An Excellent Book About September 11, 2001
We’ve changed a lot in the last eleven years. For the better and for the worse.
I was working at a place that’s kind of hard to describe. It was a factory—and our job was to measure, weigh, and package volcanic ash. Still not exactly sure what it was for. I just remember it was a crummy job, and we had to wear face masks and goggles because of all the dust.
One morning I showed up to work and somebody said something had happened in New York. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. We assumed it was an accident of some kind. The boss put on the radio and we got to work.
Then we heard the announcer say another plane had hit the other tower. We continued to listen—many people had no doubt died, Islamic fundamentalists were suspected, there were maybe more hijacked planes somewhere in the air.
It was surreal to be standing there sifting out volcanic ash into small plastic bags and listening to a national tragedy unfold.
Things didn’t make sense at the time, and they continued to not make sense. A nation united, two wars, confusion and division once again. You could watch the news every night and still not understand.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright that things were put into (somewhat) comprehensible form for me.
Wright, who won a Pulitzer for his efforts, spends only a little time describing the 9/11 attacks themselves. What he does is provide an in-depth historical background for the event, and paints some pretty interesting character portraits along the way. His reason for writing the book:
I wanted to understand who these people were and why they had attacked us — the most elemental question that we were all asking after 9/11. The level of our cultural ignorance is hard to overstate, even my own.
The book’s title refers to a passage from the Qu’ran: “Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower.”
The main players in the book:
Sayyid Qutb. An Egyptian man who studied in a small town in Colorado in the late Forties. Shocked by our treatment of minorities and the liberty of our women. Wrote an influential book about his experiences. Returned home and was hanged by the Egyptian government.
Ayman al-Zawahiri. Doctor turned terrorist. Unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the Egyptian government. His fanaticism strengthened in a crucible of torture and imprisonment. The “brains” of Al-Qaeda. Still out there somewhere.
Osama bin Laden. Child of privilege. Studied economics and business administration. Soccer fan. Studious and religious-minded. Warred against the Russians, turned his gaze on America, dreamed of a united Muslim world under an all-powerful caliphate.
Ali Soufan. Twenty-nine–year-old FBI agent fluent in Arabic. Wright calls him “a real hero.” Followed up leads and mapped out a worldwide terrorist network. Mad as hell that the CIA didn’t share intelligence with him—said 9/11 could have been prevented.
And the protagonist, John O’Neill. FBI anti-terrorism investigator. Lady’s man. Investigated the Cole bombing in 2000. Warned of more attacks, grated against his superiors. Resigned in disgrace from the FBI. Died a heartbreakingly ironic death.
In order to get at the heart of the story, Lawrence Wright lived in Egypt for a while, then he lived in Saudi Arabia. He learned to speak Arabic, and through various work connections and sheer tenacity, Wright was able to talk to many important prime sources.
Such well-written, non-partisan, in-depth works of investigative journalism are hard to find—Wright deserves much more than a Pulitzer for this. The Looming Tower should be required reading for any student of modern history, for any DC politician, or for anybody shooting their mouth off about geopolitics in general.
Eleven years ago today, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft was released. After work, I went to go get it. From “Sugar Baby,” the last mournful song on the album:
Related Link: In Memory of September 11th, 2001: A Love Letter to New York City
I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense;
I can see what everybody in the world is up against.
You can’t turn back, you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far;
One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are.