Credit: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons

After Mohamed Atta led a diabolical attack on our country using civilian aircraft, striking our Pentagon, bringing down the Twin Towers, and murdering nearly 3,000 people on our soil, not too many of us were interested in his master’s thesis in urban planning. Maybe he had some great ideas for how to revitalize Aleppo, Syria, but in practice he left us a smoldering lower tip of Manhattan and a gruesome clean up job.

Atta did aspire to be an urban planner, though, before he discovered that his degree from the Hamburg University of Technology in Germany wasn’t going to lead to rewarding employment.

The only copy of Atta’s thesis is apparently kept under lock and key by Atta’s thesis adviser, professor Dittmar Machule, who frets that publication will result in a lawsuit from Atta’s father who still maintains his son’s innocence. Back in 2009, Slate‘s Daniel Brooks traveled to Hamburg to read the thesis and try to get a sense for how Atta saw the world. Here’s a sample of what he learned about Atta’s plans for Aleppo.

The subject of the thesis is a section of Aleppo, Syria’s second city. Atta describes decades of meddling by Western urban planners, who rammed highways through the neighborhood’s historic urban fabric and replaced many of its once ubiquitous courtyard houses with modernist high-rises. Atta calls for rebuilding the area along traditional lines, all tiny shops and odd-angled cul-de-sacs. The highways and high-rises are to be removed —in the meticulous color-coded maps, they are all slated for demolition. Traditional courtyard homes and market stalls are to be rebuilt.

For Atta, the rebuilding of Aleppo’s traditional cityscape was part of a larger project to restore the Islamic culture of the neighborhood, a culture he sees as threatened by the West. “The traditional structures of the society in all areas should be re-erected,” Atta writes in the thesis, using architectural metaphors to describe his reactionary cultural project. In Atta’s Aleppo, women wouldn’t leave the house, and policies would be carefully crafted so as not to “engender emancipatory thoughts of any kind,” which he sees as “out of place in Islamic society.”

The subtitle of the thesis is Neighborhood Development in an Islamic-Oriental City, and the use of that anachronistic term—Islamic-Oriental city—is telling. The term denotes a concept rooted in 19th-century European Orientalism, according to which Islamic civilization and Western civilization are entirely distinct and opposite: The dynamic, rational West gallops toward the future while the backward East remains cut off from foreign influence, exclusively defined by Islam, and frozen in time. In his academic work, Atta takes the Orientalist conceit of two distinct civilizations, one superior, the other inferior, and simply flips the chauvinism from pro-Western to pro-Muslim.

Of course, Atta’s terroristic attack initiated a furious American response, led by a neoconservative cabal that had preexisting designs on and plans for the Middle East. It’s pretty much a straight line from Atta’s decision to board a plane in Boston on September 11, 2001, to the condition of urban Aleppo today.

There’s some kind of grim irony in all of this. If 9/11 was in some sense blowback for meddling American policies in the Middle East, there’s no question that the Dresden-esque destruction of Aleppo is in some sense blowback for attacking the United States. Had the Bush administration decided to exact revenge on Atta rather than launching a global war on terror, they might have done to Aleppo what Syrians have done to it with no help from Americans. There’s no need to worry about modernist high-rises or intrusive neighborhood-disrupting highways in Aleppo anymore. That dream of constructing “odd-angled cul-de-sacs” has been pulverized into dust.

There’s also something grim about an American commentariat that glibly elides the straight line between 9/11 and the present condition of Syria and asks questions like, “What would you do if you are elected about Aleppo?”

That’s what revitalized plagiarist Mike Barnicle asked Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson on this morning’s edition of Morning Joe on MSNBC. And Gary Johnson’s response was also grim.

Barnicle: “What would you do if you are elected about Aleppo?”

Johnson: “And what is Aleppo?”

Barnicle: “You’re kidding.”

Johnson: “No.”

I’m not sure if I actually find the answer more offensive than the question. The American commentariat could not have been more disinterested in questions like “what are you going to do about Aleppo?” when they embedded themselves in Bush and Cheney’s Excellent Adventure in Iraq. They didn’t have the slightest inkling that they ought to ask a question like that. “What are you going to do when the majority Shi’a take over Iraq and force a massive Sunni diaspora into Syria?” “What are you going to do when the Sunnis react to the loss of Iraq by trying to take over Syria?”

Did the oh-so-smart Mike Barnicle ask those questions prior to the invasion of Iraq?

Of course not.

The only people asking those kinds of questions were academicians and solid analysts with real Middle Eastern experience. And they were completely dismissed by not only the Cheneys and Libbys and Rumsfelds and Wolfowitzes, but by the flag-waving codpiece worshipping knuckleheads at MSNBC.

But then there is Gary Johnson. He wants to run for president and he doesn’t know whether Aleppo is an African hemorrhagic fever or a guy with a long-nosed puppet. He’s popular enough that he just might make it into the debates, and his mere presence on our ballots could easily change the results in a handful of states, possibly even giving us a different winner and a different future.

But Gary Johnson doesn’t take himself seriously enough to even care about what he might need to know if he became president. “What to do about Syria?” That’s got nothing to do with smoking pot or throwing potshots at the two-party system, so Johnson hasn’t read an article about the country in any of the sixty-three years that he’s been alive.

But he wants your vote!

I swear, it’s at times like this that I understand the impulse to pour gasoline on everything and just burn it to the ground.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at