As I write this review, the world is in chaos. There is civil war in Syria, ISIS is spreading terror throughout the world, the governments of Libya and Yemen are in a downward spiral, Iraq is fighting a war against jihadists, Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold state, and the United States is no longer viewed by its historic allies as a nation that can be trusted.
A few years ago, I would never have dreamed of such a doomsday scenario. But, lo and behold, it is here and we are living the impossible dream. I share this with the reader because so much of what is happening today is alluded to in the opening minutes of the political thriller Body of Lies, a prescient story of men caught in the web of secret intelligence communities that will stop at nothing to achieve their aims.
I learned something new about the way terrorists operate from Body of Lies. Ed Hoffman, a CIA supervisor, observes that terrorists generally avoid taking advantage of technology. They do not use cell phones and computers to transmit information; they prefer to speak face to face with people and through written messages that can be destroyed easily. In the final analysis, what counts is intelligence provided by humans in the field, not necessarily computer generated information. Roger Ferris is Ed Hoffman’s man in the field, who provides him with all kinds of useful data about the bad guys. He sees things up close, subjectively, while Ed sees things from a distance, objectively.
The story opens as Ferris is searching for Al-Saleem, an Al Quaida terrorist who is orchestrating a series of suicide bombings across England and Europe. Ferris’ travels take him to a number of middle-eastern countries, including Jordan where he forms an uneasy alliance with Hani Salaam, the head of Jordanian intelligence.
Amidst many clandestine attacks and counterattacks, Ferris comes up with a plan to make contact with Al-Saleem, through staging a terrorist attack that will encourage Al-Saleem to be in touch with the terrorist entity that caused the attack. In order to do this, Ferris sets up a straw man, Omar Sadiki, an innocent architect, for whom he creates a computer profile that makes it appear as if Sadiki were the head of a terrorist cell.
The ruse works but with tragic consequences. The more Ferris labors to get valuable information that can save innocent lives, the more moral compromises he has to make in the short run; and many innocent people die in the service of the long term goal of eradicating terrorists. Ed Hoffman reminds Ferris more than once that in the world of terrorism and counterterrorism, no one is innocent. Located thousands of miles away from the morally abhorrent actions, he looks at the big picture, making decisions based only upon dispassionate calculations. For Ferris, however, every decision is personal.
Jewish tradition is mindful of the distinction between experiencing things first-hand and experiencing them from a distance. While viewing a situation from the balcony, we miss seeing the total picture. We need to be on the ground floor as well to see the complex reality.
The Sages who composed the text of the Hagadah, the text that is read at the Passover Seder, encouraged simulated first-hand experiences at the Seder table when Jews yearly recount the Egyptian slavery experience. The Seder meal is filled with tangible reminders of bondage. We are to eat simple unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The Hagadah explicitly tells us to experience the evening as if you personally went out of Egypt. It should not be a mere recital of words; rather the Seder should be a visceral reimagining of the Exodus experience.
Body of Lies reminds us that to understand the complexity of the fragmented world around us, we need to see events from two perspectives, that of the outsider and insider. Only then can we appreciate the wisdom it takes to make good decisions in a morally confusing universe.