Terror and Our Lives

Do you really think that Mr. Mohamed Atta, the September 11 suicide pilot, was gay?

Re: Mohamed Atta

I haven’t any idea if Atta, widely described as the ringleader of the terrorists who hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was gay, straight, bi, transgendered, two-spirited, questioning or what-have-you––but I do take back what I said last November: That it wouldn’t matter.

Rumors began circulating shortly after 9/11 that law enforcement was investigating and labeling Atta’s sexuality based on what appeared to be superficial personality traits they’d assigned to Atta and the other 9/11 terrorists. It seemed like ugly gay stereotyping on the part of the FBI, which has a history of equating homosexuality with criminal activity, going back to J.

Edgar Hoover’s days.

With a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge, Atta had been described in the media shortly after the attacks as a mamma’s boy whose father believed he wasn’t man enough to be a terrorist, and as a misogynist who stipulated in his writings that he didn’t want women near his body when he died. (Of course, Islamic fundamentalism is rife with misogyny, so beyond being a nasty generalization about gay men, it was downright silly to take this as an indication of homosexuality––unless one is prepared to say every Muslim fundamentalist male is homosexual).

The outright gay rumors eventually made their way into the bottom of the media food chain, as the National Enquirer claimed the FBI was investigating the premise that “Atta and several of his bloody henchman led secret gay lives for years.” It was shortly thereafter that I wrote a Newsweek.com piece, critical of this demonization of homosexuality, concluding that it shouldn’t matter if Atta and his fellow evildoers were gay or not.

In retrospect, I was taking the point too far. Of course it would matter if Atta were a homosexual. It would shed a bright light on how homophobia––not homosexuality––may be a contributing factor in driving an individual to unfathomable actions. If Atta and his fellow murderers were secretly homosexual, awash in self-hate, living within an Islamic fundamentalist society that is fervently homophobic, it might help explain why they gravitated toward organizations that adhered to the strictest and most extreme tenets of Islam— just as many troubled, confused and self-hating homosexuals in the U.S. are drawn to fundamentalist Christian churches that provide “ex-gay” ministries to supposedly make them straight––perhaps believing that such stricture is the only way to control their sexual urges.

But as far as whether or not Atta (and some of his co-conspirators) actually were homosexual, well, all we have are a few superficial generalizations that pass the supermarket tabloid litmus test but are hardly enough to go on. We probably will never know. Subject: Australia

One day I plan on moving away from the United States. I plan on moving to Australia to get away from the corruption of the U.S. government, and to be safer from terrorists. I also want to live in a place where I can be openly gay with minimal prejudice and harassment! Would you please tell me all you know about Australia? Thanks!

Re: Australia

I’ll tell you what little bit I know but first please get this through your head: The grass is always greener on the other side—even at the bottom of earth—and every place has its problems.

Australia has always been an attractive fantasyland to Americans––exotic and enchanting while at the same time Western and safe. But things such as government corruption happen in ever country; the U.S. certainly doesn’t corner the market on it.

I visited Australia when I was living for some time in neighboring New Zealand—two separate countries, by the way, something that is often confused. With regard to gay rights, it’s true that Australia and New Zealand both are ahead of the U.S. (with the latter being far ahead.) In most Australian states now there are laws protecting gays and lesbians, and non-citizen same-sex partners of Australian citizens may immigrate to the country and attain citizenship. Sydney is a fabulous gay city, and the Sydney Mardi Gras is the grandest queer party on the globe.

Still, much of the progress has been piecemeal––state by the state––and fairly recent, just like here. There also is a macho attitude in Australian culture that is as cocky and often homophobic as anything you might see in the U.S. Just like we have a football culture, they have a rugby culture, as well as a cowboy culture; effeminacy in men is demonized in similar ways and connected to homosexuality.

Race relations, meanwhile, seem worse than in the U.S. From 1900 to as late as 1972, aboriginal children were taken from their mothers by the government simply because their families were poor, under an absolutely insane “child welfare” program. These people later came to be known as the “stolen generation” (though they obviously span several generations.)

The government’s official report estimates that 30,000 such children were placed with white families or put in institutions, usually between the ages of 2 and 4 and often under duress, wreaking havoc on aboriginal families. A movement has crystallized demanding an apology from the government, which has taken a long time to ‘fess up. Meanwhile, some white conservatives claim the stolen generation is a “myth.”

As for terrorism, come on: Is any place in the West––or anywhere––really so safe? And what about all of the other things that can kill you? We deal with all kinds of statistically small but real risks in our lives. As the saying goes: you can get hit by a bus tomorrow. So far, the U.S. has had only two attacks on its soil it by Muslim fundamentalists; if a broad-based movement against the West takes hold, Australia will certainly not be immune from it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t head there. But before packing your bags, take stock of the realities.