The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Book Review: "The Looming Tower"

A recent book review I wrote for NPR--they decided not to use it, but I thought I'd share it with you guys...

By Lawrence Wright

Five years ago, on September 11, 2001, Americans were  given an horrific wake-up call.  Millions of television viewers watched the World Trade Center fall, whiplashed by our own mortality, stunned that we were more vulnerable than three post-WW2 generations had complacently believed themselves to be.  The question of what and how and why that day happened,  has been, and continues to be the subject of innumerable debates, books, movies, television specials, blogs, and  articles.

It is into this fray that author Lawrence Wright’s riveting, heart-breaking and frightening THE LOOMING TOWER charges, it’s journalistic eyes wide open.

It begins with a crisis of faith by a mild, middle-aged Egyptian martyr named Sayyid Qutb (QWI-TUB), and ends with the fall of towers.  The two are linked by a series of tragic emotional webs.

Qutb, an author and educator,  was martyred in 1966.   His words, his life and especially his death inspired Arabs angered by the sustained American presence in the middle east  and especially Saudi Arabia.   Many railed against the power of American Media, seen as an  amoral global juggernaut.  They were frustrated by America’s continuing support for Israel.  In Qutb they found a role model, an intellectual who embraced death in the service of Allah.

One of these  disaffected Saudis was the    tall, wealthy, charismatic Osama bin Laudin.  His quest for meaning was influenced by the heretical doctrine of takfir, through which the Prophet’s Koranic injunctions against suicide and the killing of innocents were twisted to justify politically expedient murder. Wright argues that it is these radical takfiri—not mainstream Muslims-- with whom we are locked in mortal combat.

From a compilation of hundreds of interviews and exhaustive research, Wright shows us the mistakes made by men of good will on both sides—Americans represented by FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill, whose warnings to two administrations went largely unheeded, and who ultimately died in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Al Qaeda –literally meaning “the base”—began as a tiny force.
It is sobering to realize how many of Bin Laudin’s goals have actually come to pass:
—the ensnaring of America in a war in Afghanistan. 
--The radicalization of more Islamicists due to our military action in response to 9/11. 
--The investment of much of our moral and economic capital in an increasingly divisive war.

Bin Ladin’s end game?  The crippling of America as a world power.  Certainly a conservative Islamic empire, govered by Koranic law rather than modernity or democracy.  And make no mistake: he imagines no limits to the reaches of this empire.  “The Looming Tower” does not try to give us answers, but rather sufficient understanding to ask the correct questions.

The greatest mistake one can make of an enemy is to forget that they are behaving with understandable human motivations.  To demonize  is to simplify them beyond any useful capacity to predict, let alone prevent or understand, their actions.  

Whatever combination of military, diplomatic and economic responses one favors, to ignore the origins of al-Qaeda, their motivations, the sources of their funding and recruitment, and the full range of their perceived grievances with the Western World is tantamount to suicide.

Al Qaeda would love for the United States—and Islam--to think we are at war with Islam itself, and not the radical takfiri. We have stepped into so many of their traps…”The Looming Tower” asks that we be impeccable in our commitment not to fall into this last, even more disastrous one, as well.

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