PERFECT SOLDIERS….A few days ago, LA Times reporter Terry McDermott sent me (or, rather, caused to be sent to me) a copy of Perfect Soldiers, his recently published book about the men who executed the September 11 attacks on the United States. It’s a monograph, really, a deeply reported chronology that focuses solely on the hijackers themselves: who they were, where they came from, and why they did what they did. Not everyone will be interested in 300 pages on just this single subject, but if you are, you’re unlikely to find a better account than this one.

In a nutshell, then, what’s the answer? Who were these guys? McDermott gives us the nickel version in the preface:

They saw themselves as soldiers of God, which prompts the obvious question: What kind of religious belief could empower men to inflict such great harm and deprivation on other men, women, and children? The inquiry that grew from it yields a truly troubling answer: the men of September 11 were, regrettably, I think, fairly ordinary men. I say this is regrettable because it was their ordinariness that makes it much more likely there are a great many more men just like them. In the end, then, this is the story about the power of belief to remake ordinary men.

For what it’s worth, there’s at least a sliver of good news in his account as well. As McDermott says, it’s probably true that there are thousands of ordinary men who are every bit as susceptible to mass-murderous levels of Islamic fanaticism as the 19 hijackers, but his book also makes clear that there are damn few who have the capability to do anything more dangerous about it than set off a car bomb. In fact, Osama bin Laden and his deputies were barely able to find four men reliable enough to learn the rudiments of aircraft piloting, something that nearly anyone can master with only the self-discipline necessary to take lessons for a few months. Neither great skill nor great intelligence is required, but even the modest amount needed for the 9/11 attacks, it turns out, was enormously difficult to find in al-Qaeda’s ranks.

This isn’t reason for complacency, but it may be reason for a bit of perspective. McDermott convincingly illustrates something we’ve already learned over the past four years, namely that religious fanatics are disturbingly easy to create. However, reading between the lines, he also demonstrates something else: the kind of personality most susceptible to fanaticism is also the least likely to have the background and self-discipline to do much about it. Children with matches can be dangerous, but even so, it’s hard to read McDermott’s account without concluding that this is pretty much what al-Qaeda is.

In any case, it’s a good book. Recommended.