February 25th, 2005

Mohammed Atta’s Eyes

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.

10 Responses to “Mohammed Atta’s Eyes”

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  3. Dymphna Says:

    Every woman ought to read Gavin de Becker’s book, mentioned above. I wrote about it on my blog:

    The Gift of Fear.

    I’ve given this book to many young women — our culture trains out their intuition so that they learn to be “nice” and predators know how to turn that against them. It’s chilling to read the scenario.

    de Becker is amazing.

    Annie Jacobsen’s book is a small piece of that, too.

    And I agree with your commenter about the deadness in many adolescents. It’s worrying — no wonder the suicide rate is increasing. These kids are so kewl they’re frozen…

    Btw, Neo, did you ever read Atta’s will? No women were permitted to touch his body when preparing it for burial. Obviously he wrote it before he planned on 9/11?

  4. pb Says:

    Interesting, too, that those changeling stories usually include some family trauma (death, abandonment) contemporaneous with the birth/switch. It makes me wonder how much those stories owe to abused children the tellers have known.

  5. jj mollo Says:

    Gavin De Becker said in his book the “Gift of Fear” some years ago that we need to pay more attention to our instincts. It is very civilized to talk ourselves out of our negative reactions to other people, but usually relatively low-cost to prevent a negative possibility. The screener could have come up with something to delay these people if he had wanted to. Hindsight is 20/20, but going forward we need to think about this very seriously.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0440226198/104-2035143-5889517?v=glance

  6. Simon Kenton Says:

    It goes back into those strange, folkish tales that educated bloggers don’t much encounter, and haven’t the mental/emotional equipment to grok. Here is one, from a maintenance man I went to law enforcement school with:

    “You got to melt ‘em down. For true. Once a gun tastes blood, it’ll just keep seekin’ to draw it again, ‘n’ all you kin do about it is melt it. It won’t never give up trying to spill more blood, ’til you do.” Surrounded by a batch of educated incredulity, he would not be shaken. Let once a gun taste blood, and that’s it. He knew it, and it was we who were blinded against the truth by all our learning.

    Well, sometimes a woman will reject her baby as an energumen, a demon-spawn, what have you. I’m uncomfortable with the concept. But she knows this one is evil, she knows it, just as she knew her other kids were fine. With all the letters after my name, I know this to be poppycock. Sort of. Because I’ve looked into drained eyes too, and been very glad to be armed and competent.

    In the natural world, the closest I’ve seen to it is looking into the eyes of a peregrine falcon. It is not evil you see there, not even flat affect; they are much interested in the world around them. It’s just a kind of pure, condensed essence of death.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    This is something I have thought of often, but never mentioned for fear of sounding looney- I have raised two children and have one left at home, and have noticed the flat, dead, shark-like eyes of many of their peers. These kids are lacking something… souls? humanity? concience? I don’t know what it is, but I know it is becoming more prevalent. And I fear for our future as a society.

  8. M.J. Says:

    It also brings to mind the notion of zombies, as well as more modern stories that seem to have struck a nerve with the public and have been made in several versions (e.g. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”).

  9. Minta Marie Morze Says:

    “Dead men walking”. Terrorists, and those of terrorist tendencies, perhaps are, in truth, dead men walking.

    I don’t remember the passage in detail—after all, I read Dante’s “Divine Comedy” about thirty years ago—but I think there’s a moment when Dante is looking over an area of Hell and is startled to see that he recognizes two of the men who are suffering therein. He isn’t surprised that they had ended up in Hell, it was only that he had seen them very recently in Florence (or some such town), and is astonished that the two healthy men must have both died in that short interim.

    Virgil—Dante’s Guide to Hell—says that the men aren’t dead yet. Some people, he tells Dante, have so much evil in them that their soul is in Hell long before their body dies.

  10. Alec Rawls Says:

    There is an account by a Japanese soldier sent to Nanking and being terrified of the other Japanese soldiers he saw there, the cold-blooded murderousness that was somehow clearly readable in their eyes. Then he describes how he and the other new recruits were forced to undergo the same transformation process that had created these veteran monsters: they were forced to kill one innocent Chinese civilian after another with bayonets, hundreds of them. And he witnessed one after another of the relative innocents he had arrived with turn into the same murder lusting killing machines as the other veterans, instantly recognizable by the look in their eyes. Wish I had the link for you but I don’t recall where I read it.

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