In which Bwog Lecture Hop Editor Pierce Stanley braved his way through the masses in the IAB elevators to make it to the ultimate floor and IAB’s most spectacular conference center for a talk on Literature and Terror hosted by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life.

The Columbia Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life continued its blazing emergence onto the academic scene tonight with its second event in an on-going series entitled Literature and Terror.  This evening, graduate students of the Arts packed into the ornate Kellogg Room at the top of IAB to join a handful of undergraduates, religion professors, and fans of one of today’s most accomplished young writers, Philip Gourevitch, editor of the Paris Review and frequent contributor to the New Yorker, to watch as George Plimpton’s protege joined Richard Locke, Professor of Writing at the School of the Arts in conversation about Gourevitch’s most recent work concerning the American atrocities at Abu Ghraib, entitled Standard Operating Procedure.

The chair of Columbia’s religion department, Mark Taylor, introduced the participants and he posited the general questions that underpin the Literature and Terror series: how does one cast terror in political or religious terms and why and how do we respond to terror in the ways that we do?  Gourevitch and Locke were on hand to address these basic questions, yet ultimately succeeded more in relating the role of fiction to terror and providing a number of assertions about the failed policies of the Bush administration that led to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib in the first place.

Gourevitch, widely acclaimed for his 1998 best-seller We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, winner of a slew of prizes including the National Book Critics Circle Award and was the basis for the Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda, kicked off the event by discussing the role of fiction in his life. Later, he discussed the profound sense of fiction that seems to pervade the collection of narratives of American soldiers that seem to make up much of Standing Operating Procedure, immortalized recently in a feature-length documentary by Gourevitch’s film-maker colleague, Errol Morris. 

While Gourevitch suggested that Standing Operating Procedure is merely a taste of what took place at Abu Ghraib and some of the insider sentiments that surrounded that iconic event, he suggested that the over 2 million words of interview transcript held in Morris’s office is the place to go when seeking the true reality of the situation.

While Gourevitch suggested that he can never tell the difference between fiction and reality in his writings, he nevertheless always returns to the point of view of fiction.  Therefore, while much of his work may be nonfiction, it is ultimately characterized intensely by the elements of fiction that remain dear to him.  Moreover, Gourevitch in the process of identifying for the viewers the impact of fiction on his understanding of the world and its political conflicts, suggested that fiction, like terror is something internal and always has political motivations.

Locke, with his typical wit that been known to grace the pages of the New York Review of Books and other highbrow literary magazines asked Gourevitch pointedly, “Why are you drawn to repellent subjects?”  Gourevitch simply suggested that his affinity for topics relating to violence and terror give the American reader, who frequently is quite detached from those realities, an opportunity to engage a part of the human experience that sometimes we tend to forget about.  Gourevitch explained that his books expose a political side of humanity that perhaps suggests “a much cruder vision of humanity than we imagine it to be.”

For Gourevitch, the project of Standard Operating Procedure was one of American idealism, an attempt to write a patriotic book through a series of frames that comment briefly on the nature of “evil” without ever explicitly stating the word.  While Locke and others seemed to be puzzled by Gourevitch’s odd approach to discussing the nature of evil, for tonight’s viewers this event showed the bravado with which some authors are willing to undertake even the dirtiest of political topics.  Gourevitch’s willingness to hang on to his claims about terror and the Bush administration were at times shocking to the viewer, but widely appreciated for their sincerity and apparent rawness.