Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

A Family Tragedy

So who is a terrorist? This question seems to intrigue many of us lately. Everybody who has tried to board a plane in the last couple of years knows what I’m talking about. An exception must be made for all those wonderful readers of this blog who happen to own a private jet.
Last week, I traveled with Mark Berenson, who lives a few streets away from me in Manhattan, to Peru to visit his daughter, Lori, who has remained behind bars there since 1996.
She was found guilty in 2001 of aiding and abetting the guerilla organization MRTA.
Her family and many supporters claim that she is completely innocent and that she has never received a fair trial.
I have been intrigued by this case since 1996 when my girlfriend brought home a copy of New York magazine which featured Lori on the cover. My girlfriend at the time traveled often to Latin America, and although I have never caught her supporting Marxist causes, I know how these things go. It starts with love, and before you know it, you are running with a machine gun through the jungle.
It was especially Lori’s parents who intrigued me. Middle class New Yorkers, assimilated Jews, teachers. You are prepared for many things, but not for a daughter who suddenly is considered by many to be a terrorist.
Take my own mother. She would be completely prepared if I were to marry a non-Jewish girl of Chinese descent. She wouldn't be surprised if my in-laws turned out to be a couple of infamous bank robbers in Shanghai. She would be prepared if I declared on my 37th birthday that I have been gay all my life. She has even prepared herself for the day that I will make her age known to the world. (My mother is obsessed with keeping her age secret.) But she would not be prepared for me being arrested for terrorism.
Not that I have plans in that direction.
However, the last time I tried to enter the US, an immigration officer asked me, “Have you ever been arrested before?” English might be my second or third language, but it was clear to me that this question implied that he was going to arrest me.
I’m happy to note that the officer didn’t arrest me. All he did was read and study my passport for more than fifteen minutes.
My trip to Peru with Mr. Berenson provoked at least one emotion: I’d like to travel more often with Mr. Berenson. He is fun to be with, and he is the biggest chocolate lover I have ever met in my life.
To put it slightly differently: behind every great terrorist lurks a great family tragedy.
This is not to say that I’m convinced that Lori Berenson is a terrorist.
Terrorism, I’m afraid, is more often than not in the eye of the beholder.
Next time, I’ll answer all those people who think I have become a follower of moral relativism.