On September 11, 2001 I was 14 years old and largely disinterested in politics. Aside from the quick rundown of the headlines on the morning news, I didn’t pay much attention to the world at large. I was intensely self-absorbed, as most teens are at that age. My own life felt so overwhelming that I didn’t have time to worry about the rest of the country.
Then came the a.m. announcement that the towers had fallen, that we were under attack, and that people were dead. Something was changing, but I didn’t know what and I couldn’t know how much.
Today, I’m happy to say I’ve become a moderately well-informed adult, even if I’m still far from as knowledgeable as I want to be or, perhaps, as I should be. Yet when I look back on the War on Terror, I once again find myself realizing that I don’t know why we’re here, and that I don’t really know how any of it happened. But this is the central question that Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 attempts to answer.
In order to get to the bottom of it all, we start at the beginning:
“This is the man, then—decent, proud, tormented, self-righteous—whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad.”
A perfect description of bin Laden, no? Except Wright isn’t talking about bin Laden. He’s talking about Sayyid Qutb, a man who I’d never heard of until I picked up this book. A 1950s Islamist radicalist, Qutb is Wright’s patient zero, so to speak. Angry, conservative, and anti-modernism in almost all its forms, Qutb’s writings seem to be the domino that start a horrifying chain reaction.
In just the first chapter, we can already see that the road leading to 2,977 dead Americans and our longest war is longer than I ever expected. Wright’s book was beginning to answer questions I didn’t even know I had.
When we look at Looming Tower through the lens of a post-Arab Spring world, a world Wright couldn’t have begun to imagine yet, it tells us so much more. It explains (although briefly) the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, how radicalism spread from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, and the trail of assassinations and regime changes leading up to those that would be overthrown in 2010.
When I finished it, I would describe the book to friends as “the most balanced a book about 9/11 written by an American could be.” What I mean is that it’s obvious that the author was affected by the tragedy in 2001. It’s obvious that he believes violence against innocent civilians is unjustifiable, that radical Islam is misguided, and that al-Qaeda was wrong. Common thoughts, but also largely secular, Western thoughts. At the same time, Wright isn’t shy about pointing the finger where it’s due.
He shines a light on bureaucratic bumbling by the CIA and FBI, our failure to recognize an obvious threat, and the irreparable mistakes of the US Military and the Clinton administration in the Middle East. There were even moments when key anti-American players are assassinated, but the bloodshed is so terrible that I couldn’t help but feel empathy, not elation. And that’s something I deeply appreciated about the book. It’s not blindly pro-American just because we happened to be the victim of this one particular tragedy.
By the time I reached the end of the book, my understanding of bin Laden, the attacks, and the war had increased tenfold. So many questions were answered, but at the same time there was still so much more I wanted to know beyond the falling of the towers. 2006 feels so long ago at this point—so much more has happened. It’s easy to imagine a sequel, another few hundred pages explaining how we got from there to here, filling in the rest of the picture. But for that, we’ll just have to wait.
[This was re-edited from a review originally posted on November 13, 2013.]