“Infidel, n.  In New   York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion.  In Constantinople, one who does.”

--Ambrose Bierce


 “If you believe in Judgment Day, I have to seriously question your judgment.”

--Bill Maher


 “If the kind of God exists who would damn me for not working out a deal with him, then that is unfortunate.  I should not care to spend eternity in the company of such a person.”

--Mary McCarthy


Recently I saw a movie and a review of another movie, both about 9/11.  One was about the terrible day itself -- the movie about United Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  The other was a review of Zero Dark Thirty, which I haven’t seen.

The Flight 93 movie was about the beginning of the 9/11 tragedy, and the movie that was reviewed could be said to be about its ending, insofar as there can be one (it brought some “closure,” as therapists like to say).  Al Qaeda is much weakened, and, importantly, the snake’s head has been cut off.  Fini.

From the movie and the review, I can tell that you don’t have to do any thinking about the causes of 9/11, about why Osama wanted to attack us (as he’d already done).  That’s because Zero Dark Thirty is about a manhunt, while the Flight 93 movie presented a story that was totally riveting, made not less but more so by its inevitability, because you knew that from the most mundane of aviation/travel beginnings (passengers stowing their carry-ons, captains chatting), a disaster will unfold, and none will survive. 

“An inch ahead, total darkness.” 

--Buddhist proverb

“Flight 93” was reconstructed from all the audio available, so the script practically wrote itself in a vivid and totally believable way.  In the final scene, which is taken from actual audio that the victims’ families allowed to be released, the giant airliner careens all over the place, with people screaming in panic, as the terrorist pilot loses control but tries to keep the passengers from attacking the cockpit.

Wow.  It’s a beautiful September morning, you get on a plane for a routine trip to California, and…

[Aside: The movie was made even more believable by the use of ordinary-looking, virtually unknown actors.  I think I saw a guy from Boston Legal, but that’s about it.  That gave you the feeling that all this was ACTUALLY happening. 

I really hate the star system in Hollywood.  Almost none of these people will go into heavy-makeup roles (exceptions: Paul Newman, Gary Oldman, Dustin Hoffman), lest their pretty faces be unrecognized. 

Recent example: I had read several of the Jack Reacher novels and had a mental picture of what he looked like.  Huge -- his 6’5” height is frequently mentioned – and so big and tough he can kill by bear-hugging/suffocating you, which he does to an equally huge Russian. He can kill you with one blow. 

He most certainly does not look like 5’6’’ Tom Cruise, who plays him in the eponymous movie.  Besides, I couldn’t see the character because I couldn’t get past that all-too-familiar pretty face, couldn’t help thinking, “Hey, that’s Tom Cruise acting.”  My first choice would be a younger John Wayne or Jim Arness, but they’re too recognizable.  So somebody like them – huge and unrecognizable.]

A meditation on torture

OK, sorry for the long aside.  In Zero Dark Thirty, complex and terrifying in its own right, we see torture and what it produces.  One of the Americans appears to express brief regret.  That’s about it, in terms of moral ambiguity.  Apparently torture got us what we wanted.

Or maybe not.  Maybe a lot of it was pointless cruelty.  If the movie had shown two solid hours of torture, it would be a drop in the bucket compared to what our government did in the name of protecting us – the countless abductions/renditions, the barbaric treatment of people who were brought in merely by bounty, the sadistic, lifelong injury to mind and body, completely undeserved, immoral, and kept from the American people.

How could America do all this?  Aren’t we the good guys?  That’s the myth.  But the nation’s behavior proves otherwise.  There is a violent, vengeful streak in our culture, an honor code.  Attack us and there are no limits to our retaliation.

Black rage

It’s difficult for a humanist who looks for facts and realities (who exactly was responsible for 9/11 and why did they do it?) to understand the tidal wave of black, free-form rage that spilled out of America after 9/11. 

IMHO, it was this no-holds-barred, how-DARE-you-attack-us rage that gave us Gitmo, drones, shock and awe (bomb brown people somewhere, and brown people everywhere will take it as a lesson) and the pointless war that followed, Abu Ghraib (American atrocities in the same prison where Saddam committed them!), and the horrors of Zero Dark Thirty, including invading a sovereign nation that’s supposedly our ally.

On the personal level, that rage is easily expressed in torture.   I cannot imagine who could be cruel or angry enough to waterboard someone 180 times.   And the sexual humiliation.  And on and on.

Torture doesn’t work, in many ways.  Apparently, crucial information about Osama’s courier was obtained by traditional interrogation, while torture produced a non-existent link between Saddam and Osama, which was all the Bush/Cheney maniacs needed.  They were preparing for Iraq well before 9/11, and indeed, according to their own Commission’s report, obsession with Iraq precluded any serious attention to Osama’s threats.

Laughing from Paradise?

One reviewer argued that Osama must be laughing from Paradise, which is where martyrs go, because Americans reacted just as he wanted – instead of being diplomatic nice guys, we went on an image-killing, black-rage spree and indiscriminately BOMBED BROWN PEOPLE.  We taught the Muslim world to hate and fear us, just what he wanted.  (But perhaps not: see below.)

There was the same rage after Pearl Harbor, which, I have no doubt, contributed, along with other powerful factors, to the decision to nuke hundreds of thousands of Japanese.  Let’s flatten these mf’ers once and for all.  Give ‘em cancer, too!

But after 9/11, all the criminals who committed the act were dead, and we had no nation-state to go after.  The solution: kill brown people anyway.

OK, I can see Osama's supposed logic of provoking America into a monstrous rage.  But where did he actually say that? 

As a linguist and professional communicator, I tend to look for authenticity and credibility in information.  All kind of reasons have been attributed to Osama and al-Qaeda. The hate our support for Israel.  They hate our freedom.  Our women dress immodestly.  American Idol.

Looking for truth

I have kept my ears open over the years, looking for truth nuggets where I find them.  Here’s one: the ONLY reason I have ever found attributable (several times) directly to Osama was religious: there were infidel feet on holy soil.   The whole country of Saudi Arabia is apparently just one big Muslim wet-dream/theme-park/country-club.  No infidels allowed.

That’s what terrorism is usually about.  Weaker power tells stronger: Get off my land.  It’s what the Israelis did to the Brits 50 years ago.  The Jews also thought their land was holy.

September 11 was about religion, or at least one kind of it: driven by a fundamentalist vision, glorifying suicide, murder, death, and martyrdom, requiring long and deep programming in psychotic fantasy.  I’m not a shrink, but I bet it attracts a certain kind of person.

In 1996, the Gore Commission wargamed several terrorist attack scenarios.  They considered the hijacking/kamikaze scenario, but thought it unlikely, since it would require sustained commitment (learning to fly the planes), ending in suicide.  They were wrong: there ARE people crazy enough to die for a myth – and patient enough to prepare quite elaborately for their grand opportunity.

In any event, religion was almost always there, in the background. The movie showed many scenes of the hijackers preparing themselves with prayer, murmuring prayers as the plane took off, reinforcing their conditioning for the final moment before action.

Neither prayer granted

I found it fascinating, as a neutral third party, that as the plane swerved and dived to its doom, the Christian (and probably Jewish) passengers were praying to their god too!

So do we have different prayers going to the same celestial call center?  Or maybe both sides had it wrong: the Christians’ prayer will not be answered (by, say, HUMANS taking control of the plane soon enough to keep it from diving)…nor will the Muslims’ (they complete their mission and crash into the White House or the Capitol, which would have made 9/11 much worse).

No, neither side’s prayers were answered.  The plane crashed.  But that’s not God.  That’s called physics, human chaos…and fate.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on January 22, 2013 at 10:03pm

To Luara..Thanks for extended and thoughtful comments. 

Of course you and I can't know what's going on in anybody's mind or why they do what they do.  We can only observe the behavior.  Religion aside, there may also be a strong urge to strike back at the Western opporesor.  A friend who knows history says the Muslims are good winners and bad losers -- and they've been losing for 300 years.  But in the last 50 years, the top 5 reasons for US intervention in the Middle East are oil, oil, geopolitics/Israel, oil, and oil.  If we don't get more independent soon (and we won't, trust me), it's only going to get worse. 

US is projected to be a leading exporter of oil in a few decades, presumably via new extraction technologies.  I'll believe it when I see it. 

Didn't know the kamikazes weren't willing.  Hell, once they were locked in, they still had to fly the planes.  Meanwhile, the govt. was prepping the people to meet the invading Allied force with sharpened bamboo sticks.  Similarly, at the end, the Nazis decided they had to "fanaticize" the war.  So there is something to giving one's life for a non-religious cause, no matter how warped.

I read about Saddam's offer too: for the families, money AND bragging reights....what's not to like?

Seriously, I do share your fears about the future.  If not nuclear war (Israel has nukes, no question), then continued involvement in this most intractable of regions.  Our ignorance is boundless - and bound to get us in worse trouble. Bush didn't know about Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Comment by Luara on January 22, 2013 at 6:41pm

ps I read that Saddam Hussein used to pay the families of dead terrorists $25,000 U.S.  That's a lot of money to the average Iraqi. 

I wonder how well just plain money works, to buy suicide terrorism.  Maybe Osama Bin Laden used some of his money for that. 

Comment by Luara on January 22, 2013 at 5:37pm

 the #1 cause of Muslim terrorism is staring us in the face: we keep invading their countries and intervening in their region's politics to oppose first communism, then Islamic terrorism, but always to get the oil.  It pisses them off.

I don't know much about the underlying causes for U.S. intervention in the Middle East - how much of it is bc of oil, how much to try to maintain peace in a volatile region, how much to protect Israel, because of the large Jewish population in the U.S. 

The U.S. got rid of a democratic government in Iran in 1953 and now supports an unpopular gov't in Saudi Arabia.  Deposing the democratically elected leader in Iran may have long-term encouraged terrorism.  I spent some time a couple years ago reading about the causes of terrorism, and one thing that was mentioned was lack of democracy in the terrorist country.  People who don't feel they have power to affect things in legal ways may become terrorists. 

I wonder how much the U.S. oppresses people in the Middle East.  It seems like an incredibly complicated situation there, and it's hard to know whose word to trust on the subject.  There are so many prejudiced views.  People who depend on Middle East oil everyday may want to rationalize U.S. presence there; people with religious axes to grind, grind them; etc. 

The part of it that is about the U.S. demand for oil, we need to fix as soon as we possibly can, to calm down the region and to stop pumping in oil money that funds terrorists.  I don't want a nuclear war, and the U.S. acting this way seems like a way to make nuclear war starting in the Middle East more likely.  I wish the U.S. would switch to home-grown energy and source our energy from electricity - from nuclear power, natural gas etc. - because it seems SO crucial for us to stop acting in an inflammatory way.  People in the U.S. get energy from foreign countries partly because they're afraid of the environmental consequences of getting it locally.  

I wonder if atheist bromide "there are no atheist suicide bombers" is really true.  That's the part that intrigues me. 

I read some of the scholarly articles on what motivates suicide bombers; they emphasize the "band of brothers" mentality; say that there may be overwhelming social pressure to do the glorious act of martyrdom.  Some of the female suicide bombers have been sexually dishonored, and suicide bombing is how they redeem themselves.  Some people have had family members killed by the target.  Some are literally coerced; I read that it's a myth that the Japanese kamikazes in WWII went willingly to their deaths - a lot of them had to be forcibly stuffed into the planes.  Nicole Argo, a postdoc at MIT, interviewed failed suicide bombers in an Israeli jail to understand their motivations, apparently part of what they told her was that it was revenge for a loss:  "Pictures of dead kids had a major affect on me. Many were killed [right] before me, like my friend [whose body] I had to carry in my own arms…"

Human beings are sometimes willing to sacrifice their lives for their communities/nation/families.  (this doesn't contradict evolution, since sometimes they're sacrificing their lives for those who share their genes, also group selection may be operating.)  Religion might have evolved partly to enable this sacrifice, by intensifying group bonding and promising people they'll survive death. 

So I still don't know whether a "strong" atheist, convinced that they won't survive death in any way, could have done 9/11.  We can't reason from our own psychology, because we don't live in the suicide bombers' culture. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on January 22, 2013 at 11:23am

To Lillie...One of the most dangerous precepts built into every religion is the concept of posthumous reward, an existence much better than this one, because if this is all there is, why lay down your life?  (Bill Maher: "If you're going to a better place, why not just kill yourself right now?")

I daresay that every religion proclaims the sanctity of human life, while, elsewere in the Holy Book, there's the command to kill the Other (see Deuteronomy). 

Dying from battle or persecution is one kind of martyrdom, but it takes a special brand of fanaticism, promised rewards, and relentless programming to produce someone willing to go on a suicide mission.  

I think it's 72 virgins, but, even more important, there's some ambiguity in the word, thus some doubt as to whether the promise refers to "virgins" or "white grapes."  What??? I blew myself up and killed 3,000 people...for a bunch of GRAPES?

Comment by Lillie on January 21, 2013 at 11:29pm

Do they really believe they are going to have 64 virgins?  I guess that is really not so far off from pearly gates, streets paved with gold, etc.

I don't think the fact that 9/11 was about religion causes any kind of comparison by our religious sects to the fact that our religions have caused just as much harm.

Comment by Alan Perlman on January 21, 2013 at 8:33pm

Thanks to Russell for kind words.  Good quote.  Of course, Canadians, being sane, would not join us in the Iraq disaster.

To Laura: Thanks for thoughtful comments.  I would answer that while you agree with me that the motivation for 9/11 was US presence on Saudi soil, it is still impossible to separate out the religious motivation: it was not only their country (actually, didn't Osama's group of fanatics originate in Yemen?), but it was also, and undeniably, holy ground.  

You are probably right about the Tamil Tigers not being entorely secular: it's much easier to go on a suicide mission if you believe it is for a transcendant purpose.  Same thing for the WWII kamikazes: died for the Emperor, a quiet little dork of a man who was regarded as a god.

Also agree that the #1 cause of Muslim terrorism is staring us in the face: we keep invading their countries and intervening in their region's politics to oppose first communism, then Islamic terrorism, but always to get the oil.  It pisses them off.

Comment by Luara on January 21, 2013 at 7:22pm

The "they were religious fanatics" explanation for 9/11 may be an example of the fundamental attribution error - the tendency of observers to attribute other's behaviors to dispositional causes (to underestimate the role of situational factors).  In this case, the belief that people are enabled to be suicide bombers by religious faith, rather than personal problems or strategic goals.  Robert Pape did a study on suicide bombers, claiming that the motivation is strategic not religious, and that the motivation for 9/11 was to end the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia.  The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have been cited as an example of nonreligious suicide bombers, because they have a Marxist ideology.  However they come from a mainly Hindu background and maybe they believe their souls will survive suicide bombing because of that. 

Atheists do go to war and die just as religious people do; although being a soldier isn't certain death, as suicide bombing is. 

It's a very important question to ask, why do people hate the U.S. that much, that they could do something like 9/11.  And is there anything we can do about it.  We wouldn't like it if foreign soldiers were stationed in the U.S.. 

Comment by Russell Pangborn on January 21, 2013 at 2:19pm

Liked your quotes and your points.   I remember as a Canadian agonizing over if it was a good idea for Canada to go into Iraq with the U.S. and our leader, Jean Chretien's decision that it was not a good idea.  Now that we have more information Jean was right.  Unfortunately the guy who wanted to join the U.S. in this war that made enemies out of innocent people is now our current Prime Minister (Stephen Harper). 

I'll add one of my favorite Bertrand Russell quotes to your list:

“War does not determine who is right - only who is left”

Comment by Alan Perlman on January 19, 2013 at 6:54pm

Thanks for reading.  I wonder if any or all of the above could be said of the young men who did the torturing.

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