Sunday, 13 September 2009

the looming towers [lawrence wright]

It's September, and the anniversary of the most celebrated event in most of our lifetimes has just come round again. A crisp Northern Hemisphere day, with a blue sky ready to pick up the brush strokes of a jet engines vapour trail. Those of us over the age of ten will probably always have this date as a kind of touchstone, as another generation had the assassination of JFK, or perhaps another the dropping of the first atomic bomb, or another September day when the world went to war. Before that, the immediacy of events was dissipated. Even given its precedents, 911 probably impacted on the world in a way no other event had ever done, the first time that an event could be experienced almost equally vividly on all sides of the world. That New York morning might have produced the first truly global hour the world has ever known.

The Looming Towers details the way in which Bin Laden and his followers tried to get reception from a satellite connection to the television, in the mountains of South Afghanistan, without success, switching to a radio broadcasting the Arabic BBC channel instead. I was at work, in Lambeth. It was still the early days of internet, and I didn't have it. Phil mentioned something about a light plane crashing into one of the towers. Early in the afternoon I walked home, looking suspiciously at the skies. Sedley came round and we sat in front of the TV.

Within days, it was clear that the world had changed. How it had changed was still to be revealed. Indeed, what that phrase 'the world had changed' means is obviously open to debate. Easy to say, harder to gauge. The easiest way for someone who was not a historian or a politician or a military strategist to assess this change might have been in the sense of unreality that seemed to shroud the world for a while. You didn't know what to expect, and that sense of uncertainty touched everything.

There was also a great deal of unclarity as to what exactly had happened. Early reports talked of additional explosions and additional planes being highjacked. In the days that followed, no one seemed to have much of a clue who the perpetrators were. When suddenly a list of Arabic names and faces appeared, these people seemed almost abstract. The lack of information surrounding them only added to the uncertainty, and doubtless contributed to the rise of the multiple conspiracy theories.

One of the astonishing things, it seems to me, surrounding the events of 911, is that we still have so little idea or information surrounding who the perpetrators were and how they managed to carry it off. Normally, in a crime of the century, the perpetrator becomes a figure of vast notoriety. Of the high-jackers, only Atta ever generated much publicity, and even that was limited. Instead, attention was focussed on Osama Bin Laden. However, again, very little information was disseminated about him. His image was replayed and replayed, but who he was, and what he wanted, remains, for almost all, vague. (That Winter when we went to Madrid, they were selling Osama masks for new year celebrations. Drunken Spanish Bin Ladens threw grapes in the air and drank cava to celebrate the birth of the Euro.)

This is where Wright's book comes into its own. It's the first piece of journalism I've read that sets out to demystify Al Qaida, and its leaders. The book traces the origins of what has become known as Muslim Fundamentalism, as well as outlining what this much used phrase really means. The way in which Osama and his predecessors manipulated the Koran is explained, justifying actions which other Muslims would see as heretical (including the killing of other Muslims, the killing of innocent civilians etc). It traces these developments over the course of 60 years, putting together the personages and policies which lead to that day in September at the start of a century.

There are many intriguing elements to the story. One that struck me in particular was the way in which the story of Al Qaida demonstrates once again how history is created by mavericks and oddballs whose philosophies and tactics appear to be governed by luck as much as judgement. Other books which it might be interesting to compare and contrast to The Looming Tower include Schama's account of the French Revolution or Wheen's life of Marx. The 'game-changers' as they might be called, are rarely ruthless masterminds. They're dedicated opportunists, following their instincts. Bin Laden lost his fortune and was reduced to near penury, him and his family and followers surviving on a subsistence diet, living in poverty. According to Wright's description, there were many times when it seemed like there was no way forward, but in the end, he (claimed to have) planned and executed an event which has helped to shape the way in which the world is perceived.

The book also deals extensively with the divisions between the CIA, FBI and other government departments that meant the terrorists were able to enter and train in the USA. In truth, the least detailed part of the book is its account of the build up to 911 itself, at least in comparison to the efficiency with which it details the earlier part of its story. Whilst Wright perceives the security failures as the process of an overly rigid bureaucratic system, something which seems extremely credible within a society as litigious and hierarchical as the States, the door is undeniably left open for the conspiracy theorists to suggest there was a more active malice at work in the system, one that ensured the security lapses allowed the high-jackers to remain at loose.

No doubt Wright would have none of this. In contrast to the conspiracy theorists, his book appears to be impeccably researched. The list of authorial interviews at the back of the book is impressive. In a footnote at the end of the book, Wright notes that 'there are few forces in human nature more powerful than the desire to be understood.' Given the immense ignorance that remains about the events of the event we now call 911, Wright has gone a long way towards allowing those who do have an idea about what happened and why it happened to be heard. In the process he has written what would appear to be the first authoritative piece of history concerning an event which has affected all our lives, in ways it will take a lifetime to understand.

No comments: