September 11th

In the days after 11 September 2001, as the disbelief and shock began to subside in favor of a sense of what had happened and what came next, CNN uncovered an old documentary, Building the World Trade Center, made by the New York Port Authority and aired it’s entire twenty minutes. I was lucky to catch it and it has since become a favorite piece of film for me. The first ten minutes of the video are an interesting, if stylistically dated, discussion of some of the features of the site and novel construction techniques and design features employed in the building. What makes me return to the film again and again is that at about time 10:05 — on the factual tidbit that after the foundational structures were in place construction proceeded according to a formula at the rate of about three floors every ten days — the film switches from informative documentary to whimsical art film. Set to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Vianna Blood is an uninterrupted five minute dance of building rising. Watch a crane operator rotate a huge section of sheet metal at 12:25-12:36, the pan around the partly completed towers at 13:44-14:00 or the documentary makers themselves at 14:20-14:25 — it could be Stanly Kubrick. It’s a wonderful little paean to labor and ingenuity and capitalism.

Al Qaeda’a Demands

The question, “Why do they hate us?” was, for a short period, earnestly asked by Americans of all stripe. Least doubt grow in the superior stewardship of those charged with our protection, the question has been safely contained by Bush’s simplistic formulation that they are evil and we are good, buffeted by a fusillade of conservative accusations of America hating against anyone who has offered any alternative to Bush’s sage analysis.

Now, the September 11th Commission offers its answer:

Bin Ladin also relies heavily on the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood11 executed in 1966 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government, Qutb mixed Islamic scholarship with a very superficial acquaintance with Western history and thought. Sent by the Egyptian government to study in the United States in the late 1940s, Qutb returned with an enormous loathing of Western society and history. He dismissed Western achievements as entirely material, arguing that Western society possesses “nothing that will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.”12

Three basic themes emerge from Qutb’s writings. First, he claimed that the world was beset with barbarism, licentiousness, and unbelief (a condition he called jahiliyya, the religious term for the period of ignorance prior to the revelations given to the Prophet Mohammed). Qutb argued that humans can choose only between Islam and jahiliyya. Second, he warned that more people, including Muslims, were attracted to jahiliyya and its material comforts than to his view of Islam; jahiliyya could therefore triumph over Islam. Third, no middle ground exists in what Qutb conceived as a struggle between God and Satan. All Muslims — as he defined them — therefore must take up arms in this fight. Any Muslim who rejects his ideas is just one more nonbeliever worthy of destruction.13

Bin Ladin shares Qutb’s stark view, permitting him and his followers to rationalize even unprovoked mass murder as righteous defense of an embattled faith. Many Americans have wondered, “Why do ‘they’ hate us?” Some also ask, “What can we do to stop these attacks?”

Bin Ladin and al Qaeda have given answers to both these questions. To the first, they say that America had attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims. Thus Americans are blamed when Israelis fight with Palestinians, when Russians fight with Chechens, when Indians fight with Kashmiri Muslims, and when the Philippine government fights ethnic Muslims in its southern islands. America is also held responsible for the governments of Muslim countries, derided by al Qaeda as “your agents.” Bin Ladin has stated flatly, “Our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you.”14 These charges found a ready audience among millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at the United States because of issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to America’s support for their countries’ repressive rulers.

Bin Ladin’s grievance with the United States may have started in reaction to specific U.S. policies but it quickly became far deeper. To the second question, what America could do, al Qaeda’s answer was that America should abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam, and end the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture: “It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.” If the United States did not comply, it would be at war with the Islamic nation, a nation that al Qaeda’s leaders said “desires death more than you desire life.”15

  1. The Muslim Brotherhood, which arose in Egypt in 1928 as a Sunni religious/nationalist opposition to the British-backed Egyptian monarchy, spread throughout the Arab world in the mid-twentieth century. In some countries, its oppositional role is nonviolent; in others, especially Egypt, it has alternated between violent and nonviolent struggle with the regime.
  2. Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (American Trust Publications, 1990). Qutb found sin everywhere, even in rural midwestern churches. Qutb’s views were best set out in Sayyid Qutb, “The America I Have Seen” (1949), reprinted in Kamal Abdel-Malek, ed., America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature: An Anthology (Palgrave, 2000).
  3. For a good introduction to Qutb, see National Public Radio broadcast, “Sayyid Qutb’s America,” May 6, 2003 (online at
  4. “Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America,'” Observer Worldview, Nov. 24, 2002 (trans., online at,11581,845725,00.html). The al Qaeda letter was released in conjunction with the release of an audio message from Bin Ladin himself.
  5. Ibid.

This passage is very good, but it should be more clear that al Qaeda’s objectives are two. The second is the murderous, uncompromising advancement of fundamentalist Islam, an objective the West cannot accommodate. The first objective, however, is merely territorial: al Qaeda and fellow travelers want the agents of Western influence out of the dar al-Islam (abode of peace, or Islamic territory). The writers of the 9/11 Commission Report have attempted to portray first objective as equally hysterical to the second by characterizing Islamic militants’ territorial objectives as wholly the result of a paranoid and endlessly wounded pride. Nonetheless, they do point out that one of the goals of al Qaeda et. al. is limited and, hence, rational.

First Impressions of The 9/11 Commission Report

Kevin Drum starts off his first post on the 9/11 Commission Report saying, “I would rather stick bamboo shoots under my toenails than actually read the entire 9/11 report.” This is too bad because the report is very well written, more like any other book you might read on the post-September 11th world than a government commission report. It might be even more important than other books in its category because it was written with the highest level of access imaginable. It’s endnotes include references not just to witness testimony and classified government documents, but academic and popular literature on the subject, NPR segments and so on.

The strange thing about the report is its sensitivity and the restrained, yet dramatic use of language with which it is written. Let me make three examples from the first chapter.

  • After a few pages of material about the hijackers checking in at the airports, the quality of the metal detection wand screenings, and respective times of airplane departure that are true to the tedium of the airport experience, the report suddenly changes direction, hitting the reader with the poignant cause for all this seemingly innocuous information:

    The 19 men were aboard four transcontinental flights. They were planning to hijack these planes and turn them into large guided missiles, loaded with up to 11,400 gallons of jet fuel. By 8:00 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, they had defeated all the security layers that America’s civil aviation security system then had in place to prevent a hijacking. (4)

    I recently took another look at some photographs from that morning. The one of the south tower with the impossibly huge fireball coming out of the side opposite the impact was as shocking as if it had happened yesterday. That last sentence in the above passage gave me a similar pause — and was, I suspect, calculated to do so. A sentence of calculated emotional efficacy in a government report is highly unusual.

  • In the the story of the hijacking of United flight 175, the report recounts telephone calls from Peter Hanson and Brian Sweeney to their parents:

    At 8:58, the flight took a heading toward New York City.

    At 8:59, Flight 175 passenger Brian David Sweeney tried to call his wife, Julie. He left a message on their home answering machine that the plane had been hijacked. He then called his mother, Louise Sweeney, told her the flight had been hijacked, and added that the passengers were thinking about storming the cockpit to take control of the plane away from the hijackers.

    At 9:00, Lee Hanson received a second call from his son Peter:

    “…I think we are going down — I thing they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building — don’t worry, Dad — If it happens, it’ll be very fast — My God, my god.”

    The call ended abruptly. Lee Hanson had heard a woman scream just before it cut off. He turned on a television, and in her home so did Louise Sweeney. Both of them saw the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center. (8)

    This story adds nothing to our understanding of the causes and the security failures that led to the successful attacks, nor the reforms necessary to prevent future attacks. What it does add is something of an understanding of what those directly affected when through that day.

    There is almost an element of “a people’s history” of September 11th. When future historians turn to one of their primary sources on the subject, it will contain the names and stories of some of the people, usually overlooked or addressed only as “the three thousand”, who died that day. The report calls out the names of the pilots of the flights, all the terrorist hijackers, the stewardesses such as Betty Ong who made phone calls to alert ground staff, Daniel Lewin, the former Israeli military officer whose throat was slashed as he jumped up to stop Mohamed Atta, not realizing that one of the hijackers was seated right behind him, Barbara Olson’s calls to her husband, the Solicitor General of the United States. It is terrifying reading.

  • Recognition is growing that the passengers of United flight 93 did something amazing the morning of September 11th. The Commission Report makes a near memorial of itself when recounting their efforts with the stark sentences,

    With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes’ flying time from Washington, D.C.

    Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93. (14)

    The use of the lofty term, “the American Republic,” suggests much more than a mere government report.

Interpreting their mandate as “sweeping,” the commission goes way beyond the immediate failures of intelligence enabling the September 11, 2001 attacks, and lays out an entire history of militant Islam and a strategy to combat it.

I think that David Brooks (“War of Ideology,” The New York Times, 24 July 2004), is accurate when he writes,

When foreign policy wonks go to bed, they dream of being X. They dream of writing the all-encompassing, epoch-defining essay, the way George F. Kennan did during the cold war under the pseudonym X.

Careers have been spent racing to be X. But in our own time, the 9/11 commission has come closer than anybody else.

I suspect that the 9/11 Commission Report will play a significant roll in our future policy debates. As such, it deserves as wide a reading as it may be getting.