The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love
–“Into the Fire” by Bruce Springsteen, on the album “The Rising”
On September 11, 2001, I was watching a movie. “Primary Colors.” I was smoking cigarettes and ironing my clothes, planning to go in the office late and wait out the day until 7:30 p.m., when the polls closed. That day was Cincinnati’s Mayoral primary. They say if you are a good campaign manager, you don’t have much to do on Election Day. I wasn’t a good campaign manager, but I also wasn’t in any hurry to get going on a day that I knew would be very long. Around 9, I called the Mayor’s Office to see what was up, like I usually did. And that’s when I heard. I was driving on 9th Street, in view of City Hall, when one of the World Trade Center towers fell. The rest of the day was a blur, culminating with a surreal evening at the Board of Elections watching President Bush on one TV and the election returns on another.
Like everyone else, I’m unsettled at the fact it has been 10 years already. In some ways, I’m disappointed in what’s happened since then, and in some ways I’m incredibly hopeful. I’m grateful for all those who have given their lives to keep us safe, and to all those who toil day in and day out in the difficult public service and government jobs that we too often take for granted. And on Tuesday, when I fly to DC, I won’t huff and puff when I go through security. I’ll probably say thanks. There are many more words in my heart as I’ve reflected on this anniversary that we all wish wasn’t, but my words would be entirely inadequate. So I’ll talk about a book.
“The Looming Tower” is a book I’ve wanted to read for some time, especially given the reviews from commentators and newsmen and women that I respect. The author, Lawrence Wright, has appeared with thoughtful commentary on “Morning Joe” several times, and he won the Pulitzer for this book, so it’s been in my queue for a while. When I finished it, I knew I should have read it the day it was published.
After reading it, I can’t help but be so frustrated by our ignorance on September 10th, 2001. Wright’s book is a description of the rise of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It’s a window into the fundamentalist worldviews of extremists in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the tribal countries and regions that we thought didn’t affect us. Something so foreign and unknown to us percolated in a region we didn’t understand and attacked us from a cave. We talk about a global society, but as a country, we had made no effort to understand it, and we probably still don’t. “Looming Tower” is a lesson in ignoring what is happening outside of our borders.
Unfortunately, it’s also a Machiavelli-esque lesson in how to accumulate power and respect. Bin Laden’s rise to power is frightening. By promoting the teachings of others, like Sayyid Qutb, bin Laden became the leader of a movement that crossed borders, cultures and dialect. He grew up wealthy but recognized the power in the image of cave-like living. He helped create al-Qaeda training camps, insisting on an almost comical bureaucratic structure; new members were forced to fill out recruitment forms—in triplicate. His image was a priority, and he seized on moments that would expand his power. Battles where it was perceived that an enemy was defeated, though bin Laden’s role may have been secondary, were chances to burnish his credentials and add to his strength. It was a textbook power grab, not one that happens in the U.S. Senate, but in a mountain in the Middle East.
In the last third of the book, the attention shifts somewhat to the home front. In chapters that are equal parts exasperating and tragic, Wright exposes, incontrovertibly, how the FBI, CIA, and other agencies were so caught up in bureaucratic infighting that they were unable to stop, but easily could have stopped, the 9/11 attacks. John O’Neill is an especially colorful and dynamic character, whose time fighting al-Qaeda chillingly intersects with his decision to go lead security for the World Trade Center just before the attacks.
This was a difficult book to read, in large part because the geography, history and cultures of the countries were so foreign, and because the names of the major characters were similar and unfamiliar to an American eye. I’m grateful that Wright included a list of primary characters at the conclusion.
There were also frightening parallels to “Under the Banner of Heaven.” At it’s core, al-Qaeda is the fundamentalist extension of Islam. But just like we shouldn’t associate the murderous killers in Krakauer’s book with every Mormon, we should be loath to associate the terrorists with the millions of Muslims across the globe who believe in a peaceful society. The thought process that brought bin Laden and al-Zawahiri and others to a philosophy that, despite it’s contradiction with the Quran, allows the murder of innocents and even other Muslims, is both illogical and chilling at the same time.
Let me end with this. As I alluded to before, perhaps the most significant contribution that Wright makes with this book is to better explain, in an accessible way, the subtleties of this part of the world that we still don’t sufficiently understand. Wright lays out how, through recent history, no matter how just or deserved or lawful, our actions created ripples into societies most Americans didn’t even know existed. Our world is far more complex than our leaders sometimes communicate, and it is imperative that our institutions and individuals seek to better understand this global and cultural complexity. It is as critical as better security at our airports and as more coordination between our national security agencies.
Ten years to the week after Pearl Harbor, Time Magazine featured an opera singer on its cover. Life Magazine had a cover with Harry Truman in an ugly shirt, with a focus on his evolving wardrobe. Contrast that with today. We are still dealing with the after effects of 9/11 in an intensely personal way. And our country is still adjusting to a new reality. Some memories of the morning of September 11th, 2001 may have faded, but we are still living in that day’s long afternoon.
Thanks for reading.