilly, where “she would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged,” and then later on,” did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?’ Throughout her she feels she embodies different ages and contemplates identity in the singular and the plural.  She passed by many areas that were filled with people (I’d say crowded, but that sounds like there were big clumps of people. In some places there were, but for the most part the areas were simply populated) which fascinated both Clarissa in the novel and myself during the walk. I identify with Clarissa because walking has been one of the ways I’ve dealt with my anxiety and general stress in the world, for it helps me escape unwanted thoughts and situations that I cannot handle. Walking in London allowed me to forget everything going on at home and let go of my identity, at least for a little while.

Now on the plane going home, my identity is becoming increasingly present. The anonymity London provided me with is slipping away as we get closer to Newark and the weight of my identity at home is returning. And as my identity begins to pressure me, the routine of my daily life at home runs through my thoughts. I contemplate whether or not I’ll be too jet lagged to wake up at my usual time of 9:30, did my mother remember to buy me a new gallon of 1% milk, should I throw in a load of laundry before my morning shower or after? Realizing that routine is consuming my thoughts during this transition, I make the connection to Henry Perowne in Saturday transitioning from watching a tragedy (having a life changing experience) to moving right back into the routine of daily life. Perowne watches a plane crash on its way to Heathrow airport and while contemplating the horror of the occurrence, begins to wonder if he will be called into work and has flashbacks of his previous week at work. Regardless of the incredible, traumatic experience in front of him, the monotonous routine of daily life takes over. We discussed how peculiar it is that Henry almost instantaneously considers his monotonous daily routine during and after the plane crash, but now I catch myself doing something similar. Granted, my mind is returning to the routine after an incredible journey, not a horrific plane crash, but the connection is still evident.

One of the main lessons I learned in London that has become evident during this transition is not directly tied back to the topic of the course, yet is still important. My mind and body almost instantly identified with London, from understanding the Tube to crossing the street, to being aware of various historical and modern sites and becoming one with the group. I won’t say that I became a true Londoner or fit in completely, but for a brief two weeks, my mind and body felt that I did. And now, how easily my self is transitioning back home isn’t that shocking based on how easily is transitioned to London. Maybe that’s how this all ties into transnational identities. I sort of feel at home in London and I sort of feel at home in Smithtown, New York. Why is that? What does that say about the spaces and how my mind and body occupied them? Possibly it has to do with the fact that cities definitely have some familiar qualities, maybe it’s because I could understand the language in both areas. I’m still working on understanding it though.