Thursday, 25 October 2012

Book review: Term Limits, Vince Flynn (2000)

The plot device that kicks off the story in this dystopian thriller is the assassination of three congressional members by a group who lay down a list of demands to the government of President Stevens that includes one that says the budget must be balanced. If their demands are not met, more elected members will be killed. But Stevens is a mere puppet in the hands of his chief of staff, Stu Garrett, and his national security adviser, Mike Nance, and his response, that the United States will not negotiate with terrorists, only serves to spark another killing. When this measure by the group of ex-commandos again fails to achieve their aim, they directly threaten the president's own life. Eager to consolidate their own power, Garrett and Nance then organise the killing of two additional congressmen using the resources of an ex-CIA operative named Arthur Higgins. Things spiral out of control and martial law is imposed in Washington DC.

As the book cover says, "The nation needs a hero ...", but it's not clear who that is, exactly. Is it FBI special agent Skip McMahon, tasked with investigating the murders? Is it ex-Marine and congressman Michael O'Rourke, whose own animus against the ineffectual Stevens is clearly evident from the moment he appears in the novel? Or is it ex-Navy SEAL Scott Coleman, the leader of the killers? What's for certain is that noone who is compromised by their links with the system - apart from the law enforcement officers - is able to act justly. But look at the book's date. It was published in 2000, a year before 9/11, at a time when confidence in government was at a generational low. Just how low government had fallen in public opinion can easily be felt from the excessive venality of those in power in this book; the relationships between Stevens, Garrett and Nance guarantee a violent response from those - like O'Rourke and Coleman - who have lived by a strict code of honour rather than by the demands of popular accommodation.

The idea that subverting the processes of democracy can be justified is not new. What is striking in this book is the depth of the underlying cynicism expressed in the plot and in the main characters. Not only Stevens, Garrett and Nance but also the four congressmen who are initially killed are shown up as fundamentally corrupt, so far have they fallen in thrall to the process of compromise implicit in a democracy. In effect, the book asks us to contemplate at what point a military coup is justified in a country such as America.

There is a lot of action in this book, and while these passages are very good those passages that refer to intimate relationships are schematic and flat. Essentially, the book efficiently draws the outline of a conflict in which every character is a proxy for one of two sides: justice or order. Living on the margins between these two imperatives is Michael O'Rourke, the Minnesota congressman whose girlfriend, Liz Scarlatti, is a reporter. Interestingly, the media does not come out of the book looking too bad. The main actors use the media on occasion as a form of threat in order to acieve their goals, but essentially the media is not judged as harshly as government is. And while the use of spin to maintain secrecy in government is condemned by the author, the existence of secret government agencies like the CIA, is not.

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