In a different time and place they could have been Che Guevara or Danton.
The terrorists that killed 2,997 people 16 years ago Monday presented the 21st century with a radically different revolutionary than the ones that stormed our imaginations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
They didn’t overthrow the world order. They did overthrow our conception of where on the economic strata revolutionaries come from.
The 9/11 terrorists did not step out of the pages of Les Misérables. Like most revolutionaries, they stepped out of privileged places.
Osama bin Laden, the seventeenth child of a billionaire, appeared as the type of figure Karl Marx’s proletariat rebelled against. Bin Laden’s followers, if not hailing from the economic stratosphere, generally emerged from comfortable backgrounds.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed obtained a mechanical engineering degree in the United States, speaks four languages, and, as his name but perhaps not his John Belushi visage, indicates, he probably traces his line to nobility of sorts.
“Mohamed Atta was born on September 1, 1968, in Kafr el Sheikh, Egypt, to a middle-class family headed by his father, an attorney,” The 9/11 Commission Report informs. “After graduating from Cairo University with a degree in architectural engineering in 1990, Atta worked as an urban planner in Cairo for a couple of years.” He obtained another degree at Hamburg University of Technology, where he “came across as very intelligent and reasonably pleasant, with an excellent command of the German language.”
“Ziad Jarrah came from an affluent family and attended private, Christian schools,” The 9/11 Commission Report notes. “Like Atta, [Ramzi bin al-] Binalshibh, and [Marwan al-] Shehhi, Jarrah aspired to pursue higher education in Germany.”
Like most subversives, the 9/11 terrorists did not conform to the Marxist model. They did not find class a motivation for their violence. Religion, Marx’s opiate of the masses, inspired rather than impeded their revolutionary designs. In seeking to overthrow a global order, they found common ground with the Marxists. But in that which they sought to replace the global order, the Islamists differed greatly from the Marxists.
“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution,” Marx and Friedrich Engels closed The Communist Manifesto. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” Like the divide between what Marx wrote and what Marxists did, Marx’s theory on revolution differed from Marxist (and proto-Marxist) revolutionaries in practice. Those in the professions and not those in the proletariat uproot the existing order.
Robespierre, like his father and his father, worked as a lawyer. Danton? Lawyer. Desmoulins? Lawyer. Mao’s father was one of the wealthiest farmers in his area of China. Lenin’s parents taught in local schools before his mom turned attention to mothering and his dad became an administrator overseeing many schools. Che Guevara worked as a doctor healing people before he worked as an executioner killing them. Fidel Castro’s wealthy sugar-cane-farmer father sent him to elite boarding schools.
While none approached the wealth of bin Laden, none approached the poverty of the people they ostensibly represented. Even in class revolutions, the upperclass rules, which serves as both vindication and refutation of the outlook of the revolutionaries.
“The peasants are a leaderless mass,” noted Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind. “History shows few instances when they seriously threatened the rulers. The term ‘peasant revolt’ sounds nice in textbooks and has a certain propaganda value, but only for the naïve.”
Eric Hoffer similarly observed in The Ordeal of Change, “One hears a lot about the revolt of the masses but, aside from the rise of the United States, it would be difficult to point to a single historical development in which the masses were a prime mover and chief protagonist.”
Where are the romantic charity-case revolutionaries Marx promised us? In the minds of the men leading revolutions.
It’s not as though envy serves as a worthwhile impetus for revolution. But one grasps that more easily than the convert-or-die-by-jumbojet-bomb mentality inspiring the 9/11 terrorists.
Privileged people imagine themselves as anointed to rule. When the world rejects their ideas, they lash out at the world. Brat-fits on the playground lead to brat-fits on a bigger playground. That happened 16 years ago in Manhattan, near the banks of the Potomac, and in southwestern Pennsylvania.