Author Lawrence Wright was a conscientious objector in the course of the Vietnam War, which meant he was needed to do two years of what was called “option service.” He ended up in Egypt, teaching at the American University in Cairo. And it was there that the man from Texas started his obsession with the Middle East.
Given that then, Wright has written a lot about the area and about terrorism as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Now, he has compiled his a lot of New Yorker essays into a new book referred to as The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.
But his interest in terrorism stretches back to properly ahead of his New Yorker job … back to a screenwriting gig in the 1990s. He tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers that the 1998 film The Siege asked “what would happen if terrorism came here? As it already had in, say, London and Paris, you know, how would we react if it occurred in New York?”
On people’s reactions to The Siege right after the Sept. 11 attacks
It was the most rented movie in America soon after 9/11 … I consider there were two issues — one particular was, it explained and looked at the dilemma of terrorism. But the other thing is, the film has a satisfied ending, and right after 9/11, men and women weren’t positive how this movie was going to finish.
On his piece about John O’Neill, “The Counter-Terrorist”
If you recall, the planes had been all grounded [right after the attacks], and I lived in Austin, so I was unable to get to New York for a number of days, and I was desperate to get involved in this. I didn’t know how to decrease this vast tragedy to a human scale. So I was combing via obituaries streaming online, and on this Washington Post internet site, I identified O’Neill’s obituary. And it created him out to be something of a disgrace. He had been the head of counterterrorism in New York, and he’d been washed out of the [FBI] since he’d taken classified data out of the workplace. And then he wound up receiving a job as head of security at the Planet Trade Center.
You know, his job was to get Osama bin Laden, and as an alternative bin Laden got him. And I thought at the time it was ironic. But I don’t see it that way anymore. He took that job because he knew that al-Qaida would come and attempt to finish the job on the Planet Trade Center — they had bombed it after just before in 1993 — so he instinctively place himself at ground zero … it was O’Neill and a handful of people that truly realized the peril that America was in.
On the Americans held captive and killed by the Islamic State, and what may well have been accomplished differently
I’m not saying that they may possibly have been able to survive. Unless the American government had taken the exact same policy as the Europeans, which was merely to pay off the kidnappers. But the American government opposes that, and also at the time opposed any Americans, even the parents of these individuals, paying to ransom their youngster. So primarily, the parents were left by themselves. They had no thought how to deal with ISIS, and they got quite little aid from the State Department or the FBI … there was hardly ever any moment when the FBI or the State Division shared data or presented to support in any meaningful way.
On the relevance of al-Qaida in the age of ISIS
Effectively, al-Qaida is the parent, with all the progeny that has multiplied all more than the world. If you call it al-Qaida or bin Ladenism or jihadism, whatever you get in touch with it, it really is proliferated. So yes, the mother organization has been lowered — it really is not extinct, but it has undoubtedly been confined. But the idea that they have put forward is alive in the globe and spreading swiftly, sadly.
On how we’ve changed in America
Effectively, I was reflecting about how, when I was in high college, I took a date to Really like Field in Dallas. That was in fact the name of the airport, but it was exactly where a lot of dates went when you didn’t have any income. And I bear in mind that we climbed into this airliner that had just come from some European location — we decided it need to have been Paris — and we sat in the initial class compartment, and the stewardesses, as you called them then, brought us a snack, and we pretended we were actually cosmopolitan. And then we went up in the FAA tower, “Come on in, little ones!” So we sat down and watched these airplanes land. And that was America.
And I’m so struck, just going into an office building where you have to be photographed. In Philadelphia, you go check out the Liberty Bell and you have to take off your shoes and your belt. These impingements on ordinary liberty — the kinds of factors we took completely for granted, those are gone. But if they’re forgotten they’ll be permanently gone. And I believe that it’s essential that we keep in our minds the notion of that sort of freedom, and if we drop that, then I feel terrorism genuinely will have won.