Thursday, August 20, 2020

Book 247: The Looming Tower

"On the existential plane, Bin Laden was marginalized, out of play, but inside the chrysalis of myth that he had spun about himself he was becoming a representative of all persecuted and humiliated Muslims. His life and the symbols in which he cloaked himself powerfully embodied the pervasive sense of dispossession that characterized the modern Muslim world. In his own miserable exile, he absorbed the misery of his fellow believers; his loss entitled him to speak for theirs; his vengeance would sanctify their suffering. The remedy he proposed was to declare war on the United States."

Dates read: July 5-11, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times bestseller

I'm naturally a high-strung person. Always have been. I'm the type who gets up out of bed to double check if I can't remember locking the door. Every once in a while, I have to remind myself with statistics that what's most likely to harm me are things I do constantly: get in the car and drive, cross the street on my way in to work, exist in a world filled with carcinogens. I'm not the only one, either. I think a lot of us are more frightened by the kinds of things that make newspaper headlines than the ones that are much more likely to be lethal. It's unlikely we'll get caught in a deadly tornado or raging wildfire. It's also vanishingly unlikely we'd ever find ourselves the victim of a terror attack.

And yet, ever since September 11th, that fear has loomed large in the American cultural imagination. It happened once, and it could happen again. But how exactly did it come to happen? That is the question Lawrence Wright seeks to answer in The Looming Tower, in which he traces the development of radical Islam and the life of Osama bin Laden, through the rise of al-Queda and the intelligence community turf wars that handicapped the country's ability to understand and prepare for the threat. It's a story that begins with seeds planted by a few in Egypt that grows to expand to Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the United States. It's a story about people, about men whose understandings of the world are on a collision course. It's a story about near-misses and mistakes that ends in tragedy.

I was a little hesitant when I picked this up...I'd read Ghost Wars about six months before and was worried that this would largely be a rehash of things I'd recently read. But that concern turned out to be unfounded. While there's certainly overlap, that book was focused heavily on Afghanistan, and the CIA's involvement in that country's recent history. This book is really about al-Queda and how it's leaders, Osama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri, came to join together and carry out attacks against the West from their position in Afghanistan. If you're interested in this general subject area and think you might want to read one of these two books, I'd suggest The Looming Tower (or at least reading it first). 

While there is no denying the incredible research and level of detail in Ghost Wars, the end result is a book that tends toward the dense. Having read it once, I'm sure it would take me at least another few passes through it to really feel like everything was sinking it. The Looming Tower doesn't bring that level of specificity, but it's not really trying to either. That's not to insinuate that it's not deeply rooted in fact and without a breadth of source material. The references section is extensive. But what The Looming Tower does well is actually stringing that all together into a cohesive narrative. Depending on the author's skill level (and, to be honest, intended audience), non-fiction can struggle with storytelling and a tendency toward dryness. But this is where Wright shines. Despite working with names, places, and concepts that are largely only vaguely familiar to a Western readership, he never lets the pace get bogged down in information dumps. Like the events it recounts, it keeps on moving forward to what we know is coming.

That's not to say it's perfect. There's an emphasis on counter-terrorism expert John O'Neill (who died helping evacuate others on 9/11), especially his personal life, that doesn't quite fit in with the overall flow of the book that I think should have gotten trimmed. And, having read Ghost Wars, I thought the situation in Afghanistan and the relationship of al-Queda and the Taliban was simplified too far. I think the book could have added about 50 pages and given everything a bit more depth and shading and been stronger for it. But for a primer on the situation in the Middle East and inside the federal bureaucracy that culminated in September 11th, written for a wide audience, I think this a very good book indeed. I highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: The Forgotten Sister

Two years ago, I was reading: Life After Life

Three years ago, I was reading: Stoner

Four years ago, I was reading: Lights Out In The Reptile House

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