Ten months ago, investigative reporter Terry McDermott published a book about the 9/11 terrorists called "Perfect Soldiers" that has since met with critical acclaim but only tepid public reception, and I'd like to understand why.
I stumbled on the book at the library and checked it out, expecting to find a few additional details about the men who changed the face of war in America.
I was not prepared for the depth of McDermott's research that included visits to 20 countries in three continents over nearly four years; I was even less prepared for what that research revealed: that the 19 Muslim men implicated in the 9/11 attacks were largely uninspiring, uninteresting and unsophisticated.
"I initially thought, like most Americans did, that they had to be extraordinary people," McDermott said this week in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "It seemed like such a maliciously brilliant thing that could only be achieved by maliciously brilliant people. That turned out to be the farthest thing from the truth. They were far too common. That's the really scary thing that the reporting told me."
The book is an outgrowth of an assignment from McDermott's employer, the Los Angeles Times, to research the life of Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian-born suspected mastermind of the 9/11 plot.
McDermott not only learned that Atta was not the mastermind, but that while Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization brought the pieces together, al-Qaida wasn't much of a mastermind either. Successfully flying airplanes into buildings was due more to luck and a frightening inattentiveness by national security than anything approaching genius.
"It makes me almost laugh about the super sophistication they (the hijackers) supposedly had," said McDermott. "You know what their training is? They're shown how to use the Yellow Pages."
Still, the perception of a large and sophisticated al-Qaida persists.
"They (the government) treat al-Qaida as a state, when their secret is their smallness and lack of sophistication," McDermott said.
The author spent countless hours walking the unremarkable streets where the 9/11 terrorists were born and raised and the equally unremarkable mosques where they were brainwashed. It was slow, lonely work.
"Normally when you're working a story, you're constantly looking over your shoulder, worried about who's going to beat you to this or that," he said. "But after about a year I realized there was nobody else. They all went home. It was too hard. It was stupidly hard. Persuading people to talk was really difficult. People usually want to talk out of some feeling of 'if only I had known,' but I interviewed more than 500 people, and not five people felt any remorse."
As the five-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, McDermott's book remains the only significant attempt at attaching personality to the terrorists, and yet his book has not reached anything approaching best-seller status.
Maybe it's because most of them are dead, or because what they did goes beyond humanness, or because they are so abjectly ordinary.
HarperCollins, the publisher of "Perfect Soldiers," is planning to release the book in paperback this September.
It would not be a bad idea for the
nation's airports, in lieu of running magnetometers in an attempt to keep out traditional criminals, to instead hand everyone a copy of "Perfect Soldiers."
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected]