Correction to This Article
A Sept. 11 Style article about Marilynn Rosenthal's search for the family of 9/11 hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi inadvertently referred to two of his relatives by the pseudonyms Fatima and Amna. Rosenthal used false first names for the women because she had promised them anonymity, but she did not mention this to the reporter. Also, in a photograph of Rosenthal's son and a friend in Egypt, the names were reversed in the caption. Phil Wallis was shown on the left and Josh Rosenthal on the right.

Sons of the Mothers

A week after the attacks, Marilynn Rosenthal planted this redbud to commemorate her son Josh.
A week after the attacks, Marilynn Rosenthal planted this redbud to commemorate her son Josh. (Robin Buckson - For The Washington Post)
By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

Marilynn Rosenthal felt the tug of gravity as the jet nosed into the empty summer sky. This journey from her leafy Michigan campus to the blazing deserts of Abu Dhabi was the culmination of years of research for the distinguished professor, and already her mind was racing. No sociologist had ever attempted to deconstruct an act of terrorism like this before.

The former Fulbright scholar had analyzed every official report, every word of testimony, every scrap of international intelligence and every oddball conspiracy theory she could unearth about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. She had interviewed experts, observers and eyewitnesses. There were charts, timelines, flight paths, all filed away back home in Ann Arbor.

Her particular obsession was Marwan al-Shehhi, the 23-year-old Muslim hijacker who had plowed a United Airlines jetliner into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. She had studied him down to the condiments he put on the hamburgers he ate after flying lessons in Florida. Yet details about his childhood and family life still eluded her. Visiting the United Arab Emirates was Marilynn's chance to complete her exhausting work. She had just turned 75. She was supposed to be retired.

Settling in for the overnight flight, she remembers running down the list of questions she hoped to ask the terrorist's mother once she made her way to the family compound in Ras al-Khaimah. She imagined herself gently prodding a stranger sad and veiled.

What stories did you tell Marwan as a boy? How often did he pray? What was your son's favorite holiday, his favorite food, his favorite color, his most-cherished toy?

And then there was the question at the heart of this, the one she knew no mother could ever answer.

Why did your son murder mine?

* * *

She is not a religious woman. She does not believe in fate or coincidence or destiny or an afterlife. Josh is gone. He lives on only in memory: brilliant, playful, forever late, never without a pretty girlfriend. At 44, Joshua Alan Rosenthal harbored a zeal for adventure that terrified his mother when he talked about scuba diving off Cebu or being stalked by a leopard through a Kenyan jungle. An office on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center is the last place she expected him to die.

Marilynn Rosenthal sought solace in the one faith she does embrace. "For me," she says simply, "knowledge is everything. It is power. It's personal power."

Gather every bit of data, analyze it all dispassionately, and then draw a logical conclusion. That formula had carried her through a challenging career as a sociologist exploring the culture of medicine. Now Marilynn wanted to know what had placed Josh on a collision course with Marwan al-Shehhi. What led to this? What might have prevented it? "I wanted every damn piece of information."

"I don't see what happened to Josh as a single, personal event," she says. "I have to see it in all the contexts. I am not a person who expresses emotions easily. I am a professional social scientist, and this was my way to deal with what happened to my son."

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