Five days. That’s all it took after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for Danuta Hinc to realize that she needed to write a book about how such a thing could happen.
“I realized that I needed to know what leads people to make such extreme choices,” says Hinc, who teaches professional writing at the University of Maryland College Park. “And the next question I asked was: Am I capable of killing someone?”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Hinc stood in the living room of her Ellicott City townhouse, riveted to the TV screen, unable to sit down, unable to comprehend what she was witnessing.
“Like everyone else, I thought it was an accident. When the second plane hit, I realized to my horror that it was not,” says Hinc, who is in her early 40s and grew up in Poland under Communist oppression.
“My first thought was ‘They must be so organized,’ ” she remembers. Then she realized she didn’t know a thing about them.
“I hated them with all my heart. But I didn’t like that I hated them,” she says.
What eventually came of that rush of tangled emotions and questions, some 10 years later, is Hinc’s book, “To Kill the Other.” It’s a fictional story of a boy who grows up to become a terrorist. It’s not about al-Qaeda; it’s not about ideology. It’s about the choices human beings make.
She spent three and a half years researching and writing the story, which she first wrote in Polish. Then she spent another two-and-a-half years translating it into English. At the time, she was an adjunct professor of English and religion at Howard Community College.
“To Kill the Other” follows the journey of Taher, a sensitive Egyptian boy, from the time he was 7 to his presence as a terrorist on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. Taher grows up loved by his parents, although his mother leaves Taher and his twin sister with their father while the children are still young. In high school, he aligns himself with a cousin, a young doctor who was imprisoned and tortured for anti-government actions. They join Afghan rebels fighting against the Russians, then move on to helping Palestinians. Along the way he faces gruesome casualties of war and terrorism, and with each experience becomes more violent and disengaged with humanity.
Research and realizations
Writing “To Kill the Other” was an experience Hinc describes as “grueling.”
She studied the history of the Middle East and Islam, which is complex, she says. She’s not Muslim but grew up Catholic. She pored through online newspapers and magazines and read stories of prisoners of war. That research only ignited more questions, so she found people to talk to, online and in person — people from Palestine, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.
“When I meet those from the Middle East, it reminds me of my own upbringing in Poland,” says Hinc, who was a political activist as a graduate student in Gdansk. “I realize how much we are alike. We all want love and to be respected. We want to be safe, and we want to create something.”
While the characters are fictional, most of the events in Hinc’s book are true.
“Everything is researched to the 20th detail; otherwise I wouldn’t risk it,” she says. Details like the young Afghan rebel named Omar who dies and is discovered to have a passage of the Koran tattooed on his chest. Tattooing is forbidden in Islam, but Hinc read about such a man in her research.
Hinc also includes Polish history and people in her story, such as Marek, whom Taher meets in Afghanistan and with whom he becomes close friends. Marek is a Polish soldier who left Poland to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. He hated the Russians because as a young boy he witnessed what he believed to be Russian soldiers shooting Polish workers at a train station. His mother was one of those killed.
This story line was based on a strike by Polish factory workers in December 1970, says Hinc, in which the government-controlled Army and civilian police force opened fire on workers as they returned to their factories. Decades passed before Poles could accept what really happened, that it was Polish soldiers who killed their countrymen.
“But the Poles wanted to believe it was the Russians,” Hinc says. “It’s easier to believe that if it’s the ‘other,’ then it’s easier to kill.”
She also read many true stories of Russian soldiers who were sent to Afghanistan. They were told they would be fighting Americans. Instead they were killing Afghanis, including women and children. Many defected, some to be killed by fellow Russians; others joined the Afghan rebels.
In Hinc’s story, Taher and a group of rebel soldiers are hiding in a cave in Afghanistan, waiting for the next fight and philosophizing on how they are making life better for all of them.
“You make it impossible for them to have a better life, because you have killed,” spits out Wolodia, a Russian soldier who joined the rebels. “There is no better life for anyone through killing. This is what I’ve learned through killing.”
Despite this revelation, Wolodia continues to kill and to rape.
‘We are all connected’
“To Kill the Other” is a violent and ultimately sad story. The end is known before the story starts. Hinc does not approach war softly. Her descriptions of torture and disease and killing and death are graphic, but based on research.
“I wanted to be convincing. I needed to create a horrific life for him (Taher) in order to understand how he became the monster that he did,” she explains.
Writing those scenes was difficult.
“You truly transport yourself to a different place,” Hinc says. “You are in the room with that girl. I have to become that girl. I have to become Wolodia. You cannot sympathize with them.”
Later in the story Taher is in the United States, and he visits his friend Marek, who had settled in New York City and has a wife, Irene, and two small children, Julia and Mark. Taher’s encounter with Irene is mystical, and frightening to him. Later on, Marek tells his friend that Irene is his angel, the one who saved him from his violent past.
“There’s a lot of Irene in me,” says Hinc, who wrote her book at a small desk in her bedroom. “I have huge wings above my bed, metal wings. She’s the one that says ‘I am Jewish but I like Jesus.’ She is the one who sees that we are all connected.”
Despite the violence, there are moments when Taher is exposed to love. When Julia, a runny-nosed toddler, begs to be picked up out of her playpen by Taher, he refuses. But Julia is tenacious in her request for physical contact, and Taher relents. Eight years later, on the plane on Sept. 11, 2001 he faces Julia again in a heartbreaking finale to his life and the lives of his best friend and family.
“It’s Taher’s sensitivity that ultimately works against him” is Hinc’s explanation for her character’s choices, and perhaps for those of the real terrorists as well. “He feels things deeply, but he allows others to manipulate his thinking.”
Now that the novel is published, Hinc is not sure she answered her questions after all. “I don’t want to play with the idea intellectually but to see if there is really anything that can be done,” Hinc says. “We keep repeating our history over and over again. Why is that?”