The Devils and Their Details

One day this week, as the media were in the final run-up to the September 11 anniversary, I caught part of a call-in show on a local public radio station. Toward the end, a caller made an observation that has become a chat-show refrain: We need to understand the root causes of terrorism.

Excellent point, said the host, who then offered his own extensive thoughts on the subject. Though the September 11 attacks were abhorrent, he said, it's crucial for us to appreciate the motivations of those who carried them out. The terrorists were young men from backgrounds of "grinding, crushing poverty.... No wonder these people are angry."

Based on everything I'd learned in the last year, I knew this was false. Most of the terrorists came from prosperous, well-educated families, and were driven not by economic indignation but by religious monomania. Take Mohamed Atta, for instance....

And there my rumination ended. Though I must have read and watched a dozen reconstructions of Atta's life, I couldn't recall a single hard fact. The best I could do was a vague recollection of a photo of Atta as a boy of 10 or 12, leaning effetely against his mother. This triggered an equally hazy memory of reports that the grown-up Atta had never seemed interested in women. Beyond these wisps, my Atta box was empty.

And he's my strong suit. Other than Osama bin Laden and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, I couldn't tell you the names (or assumed names) of any of the other men believed to be behind September 11, though I've read about them countless times, studied their mug shots, and consider myself to have an above-average interest in the subject.

Early dementia? Maybe, but I think my recall problem might have more to do with the journalism about 9/11. As the retrospectives of the last week have made clear, the media have done a superb job on much of this story. The tale of the World Trade Center—what happened to the buildings, the people inside, and those they left behind—has received the most attention of all, and the results have been breathtaking.

But now, with the anniversary behind us and another possible war filling the news columns, it seems a good time to wonder whether we're ever going to get a handle on the men who started the whole thing. For me, this is one of two gaping holes in the story to date. The other, the appalling shortage of eyewitness war coverage, is no mystery: The Pentagon shut us down. But why have the men of Al Qaeda not emerged in the last year as real, recognizable human beings? After all, villains of this magnitude don't come along very often. You'd think journalists would be falling over themselves to bring them to life, telling and retelling their stories in the minutest detail.

The obvious reason is that the terrorists' stories are just not easy for American reporters to get. The cultural chasm between most Arab societies and the West is extremely wide, and cultivating sources is a long, painstaking process. As the Daniel Pearl case made all too manifest, it can also be a dangerous one. From what we know, even U.S. intelligence agencies have had a hard time piecing together the lives of these people, and spies have more tools to work with than reporters do.

The result is that, so far, journalists have a wealth of material on the victims of September 11 and very nearly a vacuum on the perpetrators. The contrast is painfully evident in the new crop of 9/11 books. In Out of The Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001, From Jihad to Ground Zero, by Richard Bernstein and the staff of The New York Times, one of the early chapters pairs the story of Jeremy Glick, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93, with that of Ziad al-Jarrah, believed to be the lead terrorist on that flight. After introducing Glick in vivid fashion, right down to the "weather-beaten gazebo" where he liked to stargaze, the authors write, "We know so little about the four men who hijacked his plane that we can't even be sure in some instances that we know their true names, much less the content of their minds, the state of their spirits."

It's hard for news people to admit they can't get to the bottom of something. When they do, you know things are dire. A headline from The Washington Post one day this week: "Mysterious Trip to Flight 77 Cockpit: Suicide Pilot's Conversion to Radical Islam Remains Obscure."

But as the anniversary came and went this week, there was one sign of progress. The New Yorker published a terrific, 22,000-word piece by Lawrence Wright on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who, though less well-known than bin Laden, arguably looms just as large in the story of September 11.

Impressively reported, the piece is full of the kinds of memorable details that engrave a character on the mind. This is especially true in the early pages, where we learn about Maadi, the exclusive suburb of Cairo where Zawahiri grew up. Maadi was home to the sort of Egyptians who "spoke French at dinner and followed the cricket matches." Like some of the other terrorists, Zawahiri was a child of privilege. But for various subtle reasons, the doctor was also an outsider in his own world—a fact that Wright skillfully uses to explain his turn to violent radicalism.

Now, when I see the name Zawahiri, it means something. One down, a few dozen to go.