Category Archives: Terrorism


Today, I’ve deliberately stayed away from the televising of the memorial service, but in the last two weeks, I’ve watched three programs about the event. 

One was actually a series of several episodes on the Discovery Channel called “Rising”, about the building of the 9/11 Memorial.  It’s an unbelievable feat of construction, architecture, design, art, human imagination and the human indomitable spirit.  It focuses primarily on the construction challenges, and I found these fascinating.  Plus focusing on the mechanical aspects allows you to temporarily put aside the emotional aspects of 9/11–but not entirely. 

In one episode, one of the construction supervisors is permitted to visit the plant where the names of the victims are being engraved on bronze plates.  These plates are on the edges of the two reflecting pools.  These two pools are squares which sit on the footprints of each tower, and waterfalls cascade down each side of the cube.  This supervisor was playing a critical role in getting the pools completed in time for today’s memorial service–and they were successful.  He is allowed to start the engraving machine, then watch while it engraves the name of…his little brother, who died on 9/11 and whose remains have never been found.  When the engraving is done, they wash the metal with water to cool it down.  He touches his brother’s name through the water and says, “This is my brother now”.

The second program I watched was on The Learning Channel, and was called “Heroes of the 88th Floor”.  It focuses primarily on the survivors, who are somewhat of a forgotten group.  The trauma they experienced was extreme.  In one scene, they interview a subway train driver (who to my surprise, are still called “motormen”).  His train was under the South Tower at the moment the plane hit, which he could feel–it shook the train.  At the next possible moment, he stopped the train and ordered everyone off.  Then he left himself, abandoning his train.  This is probably unprecedented.  He had no idea what was happening, but somehow he had a sense of doom.  Since that day, he has been unable to work, due to PTSD.  There are many varied stories on this note.    Firefighters who were blinded and insisted on returning to work as soon as they were medically cleared, and many others like the motorman.  I think it’s wrong to judge who is “braver”.

Finally I watched an overview special on NBC News Friday night, narrated by Tom Brokaw. 

One of the things these programs have in common is the inescapable video of the plane hitting the South Tower.  (To my knowledge, there is no video of the plane hitting the North Tower.  So at first, they didn’t even know what happened.  It may have been an internal explosion.)  Fortunately, although it was mentioned, there was no footage shown of people jumping from the towers.  Those photos, more than those of the planes hitting the South Tower, are etched in my memory as the the real horror of 9/11.  I can’t bear them. 

I asked my good friend who is a doctor whether he would have stayed or jumped.  He said he would have jumped.  I would have stayed.  That’s a very bizarre conversation to be having. 

That day, they shut down and evacuated the two tallest buildings in Tallahassee–the Capital and the Education building.  I thought, how silly.  What terrorist would want to target Tallahassee?  Then it dawned on me:  The governor (Jeb Bush at the time) is the President’s brother.  At the time, who knew what the motivation was, or who might be targeted?  You didn’t have to be in New York or Washington D.C. to be plunged into fear. 

All that said, the main reason I’ve avoided it today is that the emotional impact is high, but that isn’t the main reason.  It’s that the constant repetition tends to dull that impact.  You start to get numb.  It’s inevitable.  It’s like hearing that another suicide bomber or IED killed X number of people in…fill in the country.  And I don’t want to become numb. 

The Afghanistan Fiasco

In today’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd has an op-ed that is mostly devoid of her usual snarkiness.  It’s entitled Blunder on the Mountain, and deals with the U.S. failure to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora.  She quotes Peter Bergen as follows: 

“In a compelling cover story in the current New Republic called “The Battle for Tora Bora,” Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, reconstructs the debacle, calling it “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.” He reports that Tommy Franks rebuffed the C.I.A. request for 800 Army Rangers from nearby bases to assault the complex of caves where Osama was hiding and block his escape. In the end, Bergen notes, there were more journalists there than Western soldiers.”

The decision by the Bush administration to change the focus, to put it mildly, to Iraq, remains inconceivable to me.  I think however there is ample evidence that invading Iraq was the plan all along, at least on the part of Rumsfeld and Cheney, who had never forgiven Bush the first for failing to pursue Saddam Hussein back into Iraq after driving him from Kuwait.  They saw invading Iraq as the conclusion of unfinished business and they were single-mindedly determined to do it, even if they had to make up connections between Saddam and Al Queda to get there.  Did they lie about WMD’s to further their plan?  Possibly.  More likely, I think (since I’m not big on conspiracy theories), they simply didn’t heed or were deaf to information that contradicted or did not support their goal.  In any case, the result was something worthy of Greek tragedy. 

Just over a year ago, 60 Minutes did a segment with the commanding officer of the Delta Forces assigned to assault Tora Bora, entitled Kill Bin Laden.  This is powerful stuff. 

You cannot help but wonder how different the world would be today had we focused all our power and attention on capturing or killing Bin Laden.  At the time when the entire world was with us in our grief and outrage.

You also can’t help but understand why many people question our continued presence in Afghanistan, because the “front” is now in Pakistan.  And we let that happen.  It’s also no wonder why President Obama thought so long and hard about what to do next.  The question really is:  what is our goal?  If it’s to prevent the Taliban from regaining power, that’s a noble goal.  You have only to read The Kite Runner, or A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini to get a picture of what life was like, and might be again, under the Taliban.  But wasn’t that the rationale for continuing the war in Iraq after the absence of WMD’s was confirmed?  It was like, well, Saddam was a bad guy anyway and needed to go.  Fine, but that’s not why we were supposedly there.   

I feel a bit like Ben Bernanke.  I saw an interview with him, again on 60 Minutes, where he was asked how he felt about “bailing out” the financial institutions which created the recession.  He said he was furious, but more or less then said, “I had no choice”.  I feel the same way about our getting into Iraq and about our escalation in Afghanistan.  I’m furious, but we have no choice.  As I’ve frequently said, no matter how mistaken it was to go there, you don’t go in and blow up a country and then say “oops!”.  My mistake, going home now.   Good luck with the bad guys.

Reading With Fakename: The Bin Ladens, Part 2

Since I last posted about this book by Steve Coll–October 16th, only 15 days and it seems like a lifetime ago–I finished it, read a novel by an Irish writer, read a sort-of biography of Florenz Ziegfeld, and am now halfway through Jeffrey Deaver’s latest novel. 

The question I posed last time is, How do you become the world’s most evil man?  Hitler still trumps Osama Bin Laden, but Osama is at least a close second.  I also stated that I don’t believe you get there by ideology alone, that there are serious psychological issues at play, and I stand by that contention. 

Apparently the Koran says that a man cannot have more than four wives at once.  But a man can divorce a woman for any reason at all (such as, I’ve got four wives, and one of you has to go because I want to have sex with someone else, which means I have to marry them.)  The man is still expected to take care of the woman if she has a child by him;  not sure what his obligations are if there are no children, or if the woman is free to remarry if there are no children.  The man is required by the Koran to give a woman thirty days’ notice before he divorces her, which is the Koran’s version of “fairness”.

So Osama’s father, Mohamed, married Osama’s mother when she was 14 years old (approximately, since as I mentioned earlier, births are not celebrated in Islam, or at least in its extreme form).  Osama was born a year later when she was 15, and Mohamed divorced her before she was 18.  She and Osama lived in a huge compound with all Mohamed’s other wives and children, but held a lowly status. 

Osama seems to have worshipped his mother.  I can picture a scenario where it was the two of them against the world, so to speak.  Isolated and out of favor.  There is a particularly spooky quote, where someone says that Osama used to sit at his mother’s feet and “caress” her. 

Many of Osama’s older half-brothers, and even some of his half-sisters, were sent away to boarding schools all over the world–the U.S., Britain, Lebanon (considered the most “liberal” of the Mideast countries).  Osama went to boarding school too, but it had to be in Saudi Arabia.  It’s there, at approximately 15, that he came under the influence of a teacher who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.  In my opinion, it’s then that his rage and resentment and feelings of neglect came together under the cover of an idea.  The ideology never comes first–the aptitude for it does.  He was ripe for the picking. 

He later said himself that from 15 to 21 is the best age from which to choose people to wage jihad. 

His ideology is not at all uncommon in the Middle East.  Blaming Jews and the U.S. for all ills is rampant.  The difference is the lengths to which Osama was willing to go.  The Koran specifically prohibits killing women and children, for example.  When he was questioned about 9/11, which did just that, he was forced to weasel.  On one hand, as the upholder of “pure” Islam as he fancies himself, he couldn’t say the Koran was wrong.  And he couldn’t say the killing of women and children was accidental.  He had to say, Well, they are killing our women and children, aren’t they?  He is not a great, nor logical, thinker. 

In the end here, what you have is a curious combination of insecurity and megalomania.

So I have revised my opinion as to what we should do about him.  Like many if not most Americans, I’ve held that we should hunt him down like a dog and kill him on the spot.  Now I think that with any luck, it will be the Pakistanis who catch him.  Or the Egyptians, or the Saudis.  Preferably the Saudis.  If we do it, he will only become a martyr, which is what he hopes for and expects. 

It’s the Arab nations who should repudiate and humiliate him.  So he needs to be captured. 

You know, I have a little dog, a Basenji.  Basenjis are African hunting dogs, and classically, they are used in packs to drive small game (e.g., rabbits) into a net, previously strung by the hunters.  That’s what the U.S. needs to be now:  the Basenji.

Reading with Fakename: The Bin Ladens

I’m going through one of my non-fiction phases here.  I did have to give up on Christopher Hitchens for a while, but it won’t be forever.  In search of lighter reading I found the library was bleak in terms of new fiction that sounded interesting or that I hadn’t already read.  So I drifted over to new non-fiction and found The Bin Ladens:  An Arabian Family in the American Century.  It’s by Steve Coll, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his previous book Ghost Wars:  The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.  His editor should be shot for allowing a subtitle of that length, Pulitzer notwithstanding.  For those of you who forget (like me) when the Soviet invasion began, it was 1979.  Two other momentous things happened that same year:  the Iranian revolution, and a siege of the Great Mosque at Mecca by Islamists opposed to the Saudi Arabian royal family.  (They were crushed, with much help from the Bin Ladens.)

For a person who has hated the study of history since birth, I can certainly get into it with a vengeance on occasion.  I think my problem in the past was twofold:  history is poorly taught, I think, and I often didn’t see the relevance of what I was supposed to be learning.  But I wanted to read this book for one reason, which is to answer the question, “How do you become the most evil man on the planet?”  I believe the answer is a psychological one rather than a political one, and after all, politics are merely an extension of psychology. 

That having been said, this book is a riveting look inside the Bin Laden family, life in Saudi Arabia and its royal family, and Middle East politics and Islam in general.  And how all of the above have intersected with the U.S.  I’ve learned an incredible amount, and I am mesmerized in the process. 

Let me just give you a brief snapshot:  Osama Bin Laden was one of 54 children by his father.  I lost count of the number of wives.  By his own estimation, he was probably born in January of 1958.  Births and birthdays are not recorded in Saudi Arabia nor celebrated in any way.  Deaths are followed by three days of mourning–that’s after they take the body of the deceased out to the desert and bury it in an unmarked grave.  The celebration of birthdays is considered a Christian habit, and therefore is haram (forbidden), like eating pork.  I’m astonished more than ever by the level of ignorance in Saudi Arabia.  In the absence of education–tradition, superstition, and conspiracy theories rule.  And the combination of ignorance and great wealth goes a long way toward explaining how you get an Osama Bin Laden. 

Someone has said that you can tell a lot about a country or a society by how it treats women, and nowhere is that more evident than in Saudi Arabia.  I’m not finished with the book–almost–but I’ll have more to say later. 

To close though, Osama’s father died in the crash of a small plane piloted by an employee of his, an American pilot who died too.  Osama was around 9 years old.  Osama’s oldest half-brother, Salem, who was only 21 at the time, became the head of the family.  He had to return to Saudi Arabia from England, where he was in college.  Salem became an international playboy and jet-setter, literally.  He owned an entire fleet of private planes ranging from ultralights to jets, which he piloted himself.    Twenty years or so after the death of their father, Salem piloted an ultralight directly into some power lines.  It was ruled an accident, but there is some suspicion that he did it deliberately.  It happened just outside Houston–in other words, in America.  Osama Bin Laden was long acquainted with planes and death, and with there being an American connection to it, at least in his head.  He wanted to get us back.

A Fragile Melting Pot

Today’s New York Times has an article entitled “A Call To Jihad, Answered in America”–see it here.  I found it to be inexpressibly sad. 

In essence it details the recruitment of young Somali men (all students) from Minneapolis to join an Islamist organization in Somalia.  While none of them ever expressed a desire to harm America or Americans, the FBI is rightly concerned their training and indoctrination will lead them to that step, especially since Al-Queda allegedly actively recruits Muslims with American passports. 

I have a personal story to go along with this.  In January of 1997, I was sent to St. Louis by the company I worked for at the time to take over a large operation with around 100 employees, temporarily as it turned out.  Of those 100 employees, I’d say 20% were American, and of those, the majority were African-American.  The other 80% were about equally divided between Serbians and Somalis.  All the Serbians and Somalis were Muslim, and it was my first ever personal contact with Muslims in the real world.  All 100 of the employees were male.  (You can perhaps sense a looming problem here.) 

All the Serbians were white, and all the Somalis were black.  I therefore expected the Somalis to identify with the majority African-American employees.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  There was a deep resentment, if not hatred, on the part of the Somalis toward the African-Americans, some of whom held supervisory positions.  In time, I was told that a perceived superiority on the part of the African-Americans was to blame.  It was like, “I was born here, you weren’t”.  Skin color was not enough to unite them.  What was left was religion, which united the white Serbians and the black Somalis more than skin color divided them, even though they did not speak the same language.  And in fact with the exception of one Serbian and one Somali, none of them spoke English either.  It’s hard to grasp that kind of isolation.

One day the the Somali  English-speaker came to me and said, more or less, Begging your pardon, but the men are not going to do anything you ask, because it is against our beliefs to take orders from women.  So I could have been stupid and railed about how they were in America now and had to play by America’s rules.  But I’m not that stupid.  I had a job to do.  So I sized up the situation and said, “If I ask you, will you ask them?”  He grinned and said, “Yes”.  He wasn’t stupid either.

As I previously mentioned, it was January in St. Louis.  The temperature was below freezing every day, all day long, and the wind was brutal.  Much our jobs took place outside in the weather.  That particular year, the month of January was also the month of Ramadan.  Ramadan is a month of fasting, followed by the feast of Eid-al-Fitr.  It’s the second holiest day in the Islamic religion.  So these men were working in bitter cold, performing fairly physical labor, without even the relief of something to eat or drink (you can’t even drink water during Ramadan except after sunset and before sunrise).  I developed a deep admiration for them as a result of this and one other thing. 

I’m not religious, and I think the rituals associated with religion are basically superstitious in nature.  However, having said that–I respect people who try to live their religion and live a good life, and if the rituals reinforce that, then they’re okay with me.  So the Muslims in our workforce brought their prayer rugs to work every day, or kept them in their lockers, and at the appointed time, they would pray.  The prayers are short, but in spite of that there were some grumblings among the non-Muslim employees when a task of some urgency needed to be carried out and the Muslims were unavailable to help. 

I was only there for 3 weeks, and it’s been 12 years, but I wonder what happened to them.  Did some of them become terrorists, in this age of terrorism?  I hope not.

By cellphone, instant messaging, and on Facebook, the young men who left kept in touch with their friends in the U.S.  An especially poignant quote from the article:  “They missed movies and basketball, deodorant and boxer shorts, they told friends back home. One of the men, who suffered from heartburn, asked if anyone could send him a box of Tums by DHL.”  In another quote:  

“Even among the world’s jihadists, the young men from Minneapolis are something of an exception: in their instant messages and cellphone calls, they seem caught between inner-city America and the badlands of Africa, pining for Starbucks one day, extolling the virtues of camel’s milk and Islamic fundamentalism the next.”

They were torn between the promise of America and the demands of family and clan on the other.  They were sending money to relatives in Somalia they had never even met, out of their meager wages in menial jobs.  They had the proverbial dilemma–one foot in one country, the other foot in a second country–and never quite felt they belonged in either. 

Even the Imam of their mosque could not dissuade them from going to Somalia.  Stay, he said.  Here you can help your people by becoming a doctor or an engineer.  Over there, you will be just another dead body in the street.  Who knows what psychological factors cause some of these young men to throw away their lives, when others stick it out in spite of the barriers and hardships?  Today at least two of the young men who answered the “call” to Somalia are dead.  One, at the age of 26, blew himself up in Somalia last October. 

This causes me to ask the question, How welcoming are we?  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”.  Right.  Whatever happened to that?