December 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:45:57+01:00September 9th, 2011|Area 51|
Two frames, above and below, from Michael Pacher's 15th-century "Saint Augustine and the Devil."

ell has no virgins but it does have pioneers, a best and brightest whose pecking order is established based on ambition and success. If honoring the dead conforms to a collectively assuaging moral code, honoring the villains is a less agreeable duty. But no less necessary.

A decade ago a group of determined men, split into groups, hijacked three commercial jetliners — not one but three. The improbable act was carried out more or less contemporaneously and represented the opening gambit in a nefarious but meticulous plan. The hijackers seized control of cockpits using primitive weapons and turned over the mini-jumbo jets, Boeing 757s and 767s, to their amateur pilots, who flew them toward pre-arranged targets. In three of the four seizures, the makeshift pilots not only reached their destinations without incident but were able to maneuver their airborne bombs to accomplish precise goals.

In each case, more than sufficient time passed for the hijackers to get cold feet — not so much regarding political or religious convictions but about going through with a suicide mission. The results suggest that no one flinched, which alone unsettled the time-honored ethic of human self-preservation. These pioneers toyed with the adage “hope dies last” and produced an American nervous breakdown that still endures.

For the record, the hijackers were Saudis, awkward but detail-oriented followers of Osama Bin Laden, who for years had preached jihad, or holy war, to avenge two perceived wrongs: American support for Saudi royalty, whose membership he saw as desecrators, and U.S. unconditional backing of Israel, perceived as state terror. He vowed in the 1990s to redress this unfairness with an unfairness of his own and listened to his militant lieutenants when they rightly insisted that only audacious — and pernicious — acts could get affluent and easily-distracted America’s fulltime attention.

The plotters also benefited from luck. The day they chose to carry out their plan was uncobwebbed and pristine. Their most important symbolic effort, ramming into each of New York City’s World Trade Center towers, came mid-morning, in weather tailored to reams of sight.

Had clouds or fog intervened; had night obscured their assault; had the towers themselves remained charred but upright (their collapse was an impotence-making psychological bonus), the success of the plotters would have been incomplete, or at least lessened.

Amazingly, no such encroachment materialized. Instead, the two jets directed at the towers struck lethally true, a wildly ambitious plan perfectly executed, with cameras filming the climax as if on a film set. The final moments, both traumatic and mesmerizing, were repeated millions of times by a mass media apparently unaware that such repetition was not only subversive but mentally sickening. The repetition soon induced bouts of macabre voyeurism and a embroidered a sense of insidious vulnerability that conferred the plotters and their acts with a mystic reach far in excess of their actual power. Ironically or in line with the plan (no one will ever know), the victims infected themselves with demoralizing hysteria and ran toward authority for childlike comfort. This response not only endures but flourishes.

A third plane, wrested from its pilots soon after taking off from Washington, D.C., was improbably made to veer into the base of the Pentagon, where it exploded on the doorstep of the most venerated American military building. As with the bending dive into the New York towers, the hijackers faced a complex landscape and tricky pitfalls, with many large monuments to avoid and a river nearby. They were also in sensitive air space. No matter.

In only one case, on a airliner hijacked from Newark, New Jersey, did passengers successfully intervene to foil the plotters’ plans, forcing a crash into a Pennsylvania field. In the literature of the aftermath, the disruptors were immediately lionized as brave and heavensent souls, martyrs even. As were many New York City firemen who died while doing their jobs. They were mitigation’s only working tools.

But the central fact is this: 19 men between the ages of 20 and 33 set out to hijack four big jets and use them as flying bombs to blow up symbols of American power and mostly made good on their implausible intentions. By succeeding in plain sight, they served up an underworld circus act whose contours previously resided in the realm of comic book sketches and Hollywood disaster films, so many loud puffs of dimissable fiction. Silver screen Americans trained to suspend disbelief when convenient (or necessary) were suddenly duped into a place without an off switch or an exit sign.

The men who did all this have names, though they’re rarely much mentioned any more. Villains, particularly in groups, matter less than the havoc they create. They are the killers of innocents and the makers of widows and orphans. The are a pox on the moral order.

But if a still-anxious society believes it necessary and proper to engineer a lengthy commemoration of its 10-year dead, and it does, so the discerning agents of the netherworld pause to tip a cap to toward the clay men in their fiery tent. To make mass murder is nefarious but straightforward. To put dread on Broadway’s stage and make it stay requires a kind of genius that to get to means to die for.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.