Michelle Malkin links to an article about the Portland, Maine airport worker who looked into Atta’s eyes early on the morning of 9/11, saw something strange and terrible there, and didn’t act on it.
Probably everyone who has since seen the famous photo of Atta (and nearly everyone has seen it) has noticed those eyes. You know them–eyes that seem drained of all humanity or compassion; cold, steely, and hard. It’s not at all difficult, seeing those eyes, to imagine Atta walking onto an airplane with a bunch of innocent people, knowing that he was going to blow them all to bits. Difficult, in fact, to imagine him as much of anything else–as a person who had once been a little boy, for example.
The photo put me in mind of a book I read some time ago: James Gilligan’s Violence. If I were to read it again, perhaps I’d now find in it some apologia for violence, but that’s not the way I remember it. I’m doing this from memory, so I could indeed be mistaken–but my memory is that it was a fascinating book in terms of analyzing the genesis of violence, rather than making excuses for it.
I recall that in a chapter called “Dead Souls,” Gilligan describes looking into the eyes of men who appear to have had the humanity scooped out of them. These men would kill (and did kill) with little provocation or remorse. Their eyes told the tale.
Not all killers are like that, of course; some seem to retain elements of what we would regard as normal human emotions. But Atta clearly appears to have been a member of the subset Gilligan describes as “dead souls.” We don’t know how they got that way, and although Gilligan has some ideas about commonalities they all share (fairly substantial abuse and shame in childhood), no explanation exists. Lots of people are abused and shamed; few (fortunately) grow up to become cold-blooded killers.
The man at the counter in Portland on 9/11 seemed to know instantly, however, that before him stood one of these “dead souls.” He says, “It was just the look on the one man’s face, his eyes…everyone in America has seen a picture of this man, but there is more life in that photograph we’ve all seen than he had in the flesh and blood. He looked like a walking corpse. He looked so angry. And he wouldn’t look directly at me.”
We seem to be hard-wired to be able to “read” emotions and faces very well. Not perfectly, but very well. Even babies can do this at an early age. And someone as far gone as Atta was an easy read for the man at the ticket counter.
What should that man have done? Hindsight is 20/20, and I doubt there’s anything he could have done which would have been permitted at the time. I’m not even sure what would be permitted now, now that we know so much more about the enemy we face.
This discussion of “dead souls” puts me in mind of the many legends that feature changelings. I wonder whether such legends–in which human children were stolen away and replaced by the human-looking offspring of demons or elves–were early attempts to explain this sort of phenomenon: a person who is indeed a person, but who seems somehow to have lost some basic element we think essential to being human. We can sense this thing, but can’t describe it. It spooked people long ago, and it fills us with dread now, to look into those empty, empty eyes.