The Real Meaning of 9/11

Note: This essay is the introduction to The Atlantic's special report on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. See more articles and videos here.

What we saw on the morning of September 11, 2001 was evil made manifest. The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (and tried to destroy the Capitol) claim to have been motivated by a theology of restoration -- a dream of restoring Islam to a position of global supremacy -- and by the politics of grievance. But something deeper undergirds these impulses: A compulsive need to murder one's way to glory. The stated goals of al Qaeda are flimsy excuses, meant to cover-up this ineluctable fact. The souls of men like Muhammad Atta and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Osama bin Laden are devoid of anything but hate, and murder is what erupted from these voids.

9-11 Ten Years LaterLet us stay on the subject of murder, because murder is the meaning of 9/11. Westerners are gifted in the art of slashing self-criticism, and so much of our discussion about 9/11 in the intervening years has centered on our failures -- real failures of intelligence and imagination that allowed the attacks to happen; presumed failures of foreign policy that gained al Qaeda sympathy among some Muslims; and failures in our response to radical jihadism, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Guantanamo Bay, that are generally, though not universally, understood to have set us back in the war to defeat al Qaeda and its tyrannical and medieval ideology.

Self-criticism is necessary, even indispensable, for democracy to work. But this decade-long drama began with the unprovoked murder of 3,000 people, simply because they were American, or happened to be located in proximity to Americans. It is important to get our categories straight: The profound moral failures of the age of 9/11 belong to the murderers of al Qaeda, and those (especially in certain corners of the Muslim clerisy, along with a handful of bien-pensant Western intellectuals) who abet them, and excuse their actions. The mistakes we made were sometimes terrible (and sometimes, as at Abu Ghraib and in the CIA's torture rooms, criminal) but they came about in reaction to a crime without precedent.

There are many people who still seem befogged by fallacies and delusions about the cause and meaning of 9/11. I am not referring to the "9/11 truthers," whose minds are warped in such a way as to render impossible the processing of observable reality. I mean, among others, terrorism's apologists, who argue that terror is a weapon of the weak, when it is in fact a weapon deployed against the weak. 

Christine Lee Hanson, who was two years old and on her way to Disneyland with her parents when they died together aboard United Airlines Flight 175, springs to mind as a perfect example of the sort of person al Qaeda made its enemy. Imagine, for a moment, you are Marwan al-Shehhi, the lead hijacker of Flight 175. You see Christine Hanson among the passengers on the plane you had just hijacked -- a two-year-old child, seated on her father's lap -- and you fly the plane carrying this child into the South Tower of the World Trade Center anyway. Peter Hanson, Christine's father, was on the telephone with his own father, Lee, as the plane approached lower Manhattan. "I think they're going to try to crash this plane into a building," Peter told his father. "Don't worry, Dad. If it happens, it will be quick." Then, Peter said, "Oh, my God," and Lee Hanson watched on television as the plane flew into the tower.

Those who find the attacks of 9/11 explicable within the usual categories have engaged for several years now in a debate notable for its sterility. The debate is between those who argue that radical jihadists hate us for our freedoms and our modernity, and those who argue that they hate us for our policies. The answer, of course, is yes -- yes to both. But even this answer only scrapes at the truth, which is that it is hatred that precedes everything, the rationalizations and justifications and the elaborate scaffolding of ideology and theology al Qaeda erects around its sociopathic core.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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