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 in turn give aid and comfort to the people who think there’s more going on here than we know?
LW: Oh, absolutely. The government’s incompetence and paternalism with regard to sharing this kind of information with the American people are responsible for giving so much rope to these theorists.
ES: So it was your view, after reporting this book, that however evil these men who came from abroad and attacked us may have been, there was a certain amount of culpability within our government on the question of competence?
LW: Nobody can doubt it after watching the parade of catastrophic mistakes. The inability to get bin Laden in Afghanistan, the decision to go to war in Iraq, the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the gross incompetence on the part of our military and state planners to take care of the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq—these are all massive failures of government. They’re not just political failures; they’re institutional failures, and we’re going to be dealing with them long after we’ve changed administrations.
ES: Incompetence is one thing, but willful deception is, or would be, another, which brings me to the subject of Iraq. There seems to have been, on the part of the government, whether it’s the vice president or the president or people around them, a repeated attempt to link Iraq specifically to the attacks on 9/11 as a justification for launching the invasion. Please settle this question once and for all: Was there any Iraqi involvement in 9/11?
LW: No, there was no Iraqi involvement. A couple of Iraqi individuals were part of Al Qaeda, but the government of Iraq was not involved. Saddam Hussein made overtures to Al Qaeda at least twice, once while Al Qaeda was in Sudan during the years 1992 to 1996 and then again in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda relocated there. He was interested in the way the Iranians were able to use Hezbollah as a kind of underground arm of foreign policy, as a terrorist arm. He wanted Al Qaeda to serve that purpose for him. And he made overtures to bin Laden—he sent people to Sudan who flattered him and called him the Muslim prophet. But bin Laden hated Saddam Hussein, and he was on a campaign in 1990, in his home country of Saudi Arabia, to point out the danger that he would pose. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, bin Laden went to the Saudi minister of defense with a rather cockeyed plan to defend the kingdom using Al Qaeda and unemployed Saudi youth against Saddam’s million-man army in one of the largest tank wars in the world. The evidence, again and again, is that he spurned Saddam’s overtures and repeatedly denounced him as a secularist and a heretic. There’s no evidence that they worked together.
ES: So why does this misperception persist among people who should know better?
LW: It was a deliberate manipulation on the part of some of the neocons in the administration who had, from the very beginning, wanted to invade Iraq to “reset the table in the Middle East,” as they said, and they used 9/11 as an opening. There was political will following 9/11 to do something, and the facts were manipulated to allow the administration to do it against Iraq.
ES: Afghanistan aside for the moment, were there other countries—you mentioned Saudi Arabia—more culpable and therefore more appropriate than Iraq to retaliate against?
LW: The Saudis bore a lot of cultural responsibility for creating the kind of climate that inculcated this fanaticism. I think there are many causes for the despair that is at the root of Al Qaeda and the complaints of radical Islamists all over the Muslim world, but the fact that they are unable to participate in a meaningful way in their own societies is a strong reason for joining radical groups. And the Saudis made that environment themselves.
ES: Did they play enough of a role in this that we should have been aggressive toward them in response?
LW: I don’t think we should have been aggressive toward the Saudis. They’ve made some changes.
ES: In response to 9/11?
LW: Yes, they’ve moderated a lot of their education systems, and they’re trying to open up some of their political dialogue, but within a very narrow range. The problem with trying to change another culture, especially a traditional tribal culture like Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, Iraq, is that it’s difficult to accomplish when you understand so little about the internal mechanics.
ES: You’re pushing against thousands of years of history.
LW: I think Saudi Arabia is a very poorly understood society. People often talk about how slow it is to change, but when I was living there, when I was teaching young reporters in Jeddah, I met an editor named Muhammad Shoukany. He was a man about my age, and he had grown up in Asir, in the southern part of the country, where many of the hijackers came from. When he was a boy, he was a shepherd, and like other Asir boys, he wore his hair in curls and had a garland of flowers around his head. And he hadn’t seen an automobile until he was nine years old. Then he went to Jeddah, and after that, he earned a scholarship at the University of Texas, as a matter of fact, and got a degree in comparative literature, and then he went back and became a professor and the editor of a newspaper. The point of his story is that he lived out, in his own lifetime, the entire Industrial Revolution. He grew up in a completely pastoral environment but encompassed all the changes the world has seen in the last 250 years, so one can’t say that his life has moved slowly. It’s moved at a head-snapping pace. There’s only so much change that individual lives or societies can accommodate.
ES: Did we do enough in Afghanistan?
LW: No. There are several tragic mistakes we’ve made that are going to be difficult if not impossible to rectify. One of the greatest was that we had really destroyed Al Qaeda after the battle of Tora Bora in November and December of 2001. Right after 9/11, American and coalition troops swept aside the Taliban in six weeks and pummeled Al Qaeda; its own internal memoranda and memoirs say that 80 percent of its members were captured or killed. Yes, the leaders got away, but the survivors were scattered and destitute and unable to communicate with each other and repudiated all over the world. Al Qaeda was dead. The war on terror was over. We should have stayed in significant force in Afghanistan to make sure that country was safe and free of the radicalizing elements of the Taliban and begun a much more assertive reconstruction program. Instead, we invaded Iraq and diverted our resources and re-created the monster that we had slain. Al Qaeda would not have been able to come back to life, in my opinion, had we not invaded Iraq. That action breathed life back into the movement. Now it’s stronger than it’s been since 9/11—maybe in its entire history. It’s spread through many different countries. Far from being homeless, as it was after 9/11, it’s now deeply rooted in many countries, with training facilities in Iraq, in the tribal areas of Pakistan, in Mali, and probably again in Afghanistan. And it’s been able to accomplish this mainly because of our actions in Iraq.
ES: So we actually have made the world less safe.
LW: No doubt about it. We’ve created the reality that we imagined. Before we invaded Iraq, Al Qaeda was not in Iraq. There were radical Islamists in Iraq, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but they were opposed to Saddam’s regime, and they weren’t given sanctuary. Before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration described the country as being a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, which it was not, but it is now. They also described it as a country that was linked to radical Islam, which it was not, but it is now. It’s dismaying to me personally, because I was opposed to invading Iraq and now I’m opposed to getting out, because Iraq is the country that we feared it was when we marched in so blithely.
ES: You’re opposed to getting out?
LW: I’m not saying that I have the answer. I think there are terrible consequences either way. But I’ve been looking at the world through Al Qaeda’s lenses for nearly six years now, and I can imagine how they’ll treat the withdrawal of American troops. What a great victory they’ll celebrate. The problem, Evan, is that you can’t walk backward through this and try to get out of the tunnel you came in. And we have a lot of moral responsibility for creating the sad situation that we have in front of us, so we are obliged to the Iraqi people to give them as good a chance as possible for some kind of peace. If we pull out now, there will be really appalling carnage. We’ll only be forestalling it if we stay, but it’s important to give enough space for people to create a stable entity to hold the country together. Maybe we can’t, but I think we have to try.