How It Happened Here: A Fantasy Fuels Terror

The unsigned editorial in last Friday’s New York Times made all the appropriate noises:

“For almost five years now,” it began, “we have carried around the legacy of Sept. 11. There is no sunny morning that does not revive its memory. The news of a terrorist plot against America-bound airliners yesterday called up feelings that are never all that far below the surface.”

There may still be some New Yorkers, some Washingtonians or Pennsylvanians for whom that’s true. And no doubt it’s true for the loved ones of everyone murdered that day. But the portrait of people still struggling bravely with the trauma of 9/11 is, largely, a flattering lie.

For many Americans, 9/11 now exists as something like a fictional event. The fact that there have been no further attacks on American soil is taken by the right as proof that President Bush’s war against terror is working (one of the G.O.P.’s talking points for the fall election, according to The Times); by the left, it’s taken as proof that the Islamic threat has been grossly exaggerated—if it exists at all.

Recently, I read a review of a book about the war on terror in which the reviewer castigated the author for not giving serious consideration to the claim that if the Bush administration hadn’t branded Al Qaeda an international threat, Osama’s crew would be properly regarded as an ineffectual ragtag cult. Let me get this straight: It wasn’t demonstrating the capacity to murder nearly 3,000 people simultaneously in three separate locations that made Al Qaeda dangerous, nor the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, nor the successful coordination of attacks on two American embassies in Africa thousands of miles apart—it was Bush propaganda.

Listen to those arguments and it’s as if 9/11 had become an urban legend. Denying that something is ever likely to happen again can be a way of denying that it ever happened in the first place—it’s denying that the line separating an unthinkable event from a reality has already been crossed. And so the attacks that followed 9/11 in Bali, Moscow, Madrid, Riyadh, London and Mumbai don’t matter. America hasn’t been attacked again and that, both right and left are telling us, should settle all doubts.

As its subtitle implies, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 doesn’t deal with the place that 9/11 has come to occupy in our consciousness or in our politics. But Mr. Wright’s gripping, lucid narrative suggests at least one thing remains unchanged in American life: the belief that it can’t happen here.

It’s not the chapters about the formation of the murderous Islamist mind-set that inspire the most anger reading this book. They’re exactly what you would expect. Beginning with the Islamic writer and theorist Sayyid Qutb, executed by Nasser in 1966 for his part in a scheme to overthrow the government and thereafter an inspiration for Islamist fanatics, Mr. Wright traces a remarkably consistent line of thought—if “thought” can be used to describe a set of beliefs so insular and medieval—that culminates in the murderous ideology of Al Qaeda.

What enrages you about The Looming Tower is Mr. Wright’s cool-headed demonstration of how Osama bin Laden’s homicidal religious fanaticism was abetted at nearly every turn by the criminal negligence of American officials. Mr. Wright depicts the C.I.A. and F.B.I. as so intent on protecting their respective turfs that they refuse to share crucial information with each other. And he presents the agencies as so steeped in their past battles—the Cold War for the C.I.A., bringing down the Mafia for the F.B.I.—that the agents warning of the new threat from the Middle East are regarded as little more than obsessives.

Although the Bush administration doesn’t fully enter into the narrative of The Looming Tower until the last chapters, Mr. Wright adds to the picture of the administration that’s been painted elsewhere as hapless and not interested in hearing about the threat of Islamist terrorism. The indelible image of that incompetent arrogance remains Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission, when she blithely dismissed a bulletin she’d been shown in August of 2001: “I believe the title was ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,’” she testified, as if she was saying, “I think I was wearing my blue dress.” Mr. Wright reports that when Richard Clarke, special advisor to the National Security Council, met with her earlier that year, he left the meeting believing she’d never heard of Al Qaeda. One of Mr. Wright’s most devastating passages lists the Middle Eastern intelligence sources who attempted, from April through August of 2001, to warn Washington that a serious attack was on the way: They included Ahmed Shah Massoud, commander of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and even the Taliban’s foreign minister.

The most vivid portrait in The Looming Tower is that of John O’Neill, the F.B.I. agent in charge of the National Security Division in the bureau’s New York office. O’Neill, who found a sympathetic ear in Mr. Clarke, comes off as not just dogged and driven, but capable of seeing beyond the information that bureau investigations had uncovered. What distinguished O’Neill, says Mr. Wright, was his realization “that radical Islamists had a wider dramatic vision that included murder on a large scale.” O’Neill was able to grasp that Islamist terrorism was not driven by a political strategy, in the way that, say, the terror of the P.L.O. or the I.R.A. had been. What was being acted out was what the conservative political philosopher Lee Harris would call (in the title of an essay written after 9/11) “Al-Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology.” One of those gifted people who makes enemies easily and does not suffer fools gladly—and who suffered them at every turn in his F.B.I. career—O’Neill was also beset by the turmoil in his compartmentalized personal life (different women in different cities; worsening debt to fund a lifestyle he couldn’t afford). He left the bureau in August of 2001 for a high-paying job as security chief of a company operating out of the World Trade Center. His body was recovered 10 days after the attack.

Mr. Wright is a deft guide to the divisions and infighting among the various Islamic sects. He makes a sober case that Islamist anger at the U.S. comes in part from our support of the governments that have kept their people in poverty (though he dispenses with the nonsense about Islamists caring for the Palestinian cause—except insofar as it’s useful propaganda).

At bottom, Lawrence Wright realizes, Islamic fundamentalism is neither protest nor politics but a retreat from the demands and compromises of the real world into a dream of bringing the Islamist paradise to earth. And he doesn’t shy away from the essential components of this fantasy: the adolescent male fear of humiliation and the sexual terror that makes radical Islamism a refuge for so many Muslim men. It’s not hard to conclude that misogyny occupies the ideological place in Islamism that anti-Semitism did in Nazism.

The Looming Tower takes the threat of radical Islam seriously, and yet it leaves you scarcely able to believe that an assault on the very idea of civilization has been launched by such an adolescent mind-set. It’s like awakening to find out that Dungeons & Dragons devotees have threatened to take over the world.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer. How It Happened Here:  A Fantasy Fuels Terror