Here is the unspoken bargain between the terrorists and me: I make myself vulnerable and they will not harm me. I must strive not to reveal fear, and to trust that they won't hurt me, despite their machismo and manufactured rage. And they, in turn, will consider telling me the truth, but only half-truths. That is our bargain.
The neo-Nazi told me that he loves killing people. He also told me, "All terrorists are like me. They come up with an ideology to justify killing, but the desire to kill comes first." I do not accept his theory of terrorism, but I did not argue with him. He admitted to having tortured animals as a child, but he seemed somewhat ashamed, as if he knew that I might conclude he is a psychopath. He did not want to tell me how many people he had killed, but he said there were a lot. He had also tortured prisoners held at a camp in Bosnia and confessed he was frustrated that he didn't get the same pleasure out of torturing people that he did out of killing them.
While an interview like this is underway, I have to force judgment out of my mind. Something happens in the room that makes it possible for the killer to speak. I am pure curiosity. It's genuine, not faked. I follow the killer's logic and emotions so closely that my own logic, my own emotions, are temporarily at bay. So curious about the story, I can evacuate myself of ordinary feeling. Afterwards, they feel better. They often invite me back. Sometimes they write me letters.
But it costs me. When I'm able to tape the interview, it often takes me months to work up the courage to listen. After the interview with the neo-Nazi who loves to kill, I had to take a sauna. And a steam bath. And bathe in a pool. It took weeks, after that interview, for me to feel fully human again, as if I had joined the neo-Nazi in another reality and it took great effort to come back to earth.
But most of the terrorists I've talked to do not tell me they love to kill. Sometimes, I confess, I cannot help feeling sorry for them.
On my first trip to Lahore, in 1999, members of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba agreed to talk with me. It was the first time I had met any mujahideen. Two of them came to my hotel. The older one wore an elephant-gray shalwar and kameez, wrinkled in the humidity like slept-in pajamas, over a colossal frame. Traditional Pakistani slippers, with turned-up pointy toes and mirrors, gave his feet an incongruously elfin look. He walked heavily, ostentatiously relaxed. His hands, which were soft and brown, looked big enough to crush me with a single swat.
It was the younger one, a new recruit, that got to me. He was beautiful. Slim, but strong-looking, with luminous skin and clear, intelligent eyes. He had the obligatory beard of a fundamentalist, but it was neatly trimmed, as if he were having trouble giving up some of the habits of privilege. He wore a hand-embroidered, stark-white shalwar, perfectly pressed. His English was refined. Right away it seemed to me he was specially chosen to meet with me, to make it seem as if the group were populated with boys like him.
The two of them came to see me to determine whether it was safe for their leader, their emir, to meet with me, or if I was there on behalf of India's intelligence agency, perhaps to murder him. "As a result of their inspection, they have determined that you work for the CIA," my guide would later inform me, seemingly bemused. "Anyway, it's okay; they are flattered if the CIA is interested in them," he says.
"How did they decide that I'm not planning to assassinate your leader?" I asked.
"It is obvious," he says. "You can tell a person's character by looking in her eyes. You have innocence in your eyes."
I often recall this conversation. I no longer believe that character can be discerned by visual inspection, having met so many innocent-looking people capable of such horror, and this feels like a terrible loss. I also wonder whether I still have innocence in my eyes, after talking with so many killers.