How an asshole gets ready for his big day.
(from The New Yorker, April 24, 2006)
Is it too soon to read a fictionalization of the private life of a 9/11 terrorist? No, because people who read never think it’s too soon. The story was inspired by this mysterious footnote from The 9/11 Commission Report:
No physical, documentary, or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why Atta and Omari drove to Portland, Maine, from Boston on the morning of September 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of September 11.
I’d read the Report when it came out — and reviewed it here — but this little blurb about Portland didn’t ring a bell. Guess I only skimmed the footnotes. Using Atta’s “lost time” as a jumping off point, Amis sets about crafting something like an excerise but also like literary revenge, however joyless or futile.
He clearly did some research before writing “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” but how much? Atta, the character is unadmirable and unlikeable, but understandable on his own terms. He’s anal retentive, for real. (He hadn’t pooped since May!?) He’s also self-denying, self-flagellating, nearly self-defeating, passive aggressive, regular aggressive, humorless, mostly faithless, petty, unable to enjoy music, plagued by headaches and stomach quakes, sexually frustrated, afraid of women and butt ugly.
He’s an asshole, confused and belligerent. A Columbine killer all grown up. He’s read that it might not be virgins you get in the afterlife, but raisins. He’s not much of a true believer, but you have to figure he would be better off with the second option. Muhammad Atta would not know what to do with the ladies. (The raisins part, by the way, is a bit jolting. It’s a light-hearted line of thought, atypical for the character. Still it underscores his latent disdain for the faithful.)
Amis describes the man and the mission solemnly. The author’s challenge isn’t to humanize the monster, but to dissect it. To give innards to a creature many Americans might suspect contained merely bile or nothing at all inside. At the ever-looming end, when Atta flies the plane into the second tower, his death is neither glorious (not that he imagines it will be — that’s for the fundamentalist suckers on his team) nor a relief. It’s painted as a philosophical miscalculation, a sudden realization of the value of life in the tenth of a second between impact and death. Only then does the guy get it. Congratulations, asshole. Enjoy your raisins.
An excellent story. Can’t seem to find it online for ya. (Nearly related note: Google seems to have screwed with its algorithms or whatever, because it no longer appears to care whether I put a search phrase in quotes or not.)