Mohamed Atta poses a puzzle, and Abdulaziz Alomari poses a bigger one. Until now the standard profile of Islamic martyrs was: young, nothing to lose and fanatically, hermetically Muslim. Atta, 33, flouted Islamic morality by slugging down vodka like a sailor. And as for Alomari, 28: How does a man--no brainwashed boy dreaming of virgins in paradise but a man in his prime with a wife and four or five children--vaporize that life by flying a plane into a building? Why? Why now?
There are many possible answers, but few feel sufficient. Theologically, some Middle Eastern sheiks justify suicide bombings on the basis of Muslim medieval traditions, although most of their colleagues worldwide disagree. Politically, campaigns against Muslims in Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya and Israel create a nationalist desperation that can draw even secularists to pan-Islamic dreamer-schemers like bin Laden, especially when they can offer a checkbook and organizational savvy. Then there is globalization. When Islam stopped gaining territory in the Middle Ages, its thinkers developed mechanisms for coexisting with a permanent Western other. But to new theorists like bin Laden, globalization represents the end of that detente and the start of a hobnailed Western victory march, justifying extreme actions in self-defense.
Philip Lamy, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Castleton College in Vermont, further probes that world view: "The fear that these changes will eradicate their language. Their religion. Their way of life. Westernization as the major lifestyle. Capitalism as the major economic system. English as the major language. Tourism as a major industry. These things scare them. This is not just a madman's mind-set."
No. Perhaps this is a definition of a terrifying kind of sanity, whether we want to wrap our minds around it or not. We can parse the lives of the suicides into subatomic bits and still not arrive at a why that we can accept. But it has happened once now. No peculiarity emerges from their tales, in character or plot, to indicate that it may not happen again.
--By David Van Biema. With reporting by John U. Bacon/Ann Arbor and J.F.O. McAllister/London