Beyond all understanding

Watching the smoke rise during a series of grim broadcasts from New York City early Tuesday, I found myself at a loss for any kind of rational explanation for the wholesale, random slaughter that left thousands of victims in the ruins of the World Trade Center.

My initial, rather predictable reaction was probably that of many viewers – this was the act of a madman who had somehow seized control of a commercial aircraft and embarked on a senseless suicide flight.

My response to the horror that continued through the morning was a kind of psychological defense mechanism I’m sure many of us fell back on when nothing else made any sense.

When the enormity of such an act overwhelms us, we retreat back into simple explanations. We distance ourselves and look for easy answers.

“That guy had to be crazy…”

And yet, it wasn’t just one wild-eyed maniac who boarded one jet airliner at random and brought so many lives to an end.

No, this series of aircraft hijackings and the targeting of landmark commerce and defense complexes at the beginning of the work day was carefully planned and executed by people who knew exactly what they wanted to achieve. They did so with cold calculation and disregard for human life.

Judging by the degree of sophistication needed to successfully complete the multiple hijackings, the killers were probably intelligent, educated and possibly trained as pilots. These were not Middle Eastern teenagers with bombs strapped to their bodies throwing themselves into pizza parlors and bus stops half a world away. Nor were they the kind of homegrown fanatics we’d grown accustomed to in the likes of Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski.

Say good-bye to the bogey man. Say hello to a considerably more frightening – and dangerous – adversary. Say hello to a reality most of us would rather not accept and few can comprehend.

Through it all, we shake our heads and ask why.

Because no matter how much the experts claim to know about terrorist tactics and motivation in the 21st century, this latest incident points out just how little we really know.

Were you shocked when you saw film of jubilant throngs in Palestine celebrating the attacks on the World Trade Center? Were you baffled? Were you angry?

If you’re like me, you were both stunned and bewildered. For reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, these good people were reveling in the deaths of innocent strangers; men, women and children whose only mistake was to step onto an airliner or go to work on Tuesday morning.

This was not a military victory. Those travelers and tourists and office workers weren’t at war with anybody. Certainly not with the terrorists who took their lives or the people in Palestine who celebrated their deaths with cheers and laughter.

Did the hijackers believe that acts of unconscionable evil would somehow bring America to its knees? One need only see the against-all-odds determination of a battered New York City cop rushing back into the inferno of the World Trade Center to know that isn’t going to happen.

I’d like to be able to analyze the events of last week and give you some of the glibly worded answers you’ve come to expect from the media. I’d like to be able to point to some carefully drawn graphs, cite historical precedents and quote a few unnamed sources in the Middle East. I’d like to express righteous anger and demand retribution.

Most of all, though, I’d just like to be able to understand what these wanton acts of mass murder were supposed to accomplish. Somehow I don’t think I ever will…

Originally published September 16, 2001