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.

Among the befogged we should include another class of putative intellectuals, those who argue that al Qaeda represents Islam's true face, and that 9/11 marked the latest round in a war for global supremacy between two competing civilizations. This is nonsense. On the one hand, it is too convenient to dismiss al Qaeda's worldview as a perversion of Islam. It represents a strand of Muslim thought; it has its sources in the texts. And mainstream Islam has shown itself at times to be without adequate defenses against al Qaeda theology.

But simply because al Qaeda represents one strain of thought in Islam does not mean it represents all strains of thought. Islam, like any great and complicated religion, contains a thousand streams. And Muslim Arabs in half-a-dozen countries have this year signaled their disapproval of al Qaeda's agenda by seeking the overthrow of dictators not the Bin Laden way -- through murder -- but through protest. I like to believe that Bin Laden, in his last year on earth, was a depressed man: He was forced to watch as Arabs by the millions ostentatiously rejected the path he had carved for them.

The existence of a thousand streams of Islam; the Arab revolts; the loathing of al Qaeda that has spread wide through the Muslim world (the majority of of Qaeda victims by now have been Muslim); none of this has convinced some in the West that we are not, in fact, engaged a clash of civilizations with Islam itself, that if there is a clash, it is taking place within Islam. Even certain presidential candidates in this country have sought to make a war where there is no war. George W. Bush was generally assiduous on this question; he visited a mosque just after the attacks to make the point that the U.S. was not Islam's enemy. His party today should follow his lead, and stop giving Bin Laden's heirs what they want. With the murderous sociopaths of al Qaeda there is no compromise, but we will only defeat al Qaeda with the cooperation of the great mass of Muslims, and we won't have their support if we demonize their faith.

Shortly after 9/11, I visited the father of Muhammad Atta, the ringleader of the hijackers, in Cairo. Muhammad al-Amir Atta, the father, told me that, against all evidence, his son was still alive, that it was the Mossad that had framed him. He was angry and aggressive, but also seemed gripped by melancholy, and I sensed he knew the truth: That his son was a mass murderer, and that he was dead. We spoke for a few minutes, and I asked him a question he answered as if it were theoretical. I asked, What would motivate your son to do such a thing to innocent people? He answered, "You can't be a human and do this thing. It's impossible."

That is the crucial truth of 9/11. Osama Bin Laden had gathered to him men who were devoid of love, and who found in al Qaeda a vehicle for expressing their hatred of humanity. On the 10th anniversary of the murderous rampage committed by soulless men, we should remember the victims, and count our own blessings, and recommit ourselves to the suppression of evil and the protection of the innocent.