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License to run amok

July 29, 2007|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and the author, most recently, of "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

The Secret Servant

A Novel

Daniel Silva

Putnam: 386 pp., $25.95

DANIEL SILVA is a craftsmanlike writer of international thrillers. He has a nice, no-nonsense style; he plots simply, directly and suspensefully; and in Gabriel Allon he has a reliable protagonist. Allon is a highly regarded expert in the restoration of Old Master paintings; his activities in that field form a convenient cover for his more exciting life as secret servant of "The Office" -- the Israeli intelligence service.

Essentially, Allon is a hit man, who made his bones by (as Silva tells it) wiping out the Black September gang after the Munich Olympics killings in 1972. That victory cost him dearly: His only son was killed, and his wife was driven into a state of permanent madness, so he has personal as well as patriotic reasons for his endless and never self-doubting war on terrorism. He is both a legend in the secret world and something of an inconvenience to it, since his bold ways are often embarrassing to the bureaucrats who are at least nominally in charge of who gets whacked and how that's managed.

In this latest episode in the Allon saga, he and his Israeli team involve themselves with the CIA and British intelligence in an effort to recapture one Elizabeth Halton, who has been abducted by terrorists belonging to the "Sword of Allah," a group allied with Al Qaeda. She is the daughter of the improbably rich American ambassador to the Court of St. James and, perhaps more significant, the goddaughter of the president of the United States. In exchange for her release, the evildoers (to borrow a phrase) want the return of a militant sheik imprisoned in the U.S. The ambassador offers them a ton of money instead, which seemingly satisfies them. We, of course, know better. They plan to grab the money and kill the young woman. We also know that Allon, who takes his lickings but keeps on ticking, will foil this plot. As a side benefit, he will enjoy a climactic confrontation with its mastermind, known only as "The Sphinx."

The Sphinx is a type who has turned up before in Silva's thrillers -- a smooth-talking, impeccably dressed public intellectual who is apparently the voice of liberal-minded geopolitical reason but is, in fact, a fanatical terrorist. He's a minor character in the novel's scheme yet crucial in delivering its subtextual message.

Which is this: You cannot trust any Muslim, and fighting terrorism in our time requires a ruthlessness not previously required in life -- or, for that matter, in popular fiction. At one point in "The Secret Servant," Allon, talking things over with a highly placed CIA official, remarks, "The barbarians broke down the gates a long time ago, Adrian. They're living among us now and devouring our children." He does not add that we are devouring their children as well. He doesn't have to. Silva provides a sickening passage describing the torture of a not very violent terrorist's daughter by the Egyptian secret police that amply proves that point.

This muscular hysteria runs counter to common sense -- and to the comments of retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who observed in a recent interview that the Cold War world, in which two superpowers had thousands of missiles aimed at each other, was, realistically speaking, a much more dangerous place than the world we now inhabit. In the same interview, he noted that Al Qaeda has no more than 50,000 members. You might add twice or three times that number of freelance mass murderers and it would still constitute a deadly menace to our values of only minuscule proportions.

Should we worry about Islamic terrorists? Of course. Should we do what we can to thwart their anarchistic ambitions? Naturally. Should we expect them from time to time to visit limited, albeit spectacular, damage on our landmarks, institutions and populace? Yes, without question, sad and frustrating as that is to say. But "The Secret Servant," written as popular entertainment and readable enough at that level, may direct your attention elsewhere: to a growth industry at least as potent (and infinitely more profitable) than terrorism. I am speaking of counterterrorism -- all those experts prattling away on cable news channels, writing their books, occupying government offices and think-tank chairs. Doubtless some of their work is useful, but I think we have to acknowledge this: Like thriller writers, they have a vested interest in advancing worst-case scenarios, as many as they can dream up. Also like the fictioneers, they have no interest in amelioration. There's no drama in it, nothing to scare us witless or even sleepless; they need the combustible fantasies that keep their pots boiling. They are a new generation's Dr. Strangeloves.

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