Rose Jacobs of London's Financial Times reviews two new books about mass murderers and asks: "Are ordinary men permanently transformed by the evil they do? The Rwandan killers defend themselves by saying theirs were acts of war -- a defense also employed by Nazi war criminals. But this is not to say that they fail to understand the horror of their deeds. The hijackers were similarly self-justifying -- all non-Muslims were infidels, according to their interpretation of the Koran, justifying brutal acts. . . . [T]he grasping at justification by 'evil-doers' is almost encouraging in itself -- it is, after all, something we can all understand . . ." ...
Art & Weekend
POINT OF NO RETURN
By Rose Jacobs
Financial Times (UK)
July 15, 2005
[Review of Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It, by Terry McDermott (HarperCollins, 2005), $25.95, 330 pages; and Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Linda Coverdale (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005), $24, 253 pages.]
In the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, a rumor spread that some of the hijackers had spent their last nights before death with American prostitutes. The information was greeted by some people as further evidence of the hijackers' depravity: the men were not just terrorists, but hypocrites, indulging in the very culture they condemned and sought to destroy.
In fact, the stories were not true; on the eve of the attacks, two of the 19 hijackers inquired about hiring prostitutes but in the end deemed the price too high. This detail underscores a reaction many other Americans had to such anecdotes -- it was proof, almost comforting, that the hijackers were not holier-than-thou holy warriors but merely men, boys even, prone to the same desires and whims as the rest of us.
That these murderers could be ordinary people committing extraordinary crimes may seem a radical formulation in the face of the Bush administration's rhetoric of good versus evil. However, it is not a new notion. Hannah Arendt, writing about the criminal trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, recognized that one of the men instrumental to carrying out Hitler's genocide against the Jews was, in fact, foolish, craven and, finally and most famously, banal. Bush's concerns -- separating "good men" from "evil-doers", and rooting out and punishing the latter -- belong to the realm of law and justice. But the rest of the world, politicians included, will find a different dividing line more relevant: in Arendt's words, "how long it takes an average person to overcome his innate repugnance towards crime, and what exactly happens to him once he has reached that point."
Two new books attempt to tackle this question by examining the lives of the men (in these cases they were all men) who perpetrated some of humanity's more recent morally repugnant crimes: the attacks of September 11, 2001, which led to the deaths of about 3,000 people on a single day, and the 1994 Rwanda genocide, during which about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered over the course of 100 days.
Perfect Soldiers, a painstakingly researched account of the lives of the September 11 hijackers by Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott, sets the record straight regarding the supposed September 10 prostitutes. It also tells the histories of the Hamburg four, the pilots and on-the-ground co-ordinators of the attacks who first met in Germany; of the members of the informal collection of young men sometimes called the "Martyrs brigade", whom Osama bin Laden and his Afghanistan-based cohort chose to provide extra manpower on each hijacked flight; as well as of bin Laden himself; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the attacks; and Hambali, the Indonesian leader of a south-east Asia terror operation and al-Qaeda collaborator in the region.
McDermott's unique offering to the ever-growing literature of terrorism is his work on the Hamburg group, a loose gaggle of Muslim students studying abroad and immigrants seduced by their religion's most radical elements. His account is pieced together with the usual detritus of government reports, bank statements and mobile-phone logs, but enhanced hugely by interviews with the hijackers' friends, families, neighbors and fellow students. Muhammed Atta's squabbles with his university-assigned roommates even make for amusing reading: he sulked after being dragged out to see "The Jungle Book" and would leave plates of mashed potato (his favoured source of sustenance, as he found eating "boring") in the fridge for a week at a time, causing other food to soak up the smell.
More telling details also emerge, from the chemistry between the young men as their interest in radical Islam coalesced, to the extent to which the character of their home countries spurred on that growing interest and commitment, to what appear to be vacillations by a few of the men, before leaving for the U.S., as to whether to carry out the plan.
Though bogged down at its centre by a summary of the Soviet-Afghan conflict and resulting formation of Islamic military camps and terror groups in the region, the book also gives a sense of how normal it was in some parts of the Arab world to send young men off for a fighting-holiday in Afghanistan. Jihad is not the loner's game one might imagine from the hijackers' suicide notes or bin Laden's self-indulgent diatribes.
The power of the group also reverberates through Machete Season, a collection of interviews by French journalist Jean Hatzfeld with nine Hutu men who took part in the Rwanda genocide. The gang were friends before the genocide and were aged between 20 and 50 at the time of the killings. hey hacked their neighbours --and many others -- to death with machetes on an almost nine-to-five schedule that took the place of their farm work for the better part of four weeks. Hatzfeld chose his interview subjects not because their stories were unique to the tragedy, but because they lived on the same three hills that were home to a group of genocide survivors he had interviewed for a previous book published in 2000.
He comes to the killers in an elliptical fashion, and arranges the book that way - a stark contrast to McDermott's thorough and earnest approach. "The sooner we come to understand what is happening, the sooner we will have a chance to stop it," writes McDermott in his preface. "Until we do understand, we have no chance at all." Hatzfeld does not seem as sure that understanding Arendt's moment -- when an average person overcomes his innate repugnance to a crime -- is feasible.
When the killers do speak, that moment becomes a black hole, ready to suck in all logic, research and attempts to understand. Speaking about his first murder of a Tutsi, one of the younger, more likeable men, Pio, says: "I had killed chickens but never an animal the stoutness of a man, like a goat, or a cow. The first person, I finished him off in a rush, not thinking anything of it, even though he was a neighbour, quite close on my hill.
"In truth it came to me only afterward: I had taken the life of a neighbour. I mean, at the fatal instant I did not see in him what he had been before; I struck someone who was no longer either close or strange to me, who wasn't exactly ordinary any more . . . like the people you meet every day. His features were indeed similar to those of the person I knew, but nothing firmly reminded me that I had lived beside him for a long time . . . He was the first victim I killed; my vision and my thinking had grown clouded."
Hatzfeld must tease from the killers' remarks some grain of truth amid much dissembling and self-deluding chaff. And in that struggle, a new question arises: are ordinary men permanently transformed by the evil they do? The Rwandan killers defend themselves by saying theirs were acts of war -- a defense also employed by Nazi war criminals. But this is not to say that they fail to understand the horror of their deeds. The hijackers were similarly self-justifying -- all non-Muslims were infidels, according to their interpretation of the Koran, justifying brutal acts.
But as with the rumors of prostitutes, the grasping at justification by "evil-doers" is almost encouraging in itself -- it is, after all, something we can all understand, just as McDermott hoped we would.