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9/11 Revisited | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 8, 2006

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The fifth anniversary of the wanton destruction of the World Trade Center Towers is upon us. We ask ourselves: "Were the three thousand people killed somehow 'legitimate' targets?" and, "What was this attack about?" On the accuracy and clarity of our responses everything depends, including the purpose of reason itself. Yet, we are perplexed by the myriad of conflicting and contradictory explanations for the central cause of this day, now called, without further reference, "9/11."

The best anyone can do in these circumstances, it seems, is to provide a solid and well-considered opinion. This is what I shall try to do here. An "opinion" is an informed judgment based on suitable and available evidence concerning possible actions or explanations. The opinion on which one acts could be wrong, but we always act with some lack of clarity. We are irresponsible in many crucial instances, moreover, if we do not seek to find a plausible and accurate opinion about human events, about what they mean.

All human action takes place with partial information. The fear of being wrong in practical affairs is not the beginning of wisdom but the beginning of self-chosen paralysis. As Eric Voegelin said, we need not embrace the errors of our time. Still, we cannot pretend that such errors do not occur; they must be dealt with. Opinions are necessarily the grounds of all political actions, including wars, especially wars. Seldom are things simply black or white. The most we can have is "practical" certainty or judgment, as Aristotle called it. But opinions are not merely vague guesses. At their best, they are based on evidence and experience. They can (and in the case of prudence do) penetrate to the reality that stands midst the flow of other views. Nor, however tempting, are opinions excuses for theoretic skepticism.

The human mind is able to "invent," to use Cicero's word, almost any explanation for some fact or event that really happens. This is, after all, what detective stories are about. The "invention" is the line of reasoning by which we arrive at the intelligibility of what went on. Even when the actors in and the consequences of a deed are fairly well known and sorted out, it is still possible to "explain" them in different manners. This difference of interpretation should not surprise us. Indeed, after five years there is even a small group of professors -- who else? -- that insists "9/11" was an American political plot having nothing to do with Muslims. Almost anything can be "imagined" if one has a motive.

In the intervening five years, then, we have heard almost every conceivable reason for the attack -- except perhaps the best one. When we examine the differing analyses coming from various Islamic sources, from Europe, from professors, from experts, from politicians of widely different persuasions, we cannot but be astonished at the fertility of the human mind in coming to opposite explications for the same event. Without the solid reality of the event itself, we have nothing to check the meanderings of our own minds. All is reduced to irresolvable speculation.

Usually, these alternative explanations will likewise reveal the underlying principles of the individual or group proposing them. But I do not consider this likelihood to be an argument that everything is subjective. Everyone still claims to be dealing with facts, based on evidence. In this sense, two things go on simultaneously: the knowledge of the facts and the explanation of what we want these facts to mean for our own purposes. Usually, our politics or our philosophy direct us not so much to the facts we see, but to the meaning we give to them. Though a few people still maintain that men did not land on the moon several decades ago, no one today maintains that the World Trade Towers are still standing. I was across the river in New Jersey the other day looking at the Manhattan skyline. The Towers are gone. I once was at a Georgetown Banquet at the top of one of those Towers; it has just disappeared, but I know I was there. But the fact that it is not there does not explain why it is not there, nor do most of the "why's" that we have heard since that time explain it, though most contain some truth or plausibility lest they be not credible at all (however, the theory that it was an American plot deserves no credence at all.)

Of course, we know, in another meaning of the word "cause," that the World Trade Centers were destroyed because passenger planes, hijacked by young Muslim men who shrewdly prepared themselves just for that purpose, rammed planes into the buildings. We know the "physics," as it were, of what happens to such buildings when planes explode against their sides. We are not sure that these men or their instigators were not themselves clever enough at building mechanics to have intended precisely the astonishing result they achieved. In fact, the plot's stunning success may have surprised even them. In any case, we know that many people in Muslim cities cheered the event as a "success." As far as I know, we have received no "apology" from those who claim responsibility. They did not warn their intended victims. They were not "saddened" by their success, but content with it. Nor did anyone of them offer "reparations" for the damage they caused. This implies that, in their own minds, what they did was not unjust but an act of virtue. The pilots and their henchmen were, in their own estimation, "martyrs," not "killers."

I argued from the very beginning that the attacks had already begun in the previous two decades with various bombings of ships, embassies, and aircraft in other places throughout the world, and that the driving motivation behind them was not secular, nor political, but religious. What was going on came from a theological understanding of Muslim purpose in the world. Even those Muslims, however few or many they be, who did not think that such means were the wisest ones to use, none the less, understood the legitimacy of the purpose behind them.

I further argued that, by not acknowledging this motivation, we, in a sense, did not do justice to what was going on; we did not, that is, do justice to the men who conceived and carried out the destructive plan. We thus wandered off into fields of explanation that were elaborate, sophisticated, "scientific," and often self-serving, but which did not correspond to what we were seeing, to what these men said of themselves. Basically, it seemed to me that by calling this a war on "terrorism" a war against "fanatics" or "madmen," we, in a real way, demeaned both our enemies and ourselves. We did not want to look in the eye of the real storm.

If, on the other hand, we want to call this a "war of civilization," well and good, provided that we realize, following Christopher Dawson, that civilizations are themselves expressions of religions, or pseudo-religions we now call "ideologies." No civilization in the history of mankind is less amenable to a purely secular explanation of what it does than Islam. Our efforts to explain this war in terms of Western philosophy or science, however elaborate, fail to get at the central issue, the belief that everyone ought to be Muslim, that this is the will of Allah on earth, that there can be no long-term rest until this submission is brought about and "peace" ensues. This motive, invisible to "science," is quite visible to those who see it as an abiding mission over time, over centuries. What most handicaps us is an idea that such a purpose cannot abide over time and take various differing forms of reincarnation, including one in our own day.


Let me first run through a number of opinions claiming that the cause of the war is not primarily "religion." One view would be that religion is a kind of superstructure to economic issues. Either Islam, because of its own principles, is a cause of economic underdevelopment, or it is the victim of other's greed. Thus, in this quasi-Marxist approach, it is all explained by an economic theory. Islam is not a problem, economics is.

Some sources insisted that the Iraq war was about oil. It is true that oil is the source of enormous Muslim wealth used to finance any expansion effort on its part. Mosques all over Europe and the United States are built and financed by this wealth. But the value of oil has little or nothing to do with economies or inventions that came from Muslim sources. Even the national land theory that gives a state or a sheik control over certain oil lands is a result of Western political views about private and public property. If one used the theory, sometimes seen in Catholic circles, that the riches of the earth first belong not to those who own the land but to "mankind," we might even deprive these states of the legal right to collect these riches from the land they control.

Another view, that of the famous novelist Salman Rushdie, is that within Islam itself there has arisen a new form of totalitarianism, resembling either Nazism or Fascism. Rushdie, along with several other writers and intellectuals, recently signed a manifesto against Islamism that stated, in part: "After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism.... Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations." This view admits that a "totalitarian" issue exists within Islam, but denies that it comes from anything in Islam itself, either directly or in logic. Thus, those Muslims who claim that what they do is to carry out the will of Allah are in effect heretics, however much they, in turn, claim Rushdie has betrayed Allah in his novels and thus deserves the death that they decree for him.

David Warren, in the Sunday Spectator, downplayed the notion that what we are witnessing is a new and improved resurgence of a strong Islam. Islam by every military and economic standard is incapable of any significant military threat. Its rate of real economic growth in all its lands is near the bottom. Even the bombs and explosives used by terrorists are invented and usually manufactured by the West. As a result, Islam is in a state of lethargy. Largely because of its own theories and vices, it cannot definitively act even against weak opponents like those coming from Islamic countries. This view, of course, corresponds with the view of many of Islam's most ardent proponents of violence. They see that the corrupt West is undermining even Muslim values and hence must be destroyed. Obviously, this theme of moral corruption in the West has many Christian proponents as well, and contains a good deal of truth.

Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir takes yet another view. He maintains that the current problem in the Middle East is not religious but political in nature. It goes back to the very foundations of Israel as an independent state after World War II. The Western powers at that time imposed on the Middle East a Jewish state as a kind of conscience payment for their failure to protect the Jews from Hitler. Thus, one injustice was replaced with another. The Islamic world, generally speaking, did not itself have anything to do with Hitler. So the political solution proposed for a Jewish homeland was simultaneously an injustice to Arab peoples already living in that area.

Samir does not deny the legal existence of Israel, which is fully recognized; that situation cannot be changed. What he argues, rather too easily, is that "no war ever accomplishes anything," especially the recent ones. ("Does that include World War II?" one wonders.) One might recall, in fact, that the reason why most existing Muslin states control the areas over which they rule was the result of wars that can only be described as "successful" in terms of permanent control. Many of these conquered lands in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia were once Christian. In the case of Spain, its "re-conquest" of prior Muslim invasions of the peninsula seems permanent (or at least did), aside from Spain's current decline in birth rate and influx of Muslim immigrants. The fact is, were it not for two battles, Tours and Vienna, against invading Muslim forces, all of Europe might well have Muslim long ago.

In any case, Samir proposes -- and it is a good proposal as far as it goes -- the establishment of a Middle Eastern Union with International Peace Keeping Forces together with a basic agreement about common diplomatic principles. He does not concern himself with the earlier history of Islam but begins with the post-World War II situation. He admits it is a kind of "utopian" solution, but thinks that it is at least worth trying. The only problem I would have with this proposal is that it does not seem to take into account the corresponding "utopian" motivations of the group within Islam that we now designate as "terrorists," the very ones who think that what they are doing is carrying out the mission given to Islam by Allah.

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