Lawrence Wright

On 9/11, Al Qaeda, and The Looming Tower.

Evan Smith: What material effect has winning the Pulitzer Prize already had on your life, and what effect do you expect it will have?

Lawrence Wright: A number of people, even my sister, have said that I can die now, though I don’t think that’s required by the rules of the Pulitzer committee. Internally it hasn’t made any difference at all, except it does help me get appointments and meetings that might have been more difficult in the past.

ES: Do you call people now and say, “This is Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright”?

LW: Well, they’ve heard about it. That minor degree of celebrity is useful.

ES: I wonder if it’s like winning the best actor Oscar, when suddenly everybody wants you in his movie. I imagine book publishers are saying, “Oh, yeah, he can do whatever he wants to do. He now has a free ride.”

LW: One of my books is already coming back into print, a novel I wrote about [Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega called God’s Favorite, so it does feel like spring. I don’t know how long it lasts.

ES: Do you look at The Looming Tower now, having put it aside, presumably, for the past year, and say, “Yeah, it’s pretty good,” or do you see the blemishes that we don’t?

LW: In the past I’ve had a more realistic notion of how my work stood in the world. There are many times when you’re in the middle of a writing project and you’re pulling yourself ahead by imagining what a great hit it’s gonna be, and you can envision yourself standing up on the podium—at least this is true for me, in my most deluded moments—accepting all these prizes, and it helps get you ahead. And then when you’re actually finished with it, all of that illusory stuff tends to dissolve, and you begin to get a more sober view of what you’ve accomplished. Your readers, your friends, and your editor start to give you a sense of its real worth.

ES: Let’s talk about the subject of the book. We’re coming up on the sixth anniversary of 9/11. Do we really know what happened on that day? Because it seems that out here in the world, not just among black-helicopter types, there are still questions about who these terrorists were, what their motives were, and whether there are aspects of the plot that we haven’t entirely figured out.

LW: We know what happened on September 11. It’s not a mystery. The mystery, rather, has to do with human nature, with why people believe in things that have no evidence to support them. I’ve been dogged by conspiracy theorists since the book came out, and I’ve spent time trying to convert them back to reality.

ES: Tell me what they think happened.

LW: Most of the conspiracies start with a flaw of logic. One of the main ones is that these buildings could not have fallen on their own—that it would have taken an internal explosion, that they had to have been wired up and ready to go when the planes hit.

ES: Simply flying planes into the towers wouldn’t have damaged the structures enough for them to come down?

LW: Right. The experiment of what happens when you fly a fully gassed-up airliner into a skyscraper has only been accomplished two times: in World Trade Center 1 and 2. A plane once hit the Empire State Building, but it was a small plane. So there was no previous evidence about what would happen when a jetliner hit a skyscraper. And based on the evidence, what happens is, the skyscraper is consumed. Now, to make it plausible that the buildings were already wired for explosives before the airliners hit, you have to have a government that is colluding with [Osama] bin Laden, that is expecting this strike to happen.

ES: Colluding how?

LW: Colluding by knowing about the attack in advance and therefore approving of it.

ES: But it’s not a question of being in cahoots, in a literal sense, with bin Laden.

LW: Oh, yes, oftentimes it is. There are a lot of people who believe we were working with bin Laden. I can’t tell you how many variations there are on this theme: Either we did it entirely and the Arabs were simply passengers—they were innocent—or else they were working for Mossad [the Israeli intelligence agency]. The ability of the imagination to stretch the evident is so impressive.

ES: Are people just so aghast at the horrific reality of it—“It couldn’t have happened like this!”—that they think there had to have been something behind it?

LW: I grew up in Dallas. Conspiracy theories have been a part of my life all along.

ES: This is not news to you.

LW: When a great tragedy happens, people want to enlist greater powers to explain it. It’s disappointing in the face of such a catastrophe to find that the cause is really rather pedestrian.

ES: How much of this is pure politics?

LW: I suppose that some of it is; some of the theories, especially in Europe and the Arab world, are anti-American. What they typically do is seize on a puzzling small point and try to account for it. Often it’s a completely flawed argument, such as the one that says the hole in the Pentagon looks like a missile struck it. Actually, that’s not true; that’s not the way a building would look if a missile struck it. It looks the way a building would look if an airplane struck it.

ES: Even if you accept that the conspiracy theorists are off in terms of how the facts align, we’ve discovered, in congressional hearings, the memo from early August 2001 that warned that bin Laden was determined to attack us on our own soil. Doesn’t that suggest that there was, in fact, at least some inkling on the part of the government before 9/11 that something was up, and doesn’t that

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