Joel Thornton '16
Hometown: Alpharetta, GA
Senior Study Title: “9/11, A Biography”
Advisor: Dr. Dan Klingensmith
It is important to understand how the world works by asking difficult questions. This thesis explores the question of why the events of 9/11 took place by examining key individuals involved in the masterminding, planning, and carrying out of the attacks. Through in depth biographical sketches of important individuals like Osama bin Laden, Mohamed bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohamed Atta, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ziad Jarrah, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Hani Hanjour the road to 9/11 comes to life. Along with biographical details about the individuals involved with 9/11, the thesis takes into account the worldviews and perspectives of the men involved to give as unbiased a picture as possible. This thesis traces the individual lives of these principal individuals as well as examining how their separate lives all came together on a single path culminating in the events that took place on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.
Sept. 11, 2001 stands out in the memories of most Americans, and academic research into those events is just starting to emerge. But Maryville College history major Joel Thornton ’16, wanted to look at those events from an entirely different perspective: that of the attackers.
“I was 8 years old on 9/11,” he said. “I was young enough to not fully understand, but old enough to know something happened, and I just wanted to know more about it.”
His study is titled “9/11, A Biography.” It may seem strange to write about an event as a biography, but Thornton’s research led him to what he felt was the most fascinating and perhaps overlooked approach to the topic: the people.
“I’m not a fan of long titles, and I felt like it was something punchy, but I chose to make it a biography because I go into detail on a dozen different people and take a biographical approach to those figures and that event,” he said.
More specifically, Thornton’s study goes into detail about the lives of the individuals responsible for the attack.
“From my reading, I chose to focus on the three men who became the hijackers and the others directly involved. The organization was pyramid at the top that filters down. Only a small number of people were involved and knew about it; I chose to cover the ones who had the most direct impact,” said Thornton.
The study begins with the life of Osama bin Laden as an ally of United States’ allies, and it delves into the formation of al-Qaeda, the planning of the 9/11 attacks and the recruitment of hijackers.
Researching such emotionally charged events was challenging.
“It was difficult at times to look at events from an unbiased perspective. I tried to be as critical as possible when things made me emotional,” said Thornton. “It’s important to recognize your own emotions when critically analyzing events.
“I believe the majority of Americans think of [the hijackers] only as evil people or enemies, but looking from another perspective is important. It opens your mind more and based on the sources you look at, you can almost sympathize on a human level,” he said. “Just seeing a very touchy subject and seeing it through the perspective of people who were motivated to carry it out and understanding a group of people that are vilified by Americans was eye-opening.”
While memories and facts about the events are engrained in the public’s memory, the topic is only starting to be explored by historians making this study unique.
“This is ground that professional historians are only beginning to cover,” said Dr. Dan Klingensmith, professor of history and Thornton’s thesis and academic advisor.
“I learned a number of things from Joel’s extensive research. He went above and beyond the normal requirements of senior thesis—and in fact, the thesis was almost twice as long as it had to be. I think he would have kept writing if he’d had the opportunity. The history department had no trouble agreeing that his really was an outstanding senior thesis,” he added.
Thornton, who also experienced an Arabic language study abroad program in Oman during the summer of 2015, plans to continue his education outside the United States. Accepted into the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, he'll soon begin work on a master's degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Thornton hopes to focus on either renewable energy or radical Islam and interpretations, which he plans to pursue further in a think tank for public policy or in academia.
“Joel Thornton has been a fantastic student, and I’m going to have mixed feelings when he graduates,” said Klingensmith. “He has a very unusual amount of intellectual curiosity about subjects of all kinds. That, coupled with a great work ethic, has made him a lot of fun to have in the classroom and especially as a senior thesis student. Of course we want people to graduate and go out into the world, but it’s fun to teach students who really want to learn.”
By Peggy Carouthers ’11