Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

9/11: An Analysis of Evil

A month ago today, people throughout the United States commemorated the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At 7:59 A.M., American Airlines Flight 11, with 92 passengers aboard, took off from Logan International Airport in Boston en route to Los Angeles. Within 20 minutes, an alarm goes off notifying ground control that the plane has been hijacked, and the FBI is notified. Sometime over the course of the next five minutes, the pilots were killed, and the terrorists take control of the airplane. This plane hits the North Tower a little over 20 minutes later, at 8:46 A.M. A little over 15 minutes later, at 9:03 A.M., United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. Flight 175 had 65 passengers, and had, like Flight 11, taken off from Boston heading towards L.A.

 

The city descended into a state of chaos. The FAA temporarily banned all flights into and out of New York City, and the Port Authority closed all tunnels and bridges in the area. [1] There were roughly 2,753 victims, who ranged in age from babies to the elderly. [2] American Airlines Flight 77, taking off from Washington, D.C. that same day, was also hijacked, and crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 A.M., killing all 59 passengers and 125 people within the building. [1]

Most Americans at that time were oblivious to the warning signs. As early as a month earlier, Osama bin Laden – the head of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, which organized the event – had already approved of the terrorist attack, and was planning the final details.  At that time, there were a total of 70 FBI investigations of Osama bin Laden, none of which dealt his associates who would eventually perpetrate the attacks, some of whom were living in the United States. For example, Zacarias Moussaoui, an Egyptian-born al-Qaeda recruit, had been living in Minnesota attending flight school since August 11, and  others involved – namely Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi – had been living in the United States since January of 2000. al-Hamzi, Mohammad Atta, and Hani Hanjour – all of whom were involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks – flew to Las Vegas to continue plans. The government continued to fail to take action in spite of how both the counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke and CIA counter-terrorism chief Cofer Black claimed that al-Qaeda was a threat, and the FBI, starting on August 15, conducted investigations on one of those involved (Moussaoui), which eventually result in his arrest and deportation. One of the terrorists on Flight 77 had bought airplane tickets as early as 17 days earlier, in spite of being put on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. [3]

 

The terrorist organization that planned 9/11 had already been in existence for roughly 15-20 years. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and Muslims throughout the Middle East, seeing this as a sign of Western aggression, began to flock into Afghanistan to support the Afghan war effort. One of them was Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman. Only 23 years old at that time, bin Laden was at a young age attracted to the teachings of the Palestinian Sunni Muslim preacher and theologian Abdullah Azzam, who promoted a militant fundamentalist form of Islam centered on the notion of jihad as a literal military conflict against those who threaten Islamic society. Bin Laden saw the Afghan military efforts against the Soviets – which, in many ways,  were rooted in the belief that the Soviet-Afghan war was a war between the Islamic world and the West – as the opportunity to make this vision a reality. Bin Laden poured large amounts of his wealth into the war efforts, and him and Azzam teamed up to form an organization dedicated to finding new recruits. After the Soviet-Afghan war ended in 1989, bin Laden and Azzam took part in efforts to create a formal organization dedicated to spreading the mission of the Afghan war worldwide. They established an official headquarters, referred to in Arabic as al-Qaeda (“the base”), hence their name. When Azzam died shortly thereafter, bin Laden became the sole leader of al-Qaeda. [4]

 

Bin Laden then traveled to Sudan, where he began to form a series of alliances with radical militant groups throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East. This helped to bring about immense support for his newly founded terrorist group. As early as the early 1990’s, bin Laden began to see the United States, which became the sole superpower in the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the greatest evil in the world, and declared war on the United States. Bin Laden had already been heading in this direction for a while, and already had the seeds of such a view, due to his pan-Islamist and anti-Western mentality. But, the main impetus for his decision to formally declare a worldwide jihad against America was America’s involvement in the Somali Civil War. Al-Qaeda claimed that those with connections to it were involved in attacks against the United States military in Somalia, most notably the shooting down of two Black Hawk helicopters. Al-Qaeda also took responsibility for the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. [4] In February of 1998, Sudan, under international political pressure, forced bin Laden to leave. Later that year, bin Laden ordered terrorists to attack the American embassy in Kenya and Tanzania, which resulted in the deaths of 224 people. [5] In 2000, he also ordered the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole, an American military ship stationed off the coast of Yemen, which resulted in the death of 17 American sailors. [4]

 

The United States, prior to this, had actually provided financial and military support to al-Qaeda. In the 1980’s, during the height of the Soviet-Afghan War, the United States,  due to its anti-Soviet political policies, gave money and weapons to the mujahadeen, some of whose leaders, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were strongly anti-Communist, as were many American leaders at that time. Seemingly unaware or uncaring of the radical Islamic trends within within the Afghan resistance, the United States saw the Soviet defeat in the Soviet-Afghan War and the decline in the Soviet Union taking place shortly thereafter as nothing more than a major victory for democracy, capitalism, and the West in general. Yet, after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, so did American political interests. The mujahadeen quickly split into a series of factions, each one with their own vision of what Afghanistan should be like going forward, and with their advanced weaponry and military training, they  engaged in intense civil war. These tensions resulted in a fundamentalist regime known as the Taliban taking power in 1991, which had close ties to al-Qaeda. [6] Both the United States and Saudi Arabia (whose government was strongly pro-Western) collectively poured a total $500 million into Afghanistan in the period between 1986 and 1989. Osama bin Laden himself personally worked closely with, and was trained by, the United States military. As early as the late 1990’s, when al-Qaeda was first starting to gain international notoriety for its terrorist activity and anti-American views, some news sources were already describing al-Qaeda (which, by this point, monopolized international Islamic terrorism) as a monster of our creation. What was once seen as strategic anti-Communist policy in the Middle East has now come back to haunt us. [7] And we are not the only ones – Saudi Arabia, fearing backlash from bin Laden’s strongly militant viewpoint, sent bin Laden, one of their own citizens and a former beneficiary, into exile at the turn of the 1990’s. [8]

 

Many Americans were shocked at the terrorist attacks of September 11. Part of me feels that the anger and existential angst this instilled in the American populace will remain with many living Americans who remember the event for the rest of their lives. Yet, what seemed like an out of the blue terrorist attack was the result of an intricate chain of geo-political cause and effect spanning roughly 20 years, and resulted from the utter and immeasurable hatred and fanaticism of those who perpetrated this immense act of evil, and the short-sightedness of American foreign policy.

 

To face such great amounts of evil is, in many ways, paralyzing. Much ink has been spilled in the attempt to understand and come to terms with evil. One dynamic of evil at play here is described well by the philosopher Lars Svendsen in his work A Philosophy of Evil. In this work, he examines the various elements found in the concept of evil, one of which is the personification of evil. The personifying of evil often leads to the multiplication of evil. Svendsen writes,

 

As human beings, we struggle to find meaning; in seeking meaning and in creating meaning, we create ideas that become bases for actions. Two of our most central concepts are “good” and “evil,” and these are often correlated with the differences between “us” and “them.” Devils, or other people, are always others – never oneself. [9]

 

Svendsen continues: The formation of distinctions between groups is not intrinsically evil, and in fact is an essential part of the formation of a sense of self-identity. Nonetheless, the distinction between the in-group and the out-group often takes the form of an asymmetry or antithesis: the in-group can easily become the personification of virtue, while the out-group, with its own distinct (and in the eyes of the in-group, incomplete or deficient) value system, becomes the personification of evil. Note how one never applies these same standards of evil to oneself or ones group. [10] Even when evil is done within ones group, one will desperately grasp at straws to separate themselves from the evildoers, or rather to separate the evildoers from the group. Members of a religion caught in scandal were “never really true believers.” Whenever any member of any religion, political party, or ethnic group does something bad, there is always the swift attempts taken to emphasize that such individuals are not representative of the group at large. These out-group members, as the personification of evil, can be the object of as much hatred and violence as is necessary to keep them at bay, or even to utterly destroy them if necessary. Svendsen summarizes the negative effects of this in the following manner: “[I]t’s tragic that we so often introduce more evil into the world by attacking something we have mistakenly judged to be evil itself.” [11]

 

9/11 was a classic case of this. Svendson notes how Osama bin Laden described his brand of terrorism as a “good” type of terrorism, as it was taking vengeance on America for all of its prior evils. [12] America is frequently described in fundamentalist Islamic circles as “the great Satan.” Terrorists are seen as the guardians of truth and virtue, as it is understood in the Islamic worldview, and America and its allies are the vessels of the devil. All violent activity takes a similar view – one group is the arbiter and protector of truth, and the other side is the manifestation of all evil. All religions and political ideologies – including Christianity – claim to have the fullness of the truth, while their ideological opponents are wrong. Yet, unless one is a particularly depraved person who willingly desires to lead people astray, most supporters of rival ideologies, as persons, are depicted as people who, while acting out of good faith, have been misguided or are simply ignorant. When the division between the truth-bearers and those who are wrong, between the virtuous and the vicious, becomes infused with a sense of hatred, supporters of rival ideologies themselves become personified evil. Evil is to be hated, fought against and utterly destroyed whenever possible; but, when man’s sense of moral indignation itself becomes contaminated by that which should rouse within us a sense of moral indignation, our fellow man becomes the object of hatred.

 

This goes against the evangelical command to forgive and to extend love towards all, both neighbor and enemy. In the case of terrorist activity – religiously motivated or otherwise – the outsider becomes seen less as a person to be converted to the truth, and more as an obstacle to one’s personal or group fulfillment. The former requires love, but the latter requires merely visceral hatred. Love requires us to extend beyond the self, and act for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. But, hatred does not requires this. Hatred, in this context, is very inward turning: instead of finding ways to create peace between individuals and groups, or acting for the good of all, one can turn in on their group or on the self and say that the good of the group or the self is the highest good, and any person who stands in the way of this – in this case, more moderate Muslims, members of rival Islamic sects, non-Muslims – are to be done away with.

 

A member of al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group may say that they do desire the conversion of the infidel, but since they refuse, they must be killed. In killing those who resist Islam and creating a perfect society centered on Islamic ideals, they are glorifying God and helping the human race. But their actions, which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people, bear the fruits of hatred, not of love of God or neighbor.

 

 

The ultimate cause of this is turning inward in a disordered way. Whether on a personal level or a group level, we make our own perceptions, our own thoughts, our own emotions the end-all-and-be-all, thereby creating an illusory world that justifies our evil. This can be seen even among those who claim to possess the truth. There is objective truth, and we need to defend it and promote it at all costs. Yet, since truth is intimately tied with love and goodness, those who are truly devoted to the truth never take part in hateful or wicked means to defend the truth. They bear the proper fruits of devotion to the truth. A person with a false devotion to the truth may, on a purely intellectual or emotional level, assent to the truth, but their devotion to the truth leads to the belief that they are the final arbiters of right and wrong, good and evil, and others who do not conform to this are seen as being worthy of scorn until and unless they change.

 

 

In today’s society, with its strong emphasis on moral relativism, any strong adherence to the claim that there is objective truth is seen as a sign of fanaticism. Yet, sincere devotees to the truth have one important difference: they live in terms of something beyond themselves, they see themselves as being called to serve the truth and serve their neighbors in the truth. False devotees to the truth see the truth as something that justifies a self-centered vision of reality: “I own the truth, and now I will use this to justify remaking reality in my own image.” The only thing separating the self-righteous from the selfish is the ideology they use to justify their actions, in whether or not they try to dress it up as something noble. There is thus a sense of humility and self-giving love that defines the true devotee to the truth.

 

 

Terry Eagleton, in his work On Evil, uses as an example of this reality the novel Pincher Martin. The main character becomes shipwrecked, and has to try to find a way to survive. Yet, it is later revealed that, during the whole ordeal, he was dead, and had died during the initial shipwreck. Over the course of the novel, the author describes the main character’s backstory. It is revealed that he was a very self-centered and self-serving individual. His entire vision of reality was thus an outward projection of his own immediate wants and needs, and the entire narrative framework of the novel is meant to show that things had gotten so bad that he was incapable of differentiating between the illusory world he had created for himself and reality. And all of this is accompanied by a certain lack of self-awareness: the more we get absorbed into our illusory world, the more we forget that it is just that, a world of illusions, which allows us to further be absorbed into such a worldview. As Eagleton writes:

 

 

…[T]he hero’s monstrous ego…is unable to reflect on itself. Human consciousness cannot nip behind itself, since when we reflect on ourselves it is still we who are doing the reflecting. Our sense of the murky regions from which consciousness springs is itself an act of consciousness, and thus already remote from that realm. But neither can Pincher Martin know himself for what he really is, in the sense of getting a fix on his own predatory nature. If he were able to do this, he might be able to repent, and so to die for real. As it is, he is stuck fast within his own skull. … He is literally living in his own head. Hell is not other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre claimed. It is exactly the opposite. It is being stuck for all of eternity with the most dreary, unspeakably monstrous company of all: oneself. [13]

 

 

Eagleton speaks of the underlying mindset that lays the basis for Pincher Martin’s personality:

 

 

“He was born,” a colleague remarks, “with his mouth and flies open and both hands out to grab.” … Martin uses other people as instruments of his own profit or pleasure…Martin, as we have seen, is a rationalist who treats the world, including his own and others bodies, as mere valuless stuff to be molded by his impervious will. All that counts is his own brutal self-interest. [14]

 

 

Svendson notes how the notion that violence among individuals is caused by low self-esteem is an oversimplification at best. Many people who take part in acts of violence have a very high self-image. Violence is thus not a desire to create chaos; rather, it is a desire to bring forth order out of chaos: those who do evil on a personal level feel that they are so important, or so correct, that it is easy for them to over-exaggerate any offense against them. They are thus taking revenge, and thus reestablishing a warped sense of personal justice. [15]

 

 

You see this mindset among proponents of radical Islam: Islam is the truth; yet, the rise of secularism and modernization within the Middle East, divisions within the Islamic faith, and political intervention by outside forces offsets the growth of a perfect, ideal Islamic world. The only solution, the only way to reestablish justice, is to demonize the other, those who oppose or undermine the establishment of an ideal Islamic world, and either convert or destroy them at all costs.

 

 

Such a worldview presupposes either a warped understanding of truth, goodness and justice, or a warped understanding of how to obtain truth, justice and goodness. To be comfortable in such a view presupposes the mindset described by Eagleton: you’re good as you are; there is no need to improve; all of your issues are caused by others and not by yourself; you have the right to use the world around you however you desire to obtain your own ends. Svendson touches upon this: people who commit acts of violence on a personal level have such a high view of themselves that anything bad that happens to them is a slight or offense against someone too important to be slighted or offended. Violence is thus necessary to rectify the situation. When applied to a group level, it results in the in-group becoming the personification of all good, and the out-group becoming the personification of all evil.

 

 

And this makes manifest the sin of pride. Islamic extremists – or any other similar individual or group – will describe themselves as the humble servants of some higher good, in this case Allah and the Islamic faith. No pride or self-will here, they claim. But, no one who truly serves God or the truth desires to hurt others, or uses force to bring people to the truth. Their hatred, fanaticism, and violence is a sign that, whether consciously or unconsciously, their actions are born not out of a desire to spread the truth, but to remold the world in their own image. Yes, it is true that even Christians will say that the world is not as it should be, and this can only be fixed by conforming the world to the Gospel message. Yet, true Christians do not use force to attain this end. And further, it is almost built into the very DNA of Christianity to be distrustful of having too much power or too much popularity, not because these things are bad and can’t be used to further the Gospel message, but because Christianity is acutely aware of how there is a thin line between using power for good and using the good as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. We see this in such texts as Matthew 20:20-28, John 13:34, Matthew 16:24-26, and Matthew 20:16. The one who promotes the truth must be a servant. Conquest thus plays no role in Christian spirituality, except in a figurative, metaphorical or spiritual sense (i.e., through good works we conquer sin). But the desire for literal conquest is very much an ever-present feature in radical Islamic spirituality. Given this, one must ask how much of radical Islamic thought is in fact rooted in the desire for power.

 

 

Pride is traditionally seen as the root of all sin. This is because pride is traditionally defined as having an over-blown sense of ones own goodness or self-worth, as a result of which we refuse to submit to God and admit our complete and utter dependence on God. THIS is the root of all sinful desires and actions. [16] And when one is willing to use violence to spread the truth (or a perceived truth), this showcases not a sense of love inspired by a devotion to the truth, but rather a disordered sense of love – a love of power, a love of self, a love of simply being right – which is manifests man’s falleness and pride. Only when man, by God’s grace, begins to think beyond such a frame of mind can the hatred that laid the basis for the September 11 terror attacks be counteracted.

 

 

Sources:

  1. “9/11 Timeline,” published by History.com on July 21, 2011. Accessed on https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/9-11-timeline
  2. “September 11 Terror Attacks Fast Facts,” published by CNN.com on September 3, 2011. Accessed on: https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/27/us/september-11-anniversary-fast-facts/index.html
  3. Brian Ross, “While America Slept: The True Story of 9/11”, published in September 2011 on ABC.com. Accessed on https://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/ten-years-ago-today-countdown-911/story?id=14191671
  4. Bill Moyers, “Brief History of al Qaeda,” published on PBS.org. Accessed on: https://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07272007/alqaeda.html
  5. Ty McCormick “Al Qaeda Core: A Short History,” published on ForeignPolicy.com, March 17, 2014. Accessed on: https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/03/17/al-qaeda-core-a-short-history/
  6. Greg Myre, “When The U.S. Backs Rebels, It Often Doesn’t Go As Planned,” published on NPR.org on September 20, 2014. Accessed on: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/09/20/349549267/when-the-u-s-backs-rebels-it-doesnt-often-go-as-planned
  7. Andrew Marshall, “Terror ‘blowback’ burns CIA,” published in The Independent on November 1, 1998. Accessed on: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/terror-blowback-burns-cia-1182087.html
  8. “Osama bin Laden,” published by History.com on September 16, 2009. Accessed on: https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/osama-bin-laden
  9. Lars Svendson, A Philosophy of Evil, translated by Kerri A. Pierce (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), pg. 123.
  10. ibid., pg. 124
  11. ibid., pg. 123
  12. ibid., pg. 126
  13. Terry Eagleton, On Evil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), pg. 22
  14. ibid., pg. 20, 23
  15. Svendson, pg. 132-135
  16. For a theologically sound treatment of the nature of pride, see Joseph Delany, “Pride,” originally published in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 12(New York City: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). Accessed on: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12405a.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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