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.