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Back in the day there was a tv ad for The New Yorker that we all used to make fun of, which featured a quote from Harrison Salisbury in which he referred to it as "maybe the best magazine that ever was." The magazine is a mere shadow of its former self, in many ways just a partisan rag, but when you go back and read Berton Roueche, E.B. White, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Roger Angell and company, it's hard to argue that it wasn't once magnificent. As The Looming Tower demonstrates, Lawrence Wright is a writer who belongs in that august company. Fleshing out what were originally long essays for the magazine, he combines extensive reportage, extensive personality sketches and the pacing of a thriller to give us the best and most readable account to date of the events leading up to 9-11.

The canniest decision he makes is to open the book with a biographical portrait of Sayyid Qutb, sometimes called the Philosopher of Islamic Terror, and then to focus on Ayman al-Zawahiri, moreso than Osama bin Laden, so that he can make clear the Egyptian background of much of Islamicism. Into the stories of Qutb, Zawahiri and bin Laden he weaves those of Prince Turki, who led the Sa'udi intelliegence services for decades, and of John O'Neill, the FBI agent who famously left the counter-intelligence post where he'd been one of the voices -- along with Michael Schuer, Richard Clarke, and a few others -- most insistently warnin g about al Qaeda, only to be killed himself in the World Trade Center, where he'd taken a job as head of security. The interplay between these figures gives the story Mr. Wright has to tell a quality of drama almost like a tragedy from ancient Greece or by Shakespeare.

As far as the plot of the story goes, Mr. Wright does an effective job of showing just how lunatic the grievances and beliefs of the al Qaedists are in the first place, and, therefore, how unlikely it was that our political leaders, who had not immersed themselves in the study of the movement, would credit reports of their plans. But then too, he shows that those who were specifically tasked with developing intelligence about the extremists did come to understand the very real threat they posed. What is maddening in this latter regard is the way that bureaucratic intrigues and politically-correct civil liberties "safeguards" thwarted the effective investigation and exposure of the threats. We begin by understanding why those at the very upper echelons of government would not have anticipated attacks like those of 9-11, but end by being infuriated that the very structures and workings of government served to ensure that even when the likelihood of such attacks became apparent and when fairly routine police work would have exposed the plots and plotters no such revelations would be forthcoming. Mr. Wright depicts a complete breakdown of the investigatory and intelligence apparatus of the United States and shows that while 9-11 was unthinkable to most of us it might have been stopped fairly easily but for governmental incompetence.

All in all the book is a real tour-de-force and now that some time has elapsed and the wounds are not as fresh it allows us to cast a cold eye on the myriad mistakes, misunderstandings and mishaps that led to that awful day. If you were looking for a single volume treatment of the complexities surrounding 9-11 you can do no better.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Lawrence Wright Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: LawrenceWright.com
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Lawrence Wright (IMDB)
    -BIO & ARCHIVES: Lawrence Wright (The New New Journalism)
    -BOOK SITE: The Looming Tower (Random House)
    -EXCERPT: from God's Favorite by Lawrence Wright
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Twins by Lawrence Wright
    - EXCERPT: First Chapter of The Looming Tower
    -INTERVIEW: Missed Opportunities: with Lawrence Wright (Amy Davidson, 2006-07-10, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: THE MAN BEHIND BIN LADEN: How an Egyptian doctor became a master of terror LAWRENCE WRIGHT, 2002-09-16, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: THE MARTYR: THE MAN BEHIND BIN LADEN: How an Egyptian doctor became a master of terror (LAWRENCE WRIGHT, 2002-09-16, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Kingdom of Silence (Lawrence Wright, January 5, 2004, The New Yorker)
    - ESSAY: The Counter-Terrorist (Lawrence Wright, January 14, 2002, The New Yorker)
    -EXCERPT: Sayyid Qutb: The father of Al-Qa'ida (The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright)
    -ESSAY: The Terrorist (Lawrence Wright, June 19, 2006, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: THE MASTER PLAN: For the new theorists of jihad, Al Qaeda is just the beginning. (LAWRENCE WRIGHT, 2006-09-11, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: A Reporter At Large: The Agent (Lawrence Wright, July 10 & 17, 2006, The New Yorker) [PDF]
    -ESSAY:
   
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-ESSAY: You Must Read This: Orwell on Writing: 'Clarity Is the Remedy' (Lawrence Wright, September 22, 2006, All Things Considered)
    -BOOK CLUB: THe Looming Tower (Lawrence Wright & Steve Coll, Slate)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Lawrence Wright (Fresh Air, 8/15/06)
    -INTERVIEW: Author Dissects People, Politics Prior to 9/11 Attacks: Lawrence Wright, author of "The Looming Tower - al-Qaeda and Road to 9/11" discusses his new book which describes the people, politics, and roiling theology behind Islamic terrorism and the terror attacks leading up to and including Sept. 11. (Online Newshour, 9/05/06)
    -INTERVIEW: Lawrence Wright (Hugh Hewitt, 9/22/06)
    -PODCAST: with Lawrence Wright (Austin Bay, 10/20/06, Pajamas Media)
    -INTERVIEW: with Lawrence Wright ( Harry Kreisler, Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley)
    -CHAT: with Lawrence Wright (Washington Post, 9/11/06)
    -PROFILE: Chasing beliefs: Five years of distant trips, 600 interviews and an uber research system behind Lawrence Wright's new book about al Qaeda (Patrick Beach, August 06, 2006, Austin AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
    -PROFILE: HIGH PROFILE: LAWRENCE GEORGE WRIGHT ( Bill Marvel, 2003-02-16 Dallas Morning News)
    -PROFILE:Double Take: Austin Scribe Lawrence Wright Tackles Noriega -- Twice (CARY L. ROBERTS, 3/10/00, Austin Chronicle)
    -ARCHIVES: "lawrence Wright" (NPR)
    -ARCHIVES: "lawrence wright" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower: al Qaeda and the Road to 9-11 by Lawrence Wright (Dexter Filkins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (William Dalrymple, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Mark Steyn, Maclean's)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Robert F. Worth, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Peter Bergen)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (John Lloyd, Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Jason Burke, Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Tariq Ali, Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Martin Amis, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Bruce Hoffman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Erik Spanberg, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Austin Bay, Strategy Page)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Robert Finn, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Matthew Nickerson, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (David Kinchen)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Sidney Blumenthal, Open Democracy)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (David Forsmark, FrontPage)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Elliot Jager, Jewish Press)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (David Klinghoffer, The New York Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (William Tucker, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Charles Taylor, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Charles Laurence, First Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (L. Carl Brown, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Michael Skube, News & Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (The Iconoclast, New English Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Taylor Holland, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Mayank Austen Soofi, Blog Critics)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Aziz Huq, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (David A. Andelman, American Heritage)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Stephen Fidler, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (Celestine Bohlen, Bloomberg)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (James Meek, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (
    -REVIEW: of The Looming Tower (
    -REVIEW: of God's Favorite (
    -REVIEW: of God's Favorite by Lawrence Wright (Tim Golden, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of God's Favorite (Clay Smith, Austin Chronicle)
    -FILM REVIEW: of God's Favorite (Anita Gates, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of TWINS: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are By Lawrence Wright (Natalie Angier, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Twins (Wendy Doniger, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Twins (New Scientist)

Book-related and General Links:
SAYYID QUTB:
    -ESSAY: The Philosopher of Islamic Terror (Paul Berman, 5/23/03, NY Times Magazine)
    -BOOKNOTES: Liberalism and Terror by Paul Berman (Brian Lamb, 7/22/03, C-SPAN)
    -ESSAY: Who Is Sayyid Qutb? ( SEMP Biot #239, July 18, 2005)
    -ESSAY: The Making of a Terrorist (Mike Peters, 8/21/06, Greeley Tribune)
    -ESSAY: A Lesson In Hate: How an Egyptian student came to study 1950s America and left determined to wage holy war (David Von Drehle, February 2006, Smithsonian)
    -ESSAY: Know Your Enemy (Rod Dreher, August 27, 2006, Dallas Morning News)
    -Sayyid Qutb's Milestones: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sayyid Qutb's Milestones , But Couldn't Be Bothered to Find Out (Elmer Swenson, 6-27-2005)
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- GENERAL:
   
-ESSAY: Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology (Lee Harris, August/September 2002, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY: AZZAM THE AMERICAN: The making of an Al Qaeda homegrown (RAFFI KHATCHADOURIAN, 2007-01-22, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: YOUNG OSAMA: How he learned radicalism, and may have seen America (STEVE COLL, 2005-12-12, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The War Against Global Jihadism ( Peter Wehner, 1/08/07, Real Clear Politics)
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