Terry McDermott, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, formerly of The Seattle Times, had a fundamental choice when planning this book. He could make...

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“Perfect Soldiers — The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It”
by Terry McDermott
HarperCollins, 336 pp., $25.95

Terry McDermott, a national correspondent with the Los Angeles Times, formerly of The Seattle Times, had a fundamental choice when planning this book. He could make it comprehensive or comprehensible. He chose the first, and left the reader with a struggle.

It is not that any particular page in “Perfect Soldiers” is difficult. The book is written in clear English. But when a moderate-sized book needs a glossary of 61 names, 11 of them Mohamed-something, we have a problem.

The first is Mohamed Atta, the pilot of the plane that hit the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Atta (who McDermott calls Amir, his full name being Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta) was Egyptian, middle-class and went to Germany to study architecture. He was a recluse who prayed and worked and dreamed of saving the world. He was not interested in women, movies or books. Food was mere fuel. His roommate complained that he seldom washed the dishes, even when he borrowed theirs.

Atta was enmeshed in radical Islam, but his passion was politics. He hated the Jews. He was sure Monica Lewinsky was an agent of the government of Israel.

The reader will be just getting interested in this malignant fellow when the author drops him, and says no more about him for more than 100 pages. The spotlight moves on to the next zealot, and the next. He says in his introduction that these are really very ordinary people. And he is right.

McDermott has done an admirable job of finding and organizing the sort of facts available to be found and organized, but these are often not the facts that make a good story. The reader is left with almost a police report: who went where, where they stayed, what they plotted. (They plotted a lot of things.) The story sprawls. There is not enough personality and drama in it, or, if it was to be a story about the power of ideas, not enough ideas in it. The infidel reader sees the effect of the ideas but does not feel them.

The author might have drawn some negative conclusions from his work. The popular theory that terrorists are spawned by poverty gets no support here; these men did not come from poverty nor did they complain of it. The popular theory, offered by President Bush, that the terrorists hated America for its freedom, also gets no support. They hated America because they believed it to be enemies of their faith and their people.

The author clearly does not want to be drawn into a domestic political argument. He is a city-room reporter, used to telling who, what, where and when and leaving the arguments to others. Freed of the city editor’s dog collar, he wears one still, and has written what appears to be a book but is really a long newspaper story.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.