Hermann Nitsch. “60 Malaktion MWG (HN-256),” (2011). Acrylic on jute. 29 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Mike Weiss Gallery.
The Widow Bereaves with A Pistol Pump Grip
I can see it already—a movie ad taking over my Facebook news feed. The White Widow: Or How One Irish Girl Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Radical Islam—a film based on the life of Samantha Lewthwaite, the 29-year-old who newspapers around the world have dubbed “The White Widow.” Suspected mastermind behind the Westgate Mall massacre in Kenya.
Starring? I don’t know…Jennifer Lawrence, maybe? Somebody “angel faced.” It would go something like this: Young Samantha grows up in the bucolic country town of Aylesbury, England, which we gather from an establishing shot of a lush and sprawling green countryside. Follow that with footage of young children walking near the Grand Union Canal, and end finally, with Samantha as a child, bouncing on her father’s knee, a strong-chinned and broad-shouldered man dressed in his soldier’s uniform.
Fast forward. Young Sammy’s country life is shattered when mummy and daddy get a divorce, leaving their darling girl a confused and lonesome teenager. With no stability at home, Samantha begins spending more time with a neighborhood family in search of some fragment of normalcy. But there is a shadowy wrinkle to throw into the script. This family is Muslim.
Now a teenage Samantha is falling further and further into herself after being made an outcast at school. To make the teenage years more awkward, she has officially converted to Islam, and is now showing up to algebra class dressed in a salwar kameez. The next scene can go either way: If this were a Lifetime original movie, we would have Samantha meet her first husband, Germaine Lindsay, on an Internet chat room. But since accounts of how the couple actually met differ, we may as well go the more cinematic route and have the two literally bump into each other at a “Stop the War” rally in London.
Lindsay studies under a radical imam in London before blowing up a London Subway and himself, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. The story from there could practically write itself. A modern update to The Way We Were, with a twist of The Exorcist. Lewthwaite becomes “radicalized,” and carries on the violent work her husband started.
The fact that both the Kenyan interior minister, and Al Shabab, the group who took responsibility for the massacre, say she had no part in it means even less. Because when media uncovers a good ol’ fashioned thriller, it jumps on it, creating myths instead of reporting the truth and in the process leaving what’s left of the truth airy and uncomplicated.
I’ve been reading American Mythologies, written by the semiotician Marshall Blonsky, and when news of The White Widow passed through my iPhone it reminded me of something Blonsky wrote about Horror as a genre of film and literature.
“Horror is the image of the danger of losing this material world that Americans so highly cherish,” he wrote. “Horror and fiction are thus the dark side, the other face of America; not apple pie but the oozing monster, not the American dream but the American nightmare.”
Stephen King, in the view of Blonsky, is one of America’s greatest mythologists, for his ability to write about “icky things infecting, invading, and wasting the whole landscape of America.”
Radicalization is that “icky” thing. It is a sickness taken in through the eyes, and the word itself calls into question the frailty of our social fabric, and the ease with which our carefully structured and indoctrinated American values can be subverted and destroyed. In an American context, it’s incredibly difficult for us to understand why a person can do what Lewthwaite is suspected of doing, so we talk about it like it’s a virus.
A virus spread through the Internet. The White House, in a 2011 report on combating the recruitment of Americans by terrorist organizations, was well aware of the role the Internet plays in the radicalizing of otherwise good natured American children, and vowed to “continue to closely monitor the important role the Internet and social networking play in advancing violent extremist narratives.”
I’m thinking now of the Tsarnaev brothers, who blew up the Boston Marathon last April. The narrative that was immediately crafted to explain the horror they created was one of lonely immigrants, who failed on two fronts: First, they failed at becoming fully integrated into American society; and second, of exposing themselves to jihadist propaganda in the form of print magazines and, more importantly, YouTube videos. The conclusion to their drama was one of a final act of vengeance against a nation that could never cure their anomie.
The conclusion to The White Widow drama is yet to be written. In all likelihood, it is already beginning to happen. The facts will begin to trickle out, and people will learn that rumors of her involvement were initially exaggerated. But facts fall to legend, and the legend of The White Widow will persist, at least in memory, like a bad sequel to an already bad movie.