Some journalism doesn’t fit the inherent constraints of newspapers or magazines. Often, that is because the subject is too massive and requires longer periods of investigation than what these formats tend to demand in immediacy. Terry McDermott’s exploration of the 9/11 terrorists, Perfect Soldiers, is an example of this.
McDermott, national correspondent for the LA Times, subtitles his book The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did it, because those are the very questions he explores. He does not succeed on all counts but does a yeoman’s job telling the tale.
McDermott’s journalistic skills are on full display in the first part of the book. By far the most intriguing, it closely follows and examines a group of Muslim students in Hamburg, Germany. This group gave rise to three of the hijackers, including leader Mohamed Atta. What is most striking about McDermott’s account is perhaps just how ordinary these men were. McDermott’s prose shows these were not inherently evil people but, rather, men whose lives became dominated and dramatically altered by a radical view of religion. As McDermott points out in the introduction:
[B]y the end of the first week after the attacks, the central story had been set and the characters cast. The September 11 attackers were caricatured either as evil geniuses or as wild-eyed fanatics. Unfortunately, as is also usual in big news events, much of the initial information was either factually wrong or, more commonly, irrelevant and misconstrued. While there might well be elements of both these extremes in some of the men, they were largely neither of these things.
Instead, these men gradually moved from normal lives to becoming adherents of a radicalized Islam and almost enamored with the concept of martyrdom in service of that religion. In attempting to assess why, McDermott then looks at the development of militant Islam, the efforts to export it and how Afghanistan became a testing ground for the export of that view of jihad. Aspects of this tale have been told in greater detail in other works, most notably Steve Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars. McDermott, however, provides a broader examination directed at the general reader. Again, what we discover is that the vast majority of those involved in this effort were largely very ordinary and far from diabolical geniuses. McDermott, in fact, shows how some succeeded in terrorist acts almost in spite of themselves.
In the final part of the book, McDermott details the movements and activities of the plotters prior to and upon their arrival in the United States. He not only shows how these men escaped attention in entering and living in the country, he also takes a look at the failure of our air defense system on that day. McDermott’s recounting of these events is not as strong as the other parts of the book but is essential to placing everything in context and a fuller grasp of all the elements of the plot.
The failings of Perfect Soldiers are more attributable to matters beyond McDermott’s control than the author himself. For example, there is little information about the initial forays of the Hamburg group into the Afghanistan/Pakistan training grounds or why certain members of the group were selected by bin Laden for this mission. There also is comparatively sparse information about the majority of the hijackers, who came from Saudi Arabia. It appears there simply is not sufficient information currently available on those matters.
Moreover, McDermott is unable to answer the true core of the question of why these men did what they did. He gives us the history leading to the basic answer, which stems from their adoption and pursuit of certain radical religious views. What McDermott cannot do — and no one else can — is explain why these views took seed in these individuals. The best McDermott can do is show how that seed grew and blossomed. That may be the most frightening aspect of this story. As McDermott says:
[T]he men of September 11 were, regrettably, I think, fairly ordinary men. I say this is regrettable because it was their ordinariness that makes it much more likely there are a great many more men just like them.
We likely will not know until it is too late how many similar seeds have taken root and are preparing to blossom.