The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Written and Narrated by Lawrence Wright
Random House Audio 2006
16 Hours & 31 Minutes
Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a book that political science professors will be assigning to freshmen for the next twenty years or more. When discussing my interest in counter-terrorism with a professor, my callow sophomore self off-handedly said “I’d like to write a book about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.” His response was “That’s already been covered pretty thoroughly.”
Undoubtedly, my professor was referring to Wright’s comprehensive work, which is the closest you can come to reading the 9/11 Commission Report as a narrative.
This is a book I meant to get to for some time, listening to it in fits and starts since. I was finally spurred on by the release of a Hulu miniseries to finish the audiobook during my commute over the last month.
The enormous breadth and depth of The Looming Tower–spanning seventy years and covering everything from the nuances of Medieval Islamic philosophy to the geography of tiny Egyptian villages–becomes something of a liability when translated to an audio format. Read by the author, the text is read exactly as intended in an even, yet never boring, voice.
However, as the text covers dozens upon dozens of names, many with variable English spelling, I found myself wishing I had bought the physical book for future reference. Jumping from topic to topic and time to time, there is a disjointed, but not disorderly, quality to the book. Perhaps this is just a fault of perception in my visually-focused brain.
In a book this detailed, it is difficult to draw out favorite or most important moments, but I will try.
First: the importance of diversity, or even just an understanding of the world, in national security.
Before 9/11, the FBI had less than ten Arabic speakers. A particularly affecting moment is when Ali Soufan, then a young FBI agent, cracks the lone survivor of the Nairobi embassy bombers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon, Soufan debates the failed suicide bomber in Arabic on the Quran and Islamic law, eventually forcing the bomber to admit he has murdered innocents, many of them fellow Muslims going about their daily lives.
The bomber then tells everything he knows about the structure and membership of Al Qaeda.
Second: if there was ever a title of deep meaning, it is this one.
On a cursory glance, the tower of the title refers to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Indeed it does. However, it is also a reference to a Quranic verse and Bin Laden’s perversion of it. In a video message to the nineteen hijackers, Bin Laden quoted this verse as an oblique reference to the specifics of the plot, ignoring its actual meaning.
The verse (4:78) reads, in Ahman Zaki Hammad’s wording, as:
Wherever you may be, death will overtake you at the pre-ordained time–even if you are in lofty towers.
And continues with:
Yet if any good comes to them, they say in their wavering hearts: This is from God! But if any harm strikes them, they say: This is from you, O Muhammad! Say to them: All things are decreed from God.
In the larger context of the passage, it is clear this refers to the limits of mortal life and God’s sovereignty over the universe. Jewish and Christian readers will find a similar sentiment expressed by Job, who acknowledges God’s control over all things even in adversity:
Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD! —Job 2:21
The verse from Surah Al-Nisa’ ends with an admonishment that could well be turned against fundamentalists of all faiths:
What is with these people that they can hardly understand any discourse?
Putting aside my very amateurish exegesis, the conclusion of The Looming Tower singles out one personal tragedy from all the horrors of the 9/11. It is the eerie coincidence of this one tragedy that sticks with me even more than Wright’s detailed research and strong prose. He seems to have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that there is a Providence to the world.
If not a benevolent Providence, at least, then, Fate with a bitter sense of irony.
3.5/5 stars: A very strong book in research and storytelling, but maybe not the best fit for an audio format.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: You know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, much like the law enforcement officials profiled in the book.
2/5 ick-factor: Despicable human beings of many flavors.
Conspiracy theorists, raving Islamophobes, and ISIS trolls will be summarily banned and digitally keelhauled.
However, I only found LordanARTS through the video suggestions received while watching Cayleigh Elise’s dark, atmospheric productions.
Since posting her first video in 2015, Cayleigh has amassed nearly 300, 000 subscribers, of which I am one. Having had a chance to watch some of her very earliest videos over the past weekend, I am amazed at her growth and development as an artist.
These first videos tend more towards horror or personal stories of spooky experiences, the latter narrated in a bubbly, delightfully self-aware-yet-self-deprecating style. While engaging, these videos are distinctly amateur in comparison to her more recent work.
That corpus, focusing on the macabre and the mysteries, includes subscriber stories, missing persons, cold cases, and the supernatural. Of the many series and mini-series I have two favorites: Nameless, focused on identifying those poor souls whose bodies have been dumped like trash and whose names have gone unknown; and Dark Matters, which profiles particularly disturbing or mysterious unsolved cases.
Cayleigh’s narration for these dark stories is slow, hypnotic, and always full of compassion. If A&E ever reboots Cold Case Files, I nominate her as successor to the great Bill Kurtis.
The visuals are also fantastic. I want to steal her wardrobe; the changing backgrounds feature bizarre and fascinating decor; the source materials and editing are superb.
Let me emphasize it again: these videos are dark. They are frightening for the narratives alone, before even considering the visuals. I will warn you, as Cayleigh Elise does before the videos in question, that Nameless often features postmortem photographs. She includes these not out of morbid interest, but in hopes that these pictures will trigger someone’s memory where composite sketches have not. When she says “I have to warn you, this next picture is graphic,” I usually duck my head down. Because I’m a wuss.
There have been occasions when I peeked too soon, and mutter something along the lines of “Oh, dear Lord Jesus, help us all.” I don’t know if death is ever ‘pretty,’ but for the John and Jane Does of Nameless, it never comes gently.
Because of the possible Massachusetts connections, I recommend to you especially her most recent video at the time of writing, the case of the Woodlawn Jane Doe. Do you recognize this woman?
I will end this review as Cayleigh Elise always ends her videos, by reminding you that “While these may be dark matters, the darkness always matters.” It matters because our humanity is defined by how we treat others. To acknowledge the dark is to face, head-on, the realities of pain and evil in the world.
The Catechism says that burying the dead is an act of mercy. Naming the forgotten dead, surely, is one as well.
5/5 stars: High-quality visuals and narration. A host with a natural sense of the dramatic, abundant compassion, and tact.
5/5 ‘fraidy cats: Some videos are too harrowing for me to watch after dark. The rest make me check that the dooris,in fact, locked.
5/5 ‘ick’ factor: Death is frightening; murder even more so. Crime scene/postmortem photos and descriptions may be particularly difficult for sensitive viewers. You will be warned when to look away. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I cannot endorse GHCF from my personal experience, but that is where city officials prefer donations go.
Turning now to blog news…
Kenneth Ackerman is a Mensch
For those of you not lucky enough to have discovered the joys of Yiddish, according to Google, “Mensch: n., a person of integrity and honor.”
It takes a lot to open yourself up to criticism. It takes even more to respond to criticism with grace and class.
And for that capacity, Kenneth Ackerman ought to be acknowledged.
In my review of Mr. Ackerman’s Trotsky in New York 1917, I noted an error that, to my obsessive grad student eyes, seemed rather glaring.
Mr. Ackerman reached out to me, thanked me for catching the error, and promised it would be amended in the next edition of the book. You can view our exchange at the top of the comments section of the original review.
I’m Thinking of Selling My Soul
Or putting ads on my blog, depending on your point of view.
This is a one-woman show that started because I love true crime, cultural criticism, and writing. I even think I’m a little bit good at it. The writing and criticism, not the crime part.
I’ve never committed a crime. I swear.
You can only top doing things for love with doing the same things for love and money.
While it would be my desire to keep ads off particularly sensitive posts, such as active missing persons cases, WordAds automatically places ads on all posts. My solution to this is to promise that I will never charge family and friends of missing persons, or victims of unsolved crimes, for an outreach post on my blog.If I am able to see how much money is generated by an individual post, the proceeds from ads on those pages will go to search efforts or a charity chosen by the relevant parties.
Original Content Coming Right Up
My decision to sign up for WordPress’s ad program now is because I feel comfortable enough to share enough of my original writing with you. The response I got to the story of my madcap drive down to D.C. inspired me to make that leap.
Stay tuned for more funny stories about my otherwise delightfully average life, poetry that I promise wasn’t written by me during my middle school Goth phase, assorted fiction, and reflections on current events. Of course, I will keep the book and TV reviews coming.
I hope you’ll join me for the journey.
Boring Yet Important Copyright Stuff
With the exception of some duly-cited historical photos from the public domain, all words and images on this blog are produced by me.