Book Review: Perfect Soldiers (2005)

Some journalism doesn’t fit the inherent constraints of newspapers or magazines. The scope of the subject is too wide and the work takes more than what these formats tend to demand in immediacy. Perfect Soldiers is an example of this.

The book is LA Times national correspondent Terry McDermott’s look at the 9/11 hijackers. Subtitled, The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It, that is the exact aim of McDermott’s book. He does not succeed on all accounts but does a yeoman’s job telling the tale.

McDermott is at his best in the first part of the book, where he closely follows and examines the group of Muslim students in Hamburg, Germany, from which three of the hijackers came. What McDermott discovers is just how ordinary they were. I was consistently struck with how easy it would be to envision Christians in the US following comparable paths to extremist ideology. The message is not that these were inherently evil people but, rather, fairly commonplace people whose life became dominated and altered by a radical view of religion.

Yet McDermott is ultimately unable to answer the real core issue surrounding the question of why. He gives us the surface answer, which is based in their adoption and pursuit of certain radical religious views. What McDermott cannot do — and no one else can — is explain just why these views took seed in these individuals. And that may be the most frightening aspect of this story. It is, at bottom, a tale of the dangers of religious extremism. No one knows how many similar seeds extremism has planted in both the Christian and non-Christian world, let alone what it may mean for our future.

[T]he men of September 11 were, regrettably, I think, fairly ordinary men. I say this is regrettable because it was their ordinariness that makes it much more likely there are a great many more men just like them.

Terry McDermott, Perfect Soldiers

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