8. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
I am a much more informed person after reading this book. It sounds a little boring to say, and it’s what’s written in all the reviews, but The Looming Tower is an extremely well researched and comprehensive look at the events leading up to September 11th, 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Center. Starting in the late 1950s, I think, Wright looks at the development of modern Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, explains the internal conflicts, major figures, and political events that shaped the networks and people who would form Al-Qaeda. In the 1990s, Wright brings in the CIA and the FBI to examine the internal structures that failed to prevent the attacks.
It’s an enormous amount of ground to cover, and the people described within are too numerous to count. In fact, I got lost more than once, referring back to the appendices to remind myself which terrorist was which, who was funding whom. However, I think that Wright does an admirable job – to the extent of my knowledge, he doesn’t leave much out. He covers a huge amount of history in order to best contextualize the actions, the motivations, and the outcomes of so many different people and events that all played a role in a single day. At times, it can be jarring to switch back and forth between so many countries, people, stories and events – and about 2/3 of the way through the book, there was definitely a point in which I got infinitely more confused. However, I think that Wright correctly understood that the background, the switches between time and place, were necessary to contextualize the events, and he brings in information as it is needed. It’s unwieldy, yes, but I cannot imagine the difficulties in structuring and organizing a book that covers a huge part of modern history, spans more than 6 countries and hundreds of important figures.
I feel like I better understand Egyptian history, the internal political disputes of Afghanistan and Pakistan, why bin Laden was able to seek refuge there, and I even have a better grasp of modern Saudi Arabia and the fundamentalist principles that have flourished there. I’ve also forgotten a lot of it, and there are many details that I won’t hang on to.
In the past 12 years, much of the news, foreign policy, and many of the personal and professional choices I have made have been influenced in some way by the events of September 11th. For many people the effects were greater, more personal and much more devastating. The events of that day have made a huge mark on the US and its citizens, and for me, it was important to read more, know more, better understand the things that went on, and brought us here. I think that the sprawling history of The Looming Tower is important for Americans to know. I don’t know if everyone should read it, or if they’ll have the patience to read the entire book – to know the multitude of characters, to flip back and forth between stories, but I think it’s worth it.