Mohamed Atta & Samson
This is the story of two men. Both of them killed three thousand people in a suicidal act of vengeance by demolishing what they took to be a sacrilegious temple. One of them is commonly derided as a murderous psychopath; the other is commonly celebrated as a hero.
This is a curious dichotomy, and especially in light of the misunderstandings that plague our interconnected world, it is worth examining whether such a distinction is justified, based on their histories. The following text is compiled from the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the NIV Bible.
The youngest child of a pampering mother and an ambitious father, Mohamed Atta was a polite, shy boy who came of age in an Egypt torn between growing Western influence and the religious fundamentalism that gathered force in reaction.
Judges 13: 1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years. 2 A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. 3 The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. 4 Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, 5 because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines." 24 The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, 25 and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.
It was not until Mr. Atta was on his own, in the West, that his religious faith deepened and his resentments hardened. The focus of his disappointment became the Egyptian government; the target of his blame became the West, and especially America. In Hamburg, where he attended Hamburg Technical University, his life divided into before and after. He would disappear more than once, and officials say they have strong evidence that he trained at Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps in Afghanistan during the late 1990's. It was also in those years, German investigators say, that Mr. Atta became part of the Hamburg cell that became a key planning point for the Sept. 11 attacks. "I remember that he changed somewhat," said Dittmar Machule, his academic supervisor at the university. "He looked more serious, and he didn't smile as much." His acquaintances from that time still cannot reconcile him as a killer, but in hindsight the raw ingredients of his personality suggest some clues. He was meticulous, disciplined and highly intelligent. His vision of Islam embraced resolute precepts of fate and destiny and purity, and, ultimately, tolerated no compromise. He ate no pork and scraped the frosting off cakes, in case it contained lard. He threatened to leave the university unless he was given a room for a prayer group. He spoke of a desire to marry, but was remote to the point of rudeness with women, considering most insufficiently devout. Those who had known him as a quiet student say his demeanor became more brooding, more troubled. The most obvious change was both cosmetic and spiritual: he had grown the beard of an Islamic fundamentalist.
Judges 15: 1 Later on, at the time of wheat harvest, Samson took a young goat and went to visit his wife. He said, "I'm going to my wife's room." But her father would not let him go in. 2 "I was so sure you thoroughly hated her," he said, "that I gave her to your friend. Isn't her younger sister more attractive? Take her instead." 3 Samson said to them, "This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them." 4 So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, 5 lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves. 6 When the Philistines asked, "Who did this?" they were told, "Samson, the Timnite's son-in-law, because his wife was given to his friend." So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death. 7 Samson said to them, "Since you've acted like this, I won't stop until I get my revenge on you." 8 He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam. 9 The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. 10 The men of Judah asked, "Why have you come to fight us?" "We have come to take Samson prisoner," they answered, "to do to him as he did to us." 11 Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, "Don't you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?" He answered, "I merely did to them what they did to me." 12 They said to him, "We've come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines." Samson said, "Swear to me that you won't kill me yourselves." 13 "Agreed," they answered. "We will only tie you up and hand you over to them. We will not kill you." So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. 14 As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. 15 Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. 16 Then Samson said,
"With a donkey's jawbone
I have made donkeys of them.
With a donkey's jawbone
I have killed a thousand men."
After graduating from Hamburg Technical University, Mohamed Atta moved to America. With few exceptions, he regarded the Americans who crossed his path with contempt. He was polite when he had to be—to rent a car or an airplane—but the mildness recalled by his friends in Egypt and Germany was gone, as was his beard. He arrived in June of 2000 at Newark International Airport and would spend the next 15 months in near perpetual motion, earning a pilot's license in Florida during the last six months of 2000, then spending the first nine months of 2001 traveling across the country and at least twice to Europe.
Judges 16: 4 Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah. 5 The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, "See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver." 6 So Delilah said to Samson, "Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued." 17 So he told her everything. "No razor has ever been used on my head," he said, "because I have been a Nazirite set apart to God since birth. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man." 19 Having put him to sleep on her lap, she called a man to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. 20 Then she called, "Samson, the Philistines are upon you!" He awoke from his sleep and thought, "I'll go out as before and shake myself free." But he did not know that the Lord had left him. 21 Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding in the prison. 22 But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.
On September 11, 2001, Mr. Atta led a group of terrorists that hijacked four jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Mr. Atta flew one of the planes that crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center; both of the towers collapsed. About three thousand people died in the attacks.
23 Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, "Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands." 25 While they were in high spirits, they shouted, "Bring out Samson to entertain us." So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. When they stood him among the pillars, 26 Samson said to the servant who held his hand, "Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them." 27 Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform.
After the attacks, several published reports stated that Mr. Atta had left a suicide note, which is what the FBI initially called it in a document sent to police investigators in Europe. The fifth and last page is written on a piece of paper from a steno pad. Under the heading, "When you enter the plane," it includes a series of prayers or exhortations: "Oh God, open all doors for me. Oh God, who answers prayers and answers those who ask you, I am asking you for your help. I am asking you for forgiveness. I am asking you to lighten my way. I am asking you to lift the burden I feel. Oh God, you who open all doors, please open all doors for me, open all venues for me, open all avenues for me." The author doodled on the paper, drawing a small arrowhead-like sword. Two circles entwine the shaft, which also has serpentine swirls drawn on it. The doodle also resembles a key. The end of the document states: "There is no God but God. . . . We are of God, and to God we return."
28 Then Samson prayed to the Lord, "O Sovereign Lord, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.
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