Lawrence Wright is a fascinating guy. A staff writer at the New Yorker and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written books on topics ranging from false memory syndrome to religious biography to the idiosyncrasies of twins. He co-wrote the 1998 Denzel Washington movie The Siege — about what would happen if Islamic terrorists succeeded in bringing a catastrophe to our shores — and which led, in a tragic way, to his writing [The Looming Tower], for which he was today [awarded the Pulitzer Prize].
Shortly after The Siege was released it was denounced by radical Islamic groups for slandering them and fomenting hatred. In an example of irony utterly lost on them, one of the ways they showed their displeasure at the perceived slander was to blow up a theater in South Africa that was showing the film. People died and a young girl was crippled for life. Wright carried his own wounds out of the experience and, following the fully realized catastrophe of 9/11, determined that he would know who these people were, to find as many as he could who were as close to Bin Laden as possible and learn their motivations. The Looming Tower was the result — an attempt to dimensionalize the images in the Wanted posters and provide us at home with a better understanding of who we’re facing.
Last week a group of Columbia alums and I attended Wright’s spoken-word performance of what he learned called “My Trip to Al-Qaeda”. Subtly staged by director Gregory Mosher, Wright stood in a spare office setting and discussed the people he had met and what they had told him as images of them and their handiwork was displayed on a screen behind him. What Wright took away from the experience was an understanding of the pervasive despair and sense of humiliation that people in the Arab world experience following decades of social lassitude instilled by autocratic regimes and repressive religious doctrine. The result is a nihilistic, anarchic death cult — of which Al-Qaeda is the most prominent exponent — that seeks to destroy the status quo and all who benefit by it without having a clear idea of what comes after the destruction. It was a dire story he told.
In a question and answer period following the performance, someone in our group asked Wright if the narrative of hatred and nihilism that motivates so many radical Islamists could be countered by another that offered hope. Wright was not optimistic, narratives arise organically — they can’t be imposed. As we’re learning in Iraq.