Article By Eli Eshed

[Comments are welcome at our Dialogue Corner]

Bin Laden and Captain Nemo

Since the 11th of September, the world is in a nightmarish battle with terrorist organizations. It seems that there is nothing they might not be willing to use, including biological, chemical, and perhaps even nuclear weapons, which have been until now exclusively owned by highly developed nations.

In truth, there is nothing new in this scenario; we find it in popular literature for well over a century. In 1870 French author Jules Verne [1828-1905] published his book Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. One of that book's heroes was Captain Nemo. This hero was extraordinary and quite original in the context of the popular literature of that period. He was in fact a terrorist who used highly advanced technology, including a sophisticated submarine, to attack ships, mainly British and American ones.

Originally, Verne intended to mention Nemo's origins, describing him as a Polish nationalist who fights against the Russians who occupied his country. Under pressure from his publishers, who did not want to anger the Russians, these details were left out of the book, and Nemo's motives for his attacks were left unclear.

In a later book, The Mysterious Island [1874-75], Verne explained that Nemo was an Indian Prince, a freedom fighter against the British Empire. In this way a new figure appeared in literature: a man from a country considered backward politically and scientifically, who uses astounding technologies to fight the conquerors of his country, by means which we would call terrorism.

Later on Verne created a parallel character, the scientist Robur, who, using his flying machine (essentially a helicopter), carries out bloody worldwide terrorist attacks. In the book Master of the World [1904], Robur does not act from political motives but simply from megalomania. Here again Verne showed how technological methods, in the hands of a single man, or a small group, can threaten the greatest world powers.

The idea of terrorists using the most highly developed technology to threaten the world became a common theme in adventure tales and science fiction in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, almost a cliche. Every hero worth his salt in popular literature fought against enemies of this type.

However, in the forties and fifties, the world moved to a conflict between two super-powers, the Western world and the Soviet block. The idea that an individual or a small group that does not work for one of the two great superpowers (or perhaps for China), could threaten the world, seemed absurd. The lone terrorist controlling super-weapons vanished completely from serious science fiction. Such terrorists did continue to appear in sensationalist spy stories such as James Bond, and its imitators. In such spy stories they appeared as international crime organizations using the most advanced technology for their nefarious crime activities, or even for the purpose of conquering the world, but not for the purpose of aiding one of the superpowers.

However, spy literature was taken over by realistic, "serious" authors, such as John LeCarre, who described the agents of the super-powers as anti-heroes. There were no more perfect heroic and sexy heroes, fighting against crafty but insane arch-criminals. Thus, the super-terrorists with their crime organizations disappeared from the novels.

The super-terrorists continued to appear from time to time in James Bond movies, and in comics. Only in such extravagant and unrealistic fantasies was it possible in the 80s and 90s to find insane millionaires threatening world peace with their astounding technological devices. Here we had stories of international crime and terror organizations so well-organized that if you cut off one head, ten new heads would grow in its place, and continue to threaten the peace of the whole world (for example, the "Hydra" organization of the well-known comics series about secret agent "Nick Perry").

But in recent years, things which were thought in the past to be crazy fantasies, suitable only to comic books, have turned into horrifying reality. Today there are international crime syndicates whose abilities match those of many countries, using the most advanced technologies such as were described in James Bond novels. These organizations are loyal only to themselves. Two examples: drug cartels, and the Russian Mafia. Other organizations hold ideologies that aspire to achieve world domination for a certain set of beliefs, such as "Al Qaeda" of Bin Laden.

Bin Laden, the billionaire terrorist who has the most advanced technologies, including perhaps even the possibility of using biological and nuclear weapons, reminds us of Captain Nemo, who was also a Third World character who went out to fight the Western powers using their own weapons, and even more advanced versions.

Here, sadly, we have another example of something once thought of as a childish and fanciful imaginative tale, turning into reality.

Eli Eshed, 17/June/2004


Back To Current Editorial