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Original Essays

Toward a Poetry of Fact

by Terry McDermott
  1. Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It
    $2.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[W]hat may well be...the definitive book on the nineteen men who brought such devastation and terror to this country....Clearly written in good, plain English, Perfect Soldiers is a group portrait of ordinary men who were driven to do a surpassingly evil thing." The Washington Post
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was driving my middle daughter to her Southern California high school car pool when I heard on the radio that a jetliner had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. I'm a reporter at the Los Angeles Times and although I surely didn't know its full portent that morning, I knew we were at the edge of something new and frightening. I dropped off my daughter, returned home, and packed a bag. Within a week I was assigned to write a profile of Mohamed Atta, then thought to be one of the masterminds of the attacks. My editor's instructions were to go wherever I needed to go and stay as long as I needed to stay. Neither of us imagined the reporting would take three years and require travel to twenty countries on four continents.

Perfect Soldiers is the report of what I found. It's important to note what it was I was after. A simple search on Powells.com finds around 500 books about some aspect of September 11. The overwhelming majority of them are, in a fundamental sense, polemics — arguments about who to blame for what had happened. We live in an argument-obsessed age. Opinions are shouted from mountain top, valley, and every destination in between. I wanted, instead of shouting what I believed, to find what was findable, to lay down a baseline of factual information before it disappeared forever, which it might well have.

Opinions are easy, broad, and often trivial. Facts are hard, granular, and sometimes revelatory. Would it inform us more to be told that one author thinks, without much basis, that 9/11 was the fault of a conspiracy involving the Saudi royal family and Texas oilmen or to learn that the first thing Mohamed el-Amir Atta usually did when he came home to his student apartment in Hamburg was to exchange his street shoes for a pair of blue flip-flops? I don't know about you, but complicated conspiracy theories that tie far-fetched ideas together in an unending string that circles the globe don't help me much.

I don't think the world works that way. I look for more organic, natural processes. As a friend put it to me once, if you hear hoof beats in the distance, they're probably coming from horses, not zebras. The flip-flops could be a powerful instrument to help explain the men who attacked us. They're horses. Conspiracy theories are zebras.

Here are a few more hoof beats: September 11 pilot Marwan al-Shehhi habitually carried a bag of candy with him wherever he went and shared it with whomever he met. Hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah frequently signed his e-mails with long strings of exclamation points; he was the favorite uncle of his nieces and nephews, the one who would take them to the beach or out for ice cream. When the hijack pilots moved to the United States to train, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a would-be pilot who could never get a U.S. visa, stayed behind in Germany and had an affair with a ballet dancer in Berlin.

These mundane facts of daily existence are the raw materials of lives that, if accumulated in sufficient quantity, can begin to give some insight on the forces behind large events. They help to inform us once again of a fundamental aspect of men who commit horrific acts of inhumanity. It is in a way the oldest story — that of the banality of evil, the nearly organic way in which these men came to be who they became.

÷ ÷ ÷

I, like almost every writer, have literary ambitions. My intentions in this book, however, were almost anti-literary. The events of September 11 didn't need to be remade and rethought in heightened dramatic fashion. They needed to be understood. The way I conceived of doing this was no great revelation. It was the only way I knew to be available to me: to go where the 9/11 hijackers had lived and learned and even loved and tell the stories of their lives, to attempt to fit those mundane details into the larger courses of history through which they floated. If there was to be any literary ambition in this, it would be to construct a poetry of fact.

This very modest goal proved to be immensely difficult.

Recently, there were three books on the national bestsellers lists about Scott Peterson, a man who murdered his pregnant wife. That was doubtless an horrendous act, but do we really need three books about him. Meanwhile, there were — other than this one — no books devoted primarily to the 9/11 hijackers.

The reason, pretty simply, is that information about them is scarce and very hard to find. This was without question the most difficult reporting I've ever endured. And endurance is what was required. During many weeks in the reporting, I went backwards — that is, I lost rather than gained information. But I am above all else stubborn and I committed to the long haul. If it was there, I was going to get it, or exhaust all means in the attempt. Whatever success this book represents is the result of that stubbornness.

One of the consistent oddities of being a reporter has to do with the most fundamental aspect of it — you ask people questions and they answer you. Why? It always astonishes me that no matter what the event or circumstance, you can find people with relevant knowledge who will talk. In the instance of most disasters or other horrific events, people often talk to reporters out of a sense of remorse or some slight responsibility. It's that "if only" feeling: If only I had done this, or: If only I had seen that. Because they feel this way, they are often persuaded to talk. In fact, they are often eager to talk, have been waiting to be asked. That had been my experience prior to this project. I interviewed more than 500 people for this book. Not five of them were eager to talk. In large part, this was because they didn't believe the men had anything to do with it, or, if they believed it, felt no remorse about it.

One of the consequences of the paucity of information was the proliferation of rumor and gossip and their solidification into fact. If you go back and review what else has been written about the nineteen hijackers, you'll find a huge quantity of words based on a miniscule amount of information. You'll also find conclusions based on the thinnest of threads.

Not unusually for a large news event, a public narrative of the 9/11 attacks and attackers was constructed with astonishing speed: by the end of the first week after the attacks, the central story had been set and the characters cast. Unfortunately, as is also usual in big news events, much of the initial information was either factually wrong or, more commonly, irrelevant and misconstrued. The hijackers were caricatured as evil geniuses or as wild-eyed fanatics. While there might well be trace elements of both of these extremes in some of the men, they were largely neither of these things.

I think portraying them as motivated by this one thing or the other is understandable, but misleading. The forces that drove the men in the 9/11 plot are many and complicated; they include broad historical trends, specific political objections, devout if wholly misguided religious belief, psychological alienation, and self aggrandizement.

For a long time in my reporting, I struggled to find who had recruited these men to this cause. In the end, I was forced to admit they weren't recruited. They were volunteers. They delivered themselves.

÷ ÷ ÷

What can we do to stop them?

This question, without close competition, is the one I'm most often asked about the post 9/11 world. It's the central question going forward, one we're going struggle to answer for decades.

When it is posed in public forums, there is invariably at least one person in the room who knows exactly what to do: Kill them. Kill them all. Hunt them down, dig them out, and rid the world of their wretched existence. This solution has a lot to recommend it. It's decisive, no dilly-dallying around there. It's pure hearted, good versus evil. It's satisfying in a cinematic, righteous-justice-delivered-at-the-
business-end-of-a-cruise-missile-with-great-fiery-effect sort of way. And it's elegant in its logic. Obviously, if they are all dead, they can't harm anyone ever again.

Unfortunately, even if this were your desired policy, it seems upon even casual inspection impossible to execute. It's surpassingly difficult to even begin to find them all, much less finish the job. It's revenge fantasy, not reason.

Start at the most basic level: Who are they? Where are they? How will we know them much less find them? Where do we start? Where do we end? When does one become a they? Is there a line between sympathizer and soldier? Wouldn't we be likely to kill a bunch of people who only looked, or perhaps talked, or thought, like bad guys?

I have been distressed to discover the degree to which casually malevolent ideas are ambient in much of the contemporary Arab world, at how much the view from there has been shaped by mythic beliefs. I say mythic in the same sense that Karen Armstrong uses it to describe the nature of belief among fundamentalists in all religions, that the nature of their beliefs are pre-rational and unshakable by the existence of contrary fact. I must have been told a hundred times during my research that 9/11 could not have happened without the connivance, indeed, the active execution, of either or both the American CIA and Israeli Mossad. Those who espouse these theories hold a view that the United States is omnipotent and, therefore, nothing of this scale could happen unbeknownst to us. All evidence to the contrary — which is depressing in its own way — matters not a bit. I was repeatedly told no Jews died in the World Trade Center. One of my own interpreters, an upper middle class Cairene whose career goal was to come to the United States and open a chain of LASIK eye surgery clinics, in other words, a Westernized Arab, a scientist, would ask me every two or three days why the Jews stayed home that day.

That is the situation at the heart of contemporary, moderate Islam. It goes downhill, quickly, from there to the fringes where there exists a cult, a large cult with millions of members, who choose to find within their religion's historical texts a rationale to attack, and kill, any who oppose them. They think they are at war. No, they are at war. The men within radical Islam see themselves as soldiers in that war. They see what they were doing as having the obligations of soldiers, serving the righteous cause of an army with the winds of redemption at its back.

The cult, not accidentally, is centered in Saudi Arabia and in the explicitly political and allegedly literal interpretation of Salafist Wahabism embraced there. Whatever else is done to combat terrorism, this interpretation of Islam has to be confronted.

That at least is a place to start. You can't have spent as much time as I have studying these people without wondering what to do and, yet, I haven't found a solution that satisfies. Perhaps that's because there is no single answer. Just as there are many causes that brought these men together, so are there many reasons that drive them apart from us.

Like, I imagine, most people, I had in the beginning assumed the hijackers — and those who would follow them — were in some ways extraordinary individuals, that they otherwise couldn't have accomplished something so huge. The biggest surprise to me was they were nearly the opposite — all too common among young men in similar circumstances across the Muslim world. The obvious implication of them being ordinary is that there must be many more men just like them. I think there are. I think they're waiting. I think this is the world we will live in for a long time to come. spacer

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