The Meaning of 9/11

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From my essay introducing The Atlantic's special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:

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.


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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as 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.

His 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. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. 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. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

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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