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Consider that this is a raid on a path. As
the Prophet said, 'A raid on the path of God is better than this World
and what is in it.'
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh They call me cowboy
When Bruce Springsteen's new album, The Rising, came out, it seemed there was an odd shared expectation in the air, that this was the music that would help define the events of 9-11 for us and help us deal with them as a nation. This was, of course, absurd. It's too much to ask of any one disk that it make sense of the insensible or that it heal the unhealable. Still, the urge is natural and inevitable--we want to know, to understand, to be able to cope with the extraordinary and horrifying attacks.
Unfortunately for authors like the three who collaborated on The Cell, one suspects we're going to be bringing these same lofty expectations to at least the first batch of books about al Qaeda, bin Laden, and the attacks, and they're unlikely to meet our expectations either. Certainly this one, though useful, does not.
The authors do a very good job of providing an overview of the long string of Islamic fundamentalist attacks on American interests and the homeland, from the Meir Kahane assassination, on November 5, 1990, to the attacks on September 11, 2001. In fact, they trace some of the origins of the reign of terror back to groups like the Black Liberation Army (BLA), which ended up overlapping with Muslim fundamentalists groups, helping to train them and to acquire arms. It was actually in 1980, when the BLA, Black Panthers, Weather Underground, and others were engaging in domestic terrorism in and around New York City that the FBI and the New York Police Department formed a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Most of the book follows the work of the JTTF in general and of Agent John O'Neill in particular. Mr. O'Neill, in a bitter irony, had just left the JTTF to take a job as Chief of Security at the World Trade Center when the towers were struck. His story, and John Miller's long working relationship with him, provide a thread that weaves throughout the book and helps make it personal and accessible.
One major benefit of stretching out the story like this and looking at it through the eyes of a skilled investigator is that it turns what might previously have been viewed as isolated incidents into an obviously interrelated campaign of violence directed by Islamicists against America. It may not be possible to precisely connect a Ramzi Yousef to an Osama bin Laden, but it's impossible to disconnect them when you look at their goals, means, and targets. As the book moves forward--to the first Gulf War, to the first WTC bombing, to the Black Hawk Down episode in Somalia, to the bombing of Kobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to the Africa embassy bombings, to the failed cruise missile attack by Bill Clinton on Osama, to the USS Cole bombing, etc.--one can see why the bin Ladens of the world thought they were winning a war with the West, a war the West barely even perceived, except that is for folks on the frontlines like John O'Neill. In this regard the book is quite helpful and it's filled with fascinating detail about the multifarious plots.
There's also much about why the U.S. government could not or would not respond effectively to such a diffuse campaign. In particular, the authors cite a Cold War mindset, that was inappropriate for a war on terror; the genuine disinterest of Bill Clinton in intelligence matters (staffers joked when a small plane crashed into the White House that it was former CIA director Jim Woolsey still desperately trying to get in to see the President); and a CIA made hesitant by years of Congressional assaults (the authors note a sign that hung over the desk of a case officer in Rome: "Big Ops, Big Problems. Small Ops, Small Problems. No Ops, No Problems."). This is okay in so far as it goes, but surely there's more to be said about why we slept while this none too subtle threat crept up on us.
The authors though don't seem to have the expertise necessary to analyze the domestic political, as opposed to bureaucratic, response to the terror threat. Nor do they seem to have sufficient background in Islam and the Middle East to really explain what is driving al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, what they believe, what they hope to achieve, how they might be stopped, etc. In fact, at one appalling point, in what is essentially the centerpiece of the book, John Miller talks about when he interviewed Osama bin Laden for ABC's Nightline, in Afghanistan in 1998, even though he (Mr. Miller) does not speak Arabic. If you've ever seen the videotape of this interview, you'll be familiar with the disturbing pictures of Mr. Miller sitting there blank-faced as Osama says things like, "We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets in this fatwa." It certainly would have been helpful, and responsible journalism, if ABC had sent someone who could actually ask follow-up questions after statements like that, eh? This interview was, of course, a great coup, and perhaps only a journalist of the quality and tenacity of John Miller could have gotten it; if so, a tip of the cap. But his seeming inability to put the contents of the interview in broader context and to comprehend Osama, never mind understand what he was saying, is disappointing, particularly here, years later, in a book where Osama plays a vital background role.
What we're left with in the end is an effective framework for viewing the 9-11 attacks as just one in a long series of events that our enemies saw as a string of victories in a war but that we treated as isolated events and little more than annoyances. But there's just not enough added to that framework for the book to be a necessary read. Our interest is piqued but not satisfied.
One final point in the books favor: surprisingly, in such a journalistic, just-the-facts-ma'am, account of 9-11, there are several scenes of quite overwhelming power. Somehow the simple accumulation of detail is more affecting than any flowery or angry language we've heard used to explain what happened that day. The horror of what people, including John O'Neill, went through truly speaks for itself and in this case at least the prosaic nature of the book works beautifully. If you read nothing else, go to a bookstore or your library and read Chapter One, or check it out on-line here: EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Cell. But be warned, by the time I finished it there were tears streaming down my face.
-BOOKSITE : The Cell (Hyperion Books)
-BOOKSITE : The Cell (Written Voices)
-EXCERPT : Prologue from The Cell
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Cell
-CHAT : with John Miller (Washington Post, 8/20/02)
-ARTICLE : A Decade of Warnings : Did Rabbi's 1990 Assassination Mark Birth of Islamic Terror in America? (ABCNews.com, 8/16/02)
-FRONTLINE: The Man Who Knew: John O'Neill (PBS)
-PROFILE: THE COUNTER-TERRORIST: John O'Neill was an F.B.I. agent with an obsession: the growing threat of Al Qaeda (LAWRENCE WRIGHT, 2002-01-14, The New Yorker)
<-ESSAY: CONNECTING THE DOTS: The paradoxes of intelligence reform (MALCOLM GLADWELL, 2003-03-10, The New Yorker)
-REVIEW : of The Cell (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
-REVIEW : of The Cell (Robert Bové, Texas Mercury)
-REVIEW : of The Cell (Laura Miller, Salon)
-REVIEW : of The Cell (Hilary Williamson, Book Loons)
-SPECIAL SERIES: Ten Days in September ( Dan Balz and Bob Woodward, Washington Post)
-ESSAY: The Philosopher of Islamic Terror (PAUL BERMAN, March 23, 2003, NY Times Magazine)
-ARCHIVES: America at War (Washington Post)
-Inside the Terror Network (PBS Frontline)
-September 11 (Time Magazine)
-General Resources on Terrorism: Osama bin Laden
-War on Terrorism : This section contains the best of The Observer's coverage of the terrorism crisis following September 11th
-Christian Science Monitor Guide to Books of September 11th
-ESSAY : It's Always Been Washington vs. the Field (EDWARD P. LAZARUS, August 11, 2002, NY Times)
-ESSAY : Could 9/11 Have Been Prevented?: Long before the tragic events of September 11th, the White House debated taking the fight to al-Qaeda. It didn't happen and soon it was too late. The saga of a lost chance (MICHAEL ELLIOTT, TIME)
-ARTICLE: U.S. intelligence agencies received many more indications than previously disclosed that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was planning imminent "spectacular" attacks in the summer of 2001 aimed at inflicting mass casualties, according to the preliminary findings of a joint congressional intelligence panel report released yesterday. (The Washington Post)
Desperation forced a horrific decision (Dennis Cauchon and Martha T. Moore, 9/03/02, USA TODAY)