September 11 Reflections: Terror and Technology

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.

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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.

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