In her son’s name

Sep 6, 2006 at 12:00 am

For Marilynn Rosenthal, the tragedy could not have been more personal. The eldest of her two children was at work in the World Trade Center's south tower when a hijacked Boeing 767 piloted by a 24-year-old jihadist from the United Arab Emirates hit the New York City landmark with the force of a guided missile.


In the five years since the death of Josh Rosenthal at age 44, his mother has traveled to the Middle East to meet with the family of that young man who murdered him, seeking to understand what motivated a crime that took so many innocent lives. She's obtained German intelligence files on the hijackers, read more books and news reports than she can count, and interviewed sources on two continents to discern the factors roiling beneath one of the most traumatic events in U.S. history.

A sociology professor emerita at the University of Michigan, Rosenthal, 76, has turned that research into an as-yet unpublished book that compares the arc of her son's life to that of the hijacker's, seeking to explain what brought their two paths to a fatal intersection, the fifth anniversary of which we are about to mark.

She also testified for the defense during the penalty phase of Zacarias Moussaoui's trial. Rosenthal's desire to see his life spared stemmed not from some bleeding-heart sense of compassion, but rather because she believed the case against the accused 9/11 conspirator was a "sham." He may have belonged to al-Qaeda, but Rosenthal concluded through her research that he had no role in her son's death.

And in her son's name she worked to establish an annual lecture in at U-M's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. It is intended to bring the light of reason to a matter all too often clouded by emotion. Rosenthal doesn't seek to be the poster mother representing grief-stricken families of 9/11's victims, and she does believe that's what is important here is not any individual loss. The Rosenthal lectures are about the issues surrounding terrorism and radical religious fundamentalism and the effects of strife in the Middle East on the world at large. Academics, public policy experts and journalists share their expertise so that others can do what Marilynn Rosenthal has been attempting for the past five years, which is not to simply react to the tragedy of 9/11, but to understand its complicated causes so that we might prevent it from happening again. She recently spoke to Metro Times about the last five years. —C.G.


as told to Curt Guyette

I went to ground zero about 10 days after the attack. You felt compelled to go. It was where your loved one had been killed. It was a way of being in the cemetery. The city of New York organized boat trips for family members. You went down to the Chelsea Piers, and they had these little ferryboats that took you around. And they constructed a kind of viewing platform for the families. Rubble was everywhere. Twisted facades that were the trademark of the World Trade Center were lying around there. Fires were still burning. The steam shovels would scoop some rubble up, flames would shoot up. It was sort of horrible and mesmerizing at the same time. And you realized that this is where your loved one died.

This was the scene of death and destruction.

I thought about writing the book after the first few months. And by January I'd hired my first student assistant to help me do the research. But that's my reaction to everything. I'm a social scientist, and I've always had a comparative orientation. And a cross-cultural orientation.

The way I think about 9/11 is reflective of that. My basic reaction was that we have to understand all the levels of what happened. What happened to Josh, and what happened to the 2,782 other people who were killed? Who were the people who killed them, and what motivated them? This was not a random act of madness.

I'm very much taken by an expression written by C. Wright Mills, a very well-known sociologist of an older generation who said that what happens to the individual is a reflection of the intersection of that individual and their world at a particular period in history. And I think that very much informs me in how I try to think about what happened.

Josh worked for Fiduciary Trust International, a very good investment house that specializes in endowments and pensions. He liked their style, he liked their ethics, he liked their broad-mindedness and their openness. He had clients in Asia and in the Middle East. He'd been to Riyadh and to Dubai and to Brunei.

He found the world of finance very interesting and very tough and very complex. He told me it was the most complex, challenging world he'd ever seen.

I've interviewed a lot of his colleagues, and I was very interested in the meetings that took place in Muslim countries. Several of them were described to me in detail by people who accompanied Josh. Those meetings are conducted in English. A meeting in Riyadh or Jeddah could as easily be in New York or London. I began to think about Josh being part of a global enterprise.

And when I started to find out about the pilot Marwan al-Shehhi, the jihadist who crashed the plane into the south tower and killed Josh, I began to think of him as being part of another global enterprise. So here were these two young men whose lives came together. I think they died at the same moment, at 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11. And they were part of two globalized movements that intertwined with each other.

What added to my interest in these two global movements was that I read a lot about Osama bin Laden. It's well known now that he came from a billionaire family in Saudi Arabia, one of the largest construction companies in the world. His brothers and he are big investors in the larger world of finance. On Sept. 11, several bin Laden brothers were sitting in the Sheraton in Washington because they're heavily invested in the Carlisle Group. So, Osama bin Laden is a very sophisticated, very worldly, very successful businessman with a broad sense of business organization and business technology. He also has a certain set of beliefs about the Muslim world. I just found that rather intriguing. And I began to focus on these two worlds and how each of these two people, Josh and Marwan, got involved in those worlds and what brought them to that moment on Sept.11.

Those guys — I'm talking about the 19 who hijacked our planes — were in a war, they were in an army. They were part of a very, very clever plot that used our own technology to attack us. It was ingenious and frightening.

I began to see Marwan and the other guys who did this as true believers. That is, they think their way of understanding the world is the only way to understand the world. And they feel so strongly that they are willing to die for it. So this pilot, who is a murderer and a martyr, depending on who's describing him, was essentially a true believer. And history is full of true believers. They're not the first ones to give their lives for a cause that they believe in. They did it in a fashion that's sort of outside the bounds of conventional warfare. But conventional warfare might be a 20th century phenomenon.

The first thing I wanted to know was where my son was. And then I wanted to know about the pilot. His name was in the paper right away. So we started to develop timelines of everything they did, and they became more and more elaborate the more and more research we did.

I tried to hold myself to as a high standard of research as I could. I didn't take anything from any one source. Several different places gave me copies of the interrogation files produced by the German intelligence office, the BKA. And they interviewed everybody who knew the Hamburg group of hijackers. And I was able to look through all the materials the BKA had put together about Marwan. They had Visa cards, all the airline tickets they'd bought, telephone calls, stuff like that.

And I confirmed for myself how complex everything is. The old saw "The more you know, the more you know you don't know" — I think that got validated.

'If you just hate them ...'

Someone said to me, "How can you think about doing research about this young man if you don't meet his family?" I thought about that, and then one of my contacts in the State Department told me there was a new ambassador, and that this new U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates was a career diplomat, a woman, and that maybe she'd be sympathetic to a trip. She got me help from the UAE government, which was sympathetic to this trip. And I didn't do anything untoward. I didn't just arrive in the country and knock on the family's door. I had prepared a letter to the family and it was written in proper Arabic. It seemed to me the only way to do it.

So I did speak to members of his family, and to people in the same branch of what was originally a large Bedouin tribe. The family doesn't think he did it. They think he was killed and his passport was used. I can understand why they would prefer that explanation. There's nothing in that culture that has turned him into a hero. His family is puzzled by it. They say they can't figure it out. They just don't believe that he was capable of doing that.

He was a very good student, and he had decided for a variety of reasons on an army career, and then he got a scholarship from the UAE military to go to Germany, to study at a technical school there, to learn shipbuilding in Hamburg. There was no doubt that it would lead to his being an officer.

His father was religious, but there's no indication his father was a fanatic fundamentalist at all. His father, I think, was primarily a date farmer, who was also the muezzin — he called the men to prayer five times a day in their little neighborhood mosque. Marwan was known to be very close to his father. He'd go with his father to the call to prayer and so forth. I think he was a sincerely religious young man.

When he went to Germany, he was in a very different culture, a very modern culture. Some of his friends were very interested in Western culture and wanted to find out more about it. I think he didn't. He found it not to his taste. And he fell in with a group of young men who talked a lot about the situation of Islam in the world. He became interested in returning Islam to its old glory, and they talked themselves into more and more fanatic ideas.

I think all of us, when we are young, we're searching for explanations and answers. We're trying to find our place in the world. We may have questions, we may have dissatisfactions. And if we fall in with other people who have those too, we begin to feed on each other.

At the mosque that he went to in Hamburg, al-Quds, there were radical imams coming though and giving radical talks. They were appealing to a sense of reconstructing pride, and saying that the Muslims should rule their own countries. If you're in an atmosphere like that, and you're building camaraderie with the people around you, and they become your brothers, I don't think it's unlike an army unit that's preparing for war. You become loyal to each other. You have a set of ideas that you all share. If you don't share the ideas, you fall away.

I think there are all sorts of parallels in history. I think people who have been attracted to a whole wide variety of movements understand completely how these guys convinced each other. And I don't call it brainwashing, because nobody forced them to do it. They simply began to immerse themselves in what these fanatic imams were telling them. There was a bookstore where you could buy videos of imams from all over the world giving fiery talks about the new Islamic caliphate, the world where the Muslims weren't colonized and oppressed, but where they ran their own countries and were fully Islamic. It's not unfamiliar. You can hear the echoes of fundamentalist Christians who can't tolerate any view but their view. You can hear echoes of the fanatic fundamentalist Jews who think that God promised them Syria and Iraq as part of the greater Israel, and because God promised it, therefore you should have it, even if you have to fight for it.

What the Hamburg group decided, according to the best sources I found, was that they wanted to do jihad in Chechnya to fight for their Muslim brothers there. So they arranged to go to an Afghan training camp with that in mind. I think it was the four pilots and several others who were part of it. As they went through their training, they were identified by people in the camp as a coherent group of well-educated men who were already dedicated to the cause, believed in jihad. Then they were attached to this plan that had already been developed at the higher reaches of al-Qaeda.

I'm not justifying what he did. He's a murderer.

But if you just hate them, and you don't try to understand, all you do is perpetuate the hate and the wars and the killing over and over again. I don't know any way to do it except through understanding. That doesn't mean forgiving. For me, it's not a matter of forgiveness. It's a matter of understanding. I'd like to contribute to the discussion of how we can elect leaders who also believe in understanding.

People say that the only way to deal with fanatics is to fight 'em, kill 'em. It's hard for me to accept that. It seems to be the lesson of history that if you do that, all you do is create more fanatics. We seem to be better at military technology than at useful, creative diplomacy. I think we have to spend more time cultivating those skills.

The guys in this administration seem to think that everyone will succumb to American military technology, and we can do whatever we want. I find that frightening, very frightening.

'But take us into Iraq in my son's name?'

I was reading in the newspapers about the Moussaoui trial and how things were shaping up. It was probably in The New York Times that I read that the defense team was going to argue that even if he had told the truth about what he might have known about 9/11, the government wouldn't have learned anything it didn't already know. That caught my eye immediately, because as part of my research — and here's Professor Mom — I was very interested in the pre-9/11 threat warnings and all the sources of information that the White House could have had. I hired a graduate student as a researcher, and we located 273 threat warnings in public sources. We had them all listed on a spreadsheet.

I was very interested in learning from The New York Times that in March of 1999 the German BKA, their intelligence unit, gave to the CIA the name of the pilot who murdered my son. Marwan — they didn't have his last name. They had Marwan and they had three phone numbers for him and they said they had been monitoring the phone that this Marwan was calling. That phone was connected to the man known to be the finance man for al-Qaeda in Germany. And so, I started our list of threat warnings from 1999 with that threat warning.

There's an interesting story about how that got into the paper. The Germans were trying a guy named who was on the fringes of the 9/11 group. He had their powers of attorney; he was taking care of their bills and their bank statements and so on. The Germans wanted the FBI and CIA to give them information, and they wouldn't do it. So, I was told, they released that to embarrass the CIA. I don't know if it embarrassed the CIA, but it sure caught my attention.

Twenty percent of all the warnings said al-Qaeda was going to hijack planes and crash them into American landmarks. And some of the rumors mentioned the landmarks: the World Trade Center, the Capitol, the Pentagon, the L.A. airport, the Sears Tower, the Seattle Space Needle, the Golden Gate Bridge. Originally they were going to mount 10 attacks. They couldn't get enough pilots, so they ended up with the four.

So, I'm coming to the conclusion that if only they paid attention, the White House had a lot of material that should have stimulated their interest.

George Tenet, then the director of the CIA, and Richard Clarke, at the time the White House's national coordinator for counterterrorism, were telling the president that they had never in the history of the CIA seen as many threat warnings as that summer prior to 9/11. Ten or 12 different foreign intelligence services were sending information to the CIA.

And you have someone like Richard Clarke, who's one of the few I really believe. He's saying they were running around with their hair on fire telling people to do something.

But I don't buy the conspiracy theory, that a group of people in the CIA along with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence unit, made it happen. Everybody in the Middle East believes that, but I don't. I just think these guys in this current administration were so narrowly focused on getting us into Iraq and lowering our taxes that they didn't seem able to look beyond their narrow view.

My tentative conclusion — because scientists can only come to tentative conclusions — my tentative conclusion is that they are incompetent. They're grossly incompetent, these people in the White House.

Look at this mess they got us into in Iraq. To tell you the truth, I didn't have any problems with bombing Afghanistan. That was where the training camps were. Those hijackers were in an army. Even if they didn't have uniforms, they were in a fanatic, fundamentalist jihad army. And Afghanistan is where they were trained. The Taliban was obviously protecting them.

But to take us into Iraq in my son's name? That's just outrageous. All my research indicated that Saddam Hussein was a secularist and a nationalist. What did he have in common with Osama bin Laden, who's an Islamist and who wants a return of the medieval caliphate and who believes in Sharia law, ultra-orthodox law?

I thought going into Iraq, in the name of fighting terrorists, was an abomination. In the name of the death of my son, it didn't make any sense at all.

This administration plays fast and loose with language too. And most people are not paying attention, or they think with their emotions and not with their head. And it's tragic. Maybe it's that we haven't educated the American public well enough, that they fall for this manipulation.

Regarding Moussaoui, my own research had led me to realize that he was not implicated in 9/11. He was a member of al-Qaeda, and he was taking flight lessons. But he had nothing to do with the 9/11 enterprise.

He never spoke with the men who hijacked the planes. He did claim that he was helping to manage an al-Qaeda guest house in Afghanistan and that he saw some of them there. But he never met with them.

As this dawned on me, I was horrified that the government was spending millions of dollars for what in essence was a sham trial. Frankly, that was my motivation for testifying. It was a crime to use the American justice system to ask for the death penalty for a man who's half demented and a marginal figure in al-Qaeda. It's just shocking, utterly shocking.

That's why I testified. I'm not any kind of saint or anything. I am not really great on forgiveness. I believe in accountability, but I don't believe in revenge and retribution.

I contacted the defense attorneys because I was interested in finding out what they were saying Moussaoui knew. And we talked, and then they asked me to testify.

In a situation like that, testifying, you feel a little nervous, a little apprehensive. I answered the questions that the defense lawyers asked. If you've ever been to a trial you know that the law is very constrained. And you have to act in certain kinds of ways.

You weren't permitted to say if you believed in the death penalty or not. And you couldn't really comment on Moussaoui. You were there to speak about the person you lost, and your reaction to their death. So I answered their questions about Josh as best I could.

They mainly focused on stories about my son. They asked me what Josh was like. Mainly questions of that nature. And they asked about my reaction, and I said my reaction was not to get caught up in a cycle of hate. And that I didn't think that would get us anywhere, and that I wasn't interested in revenge or retribution. I was interested in understanding.

You were up there for about 10 minutes, although we waited around for two-and-a-half days. I think there were 12 or 14 families who testified for the defense. We actually came from quite different places, so to speak. Some had been against the death penalty before their loved one was killed. And the death and the manner of the death didn't change their minds. They were really quite remarkable, I think.

Some of them were religious, and they spoke about forgiveness, or they quoted the Bible, the Old or New Testament, to say we're all human, we all make mistakes, we all sin. Some of them had joined or started reconciliation groups. There was one minister there whose son had been killed. He started an interfaith dialogue where he brought Jews and Christians and Muslims of his community together. So, everybody had different motivations.

I didn't at all expect the media storm that followed that testimony. I was the first defense witness to testify, so I was the first one out of the courtroom. And the press was sort of caged back some hundred yards from the entrance, and they were very eager to talk to anybody.

I told them that everything I read led me to believe that Moussaoui wasn't involved in 9/11, and that his prosecution for that was an injustice, that it was a sham.

Afterward, I got, I don't know, 60 or 70 e-mails. They were overwhelmingly supportive. A lot of them were from people I didn't know. Some were old friends. Some were friends I hadn't seen for 20 years. A couple of people said I lost someone in 9/11, but I couldn't have gone to the trial, but you spoke for me.

'Something happened to America'

The idea of setting up an annual memorial lecture series at the University of Michigan, where Josh had been an undergraduate, was a very natural idea for a family like ours.

I'm a mother who lost a son in this horrific event, and I'm also a social scientist. My children have often addressed me in letters as Professor Mom. That sort of captures something in this emotionally fueled intellectual journey that I've been taking in order to try to understand what's going on.

No remains were ever found. So what bears Josh's name is the graveyard, so to speak — the cemetery and the memorial. To attach his name to something living, something that emphasizes expertise, that emphasizes knowledge, that emphasizes understanding, just seems perfectly natural.

As an undergraduate, Josh studied political science and economics. In fact, in his last year, he was part of the Institute for Public Policy Studies, which was the precursor to the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He spent two summers as a congressional intern. And he was an intern for a member of Britain's Parliament. So he was always very interested in public policy.

Only one of the people who's been a speaker is an academic. One was a journalist, and two were from the world of politics and policy. The experts we bring in may not agree with each other, but they are experts who base their opinions not on emotion but on careful research and observations.

The very first speaker, that would have been on the first anniversary of 9/11, was retired Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft. Just several weeks before his lecture, he'd written an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal speaking about the risks of going to war in Iraq. Here's a man who's intimately involved in national security issues, was a national security adviser in the Papa Bush administration. It was very interesting to meet a man like that, to hear what he had to say. He's a moderate Republican. I think men like him have lost their party. I'm waiting to see if the moderate Republicans can reclaim the party from the political fanatics who have taken it over, people who are rigid and narrow-minded and militaristic. Osama bin Laden says he talks to Allah and our president says he talks to God. What do you do in a world where two figures representing different kinds of power each talk to their own gods and feel their god is behind them in the decisions they make?

I think you have to look at it philosophically, and in terms of the history of religion and the part religion has played, particularly when fanatics have grabbed ahold of a religion and tried to make it their own. These kinds of things have been very important to me.

Everyone felt devastated by 9/11. Our world was knocked out from under us. We were thrown into chaos. Something happened to America that never happened before. What happened to my son also happened to the nation.

But what we should be focusing on is the issues, and what lies behind this. And what kind of role can America play in the world so that we lift the world instead of pushing the world down?

So that memorial to my son represents one small effort to focus on trying to understand.

The dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy chooses the speaker. She's kind enough to ask my opinion. We start talking about it in January. This year, I said, "Let's do something really different. Let's invite Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative deputy secretary of defense who served under Donald Rumsfeld, and not ask him to give a speech, but ask him sit down in front of the audience with several members of the faculty and have a discussion for an hour."

But that was a little too unconventional. She said, "It's about time we honored one of our own here, so how about if we ask Juan Cole?" And, of course, he's one of the country's leading experts on the Middle East and Islam. I myself don't always agree with his positions, but I have the greatest respect for him. And I am looking forward very much to hearing what he has to say.

And I think Josh would have come to all these lectures, because he was interested in public affairs and public policy and certainly international affairs. So, I'm glad that we did this. It is a way to get through the anniversary of Sept. 11.

Do the lectures make a difference? I don't know how to answer that. I will tell you that I'm glad my son's name is attached to such an enterprise. This is endowed by family and friends, and it's going to go on as long as the university goes on.

You need infinite patience to get through this life and to make real change. Change is slow.

'I want America to be good'

I've come to accept that my son died. I don't want to be crushed by this for the rest of my life. I don't want my family to be crushed by it. You've got to move on. All I can do is to try to understand all these aspects of it and memorialize him in an appropriate way. And we've done that.

I now understand Josh's world better than I ever did before. And I feel as if I understand Marwan's motivation now. I've satisfied myself to a certain extent. I condemn what he did. I condemn it. I very much resent that Josh didn't have the rest of his life. He was a very talented guy. He wasn't without his problems. He wasn't perfect. But he was a particularly serendipitous collection of characteristics that had a lot to offer. He was very friendly, he spoke very well and he was a very good listener. He was a very talented guy, fair-minded and thoughtful. And he didn't have a chance to fulfill all that. And I think about Marwan, who murdered him. It's going to sound strange, but I heard a lot of nice stories about Marwan. He was a helpful guy, he told jokes. He was generous with his friends. But he wasted my son's life and all those other peoples' lives in the towers and his own life, and it didn't get him anywhere. But I understand what he did.

But I feel so continually frustrated on an entirely different level, and that's about the behavior of my country. I remain angry and frustrated about my government, that the leadership of my government is dong so many things that seem dangerous, that make the world a worse place instead of a better place. They seem to me just as manipulative as governments in countries that aren't democracies. They have such a strange view of democracy. And they don't trust our justice system. I feel continually frustrated by them. That's what I'm left with.

I want America to be good for the world. I want us to be contributing to peace. I suppose this sounds corny, but I want us to help lift people up out of poverty. I want us to help save the environment. But everything they do seems so caught up with military attacks, and supposed military solutions. And I think they lie; they've lied a number of times. That's where my frustration lies five years later.

I've always been interested in national politics and social policy. There have been moderate Republican presidents that I easily could have voted for. I consider myself to a great extent to be an independent because I don't want to be locked into any party that demands party loyalty above all.

I couldn't stop the president from taking the country into Iraq in the name of getting back at the terrorists who killed my son. When it comes right down to it, it's crazy. And it's just perverted. And I resent the fact that he has led other young people to death in something that had nothing to do with what killed Josh and all those others.

I'll tell you how I come out of all this at the very end. I've become very interested in the green movement. I had solar panels put on the house last year. I'm about to put rain barrels around. For my next car, I'm going to buy a hybrid. I know I'm just one little person. I know that. But it seems to me to be the right way to behave in terms of the larger issues that resulted in my son's death. I can't get away from believing it's all about three things: oil and oil and oil. And we need oil. How could I live as well as I do if it weren't for the level of our economy and our industrial enterprise and so forth?

There's lots of things to criticize the United States for. But that is not the whole story of the United States. It simply isn't. There's a dynamism about the United States. An ability to innovate and be creative. There's a level of freedom that, relatively speaking, hasn't been a part of human history for so long. If you have the skills you can live a good life. There's lots good to be said about this country.

My son's grandparents on all sides came as immigrants. None of them were exactly penniless. But they were poor. And they came for opportunity. And by the third generation, what they came for was fulfilled. There is that possibility here. If your skin is dark, it's harder. There's no question about that. And we have our prejudices and we have our narrow-mindedness and we don't have a well-educated enough public and we don't always produce leaders who bring out the best in us. But sometimes we do.

Why did these people attack us? George Bush says its because they hate freedom and that they're savages, they're animals. They're not. They're human beings. When I started to think of this pilot, as I began my research, I said, "God, this is another mother's son." I have a chapter in the book called "The Other Mother's Son."

I feel so determined not to hate, and I feel so determined not to want revenge, that I think it has energized me to look for ways to make good come out of that.

I hadn't joined any of the 9/11 organizations, but I finally joined one that has a very simple message. It's called Our Voices Together. And it was started by a man in Washington whose wife was killed on one of the planes. They sort of found me first, because they were looking for what they considered to be positive activities, and they saw about the Josh Rosenthal lecture series, and they considered that to be positive. Some of the families in that group are doing things that are extraordinary. And they are so simple, like starting madrassas for girls in Afghanistan. Someone built a health clinic that's also, I think, in Afghanistan. They just want to do something good.

I think the lecture series is good. But I stand in awe of these families, and what Our Voices Together is trying to do. It's energized me and made me more determined than ever to make good come out of evil.


The featured speaker at this year's Josh Rosenthal Fund Lecture will be Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor who has written extensively about modern Islamic movements in the Middle East and South Asia. Widely known for his Web log Informed Comment, the topic of Cole's presentation will be "Are We Winning the Fight Against al-Qaeda? Reflections Five Years Later." The lecture will be held at U-M's Rackham Auditorium on Monday, Sept. 11, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. with a reception afterward. The event is free and open to the public.


The group Our Voices Together can be found on the Web at

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]