September 11 Reflections: Terror and Technology

More

Hats off to Daniel Brook for his series on Slate about the September 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta. It's a gem of reporting legwork and historical insight, based on a visit to Atta's thesis supervisor in Hamburg and sharp observations in the ancient city of Aleppo, where Atta was misled by his upbringing to misunderstand its heritage:

With the crumbling legacy of European imperialism and American-backed dictatorship written into its Paris-meets-Houston cityscape, Cairo is one of the world's worst advertisements for East-West relations. With that city as his tragic starting place, Atta refused to comprehend historic Aleppo, a cosmopolitan trading city where Europeans and Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived side-by-side for centuries. He scorned diverse, mercantile Hamburg; he attacked polyglot New York. By allowing a discordant present to blot out a more hopeful past, Atta ensured further discord in the future.

Brook mentions but doesn't expand on the engineering background of the September 11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who selected the targets. As the official US report put it:

'Doctatorship' may be defined as the process by which a medical doctor, devoted to sacrificing himself to save lives, becomes a political dictator, devoted to sacrificing lives to save himself. 'Doctatorship' is a murky place where bedside manner meets state planner, where torture meets cure.

 

Highly educated and equally comfortable in a government office or a terrorist safehouse,KSM applied his imagination,technical aptitude,and managerial skills to hatching and planning an extraordinary array of terrorist schemes. These ideas included conventional car bombing,political assassination,aircraft bombing, hijacking, reservoir poisoning, and, ultimately, the use of aircraft as missiles guided by suicide operatives.

Generations of educators have assured us that that the study of science and engineering create international understanding across religious and ideological lines, promoting an international language that puts problem-solving ahead of dogma. And many scientists, engineers, and physicians around the world have indeed been outstanding ecumenical advocates.

But there's a dark side of technical knowledge. It's equally compatible with intolerance. Osama bin Laden, too, was educated not as a mullah but as a civil engineer. While many Iranian science professors are prominent in the resistance to the of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the brutal strongman appears to have an impressive technical background, even claiming on his blog that he had score 132 out of 400,000 engineering university applicants on a competitive examination. (Link via Wikipedia.) The world's second most wanted terrorist next to bin Laden is also no cleric but a physician, Ayman al Zawahiri. Well before September 11, 2001, the English historian Simon Sebag Montefiore noted the rise of medically trained tyrants, the Doctators, in the Spectator:

Whereas the Zawahiri and Atta families belong to the higher Egyptian intelligentsia, Ahmedinajad would be an obscure village artisan like his forebears if the passionately modernizing Shah had not promoted technical education for the masses, not only to promote growth but to weaken the hold of the religious conservatives.

The lesson is not that scientific and technical education are dangerous, but sadly that education alone has been overrated as a source of humane values.


Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In