Michelle Shephard’s narrative about the decade she has dedicated to reporting on terrorism begins with Hunter S. Thompson’s famous line, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” It’s a good choice, especially as it was the late Gonzo journalist who famously predicted the War on Terror, writing on Sept. 12, 2001, “The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time.”
But instead of rushing headlong into the fray (like Thompson might have in his younger days) by accepting predictable assignments in Iraq or Afghanistan, Shephard took an approach more akin to that of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski and followed the road less travelled. She set about exploring the intricacies of geopolitics and global terrorism by seeking out stories in places like Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Guantanamo Bay, and Toronto. The stories she uncovers are above all about the people, and especially the victims, out of whose lives the tapestry of this bleak decade has been woven. Throughout, Shephard’s background as a crime reporter shines through in her eye for the everyday, human, and often heartbreaking narratives behind the big picture.
But while it might at first glance seem like easily digestible reportage, Decade of Fear bears reading slowly. The book contains a wealth of clearly explained information about the War on Terror and a blunt critique of the way it has been waged. Even as she elucidates the last decade, Shephard shows how confused and complicated the post-9/11 world really is. Shephard is at her most insightful when she argues that the crusade against terrorism has in many ways made the world a more dangerous and uncertain place.
However, she undermines her own argument by almost entirely writing Iraq and Afghanistan out of her narrative. This choice is understandable but damaging, for while Shephard is trying to tell a global story from the periphery, the omission of the War on Terror’s nexus points makes her stories feel peripheral. A good grasp of world politics or a dose of leniency on the part of the reader will help smooth this jarring gap in an otherwise engrossing book.