An odd Christmas present, for sure, and rarer still, a book, but my sister’s gift of “The Looming Tower,” by Lawrence Wright (a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller) was captivating from the get-go. The book’s subtitle—“Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”—pretty much provides the broad brushstrokes, and although much of the material is now familiar, having been covered in less detail by no end of well-meaning articles and television summaries, Wright’s narrative is no less astounding. And yet, in the course of its 400+ pages, I continued to be reminded how seemingly impossible it is to encapsulate the trauma of 9/11 and everything that followed.
Here, a non-fiction narrative comes close by presenting the astonishing facts in clear, exciting prose—we are left to attach our own emotions to all the lost chances to avoid the tragedy, let alone properly understand the perpetrators. Artists continue to try, the latest Tom Hanks movie being a case in point, and I understand that some time soon Colum McCann’s extraordinary “Let The Great World Spin,” will be brought to the big screen (how, I have no idea), but whatever angle, however tangential, is used to illuminate the event and associated emotions, Americans, and perhaps especially New Yorkers, have avoided the end result.
Having completed “The Looming Tower,” I believe there’s one the book’s sub-stories that begs to be made into a movie: the narrative of FBI counterterrorism chief, John O’Neill. Perhaps his story and ultimate tragedy (flamboyant personality, philanderer, a focus of CIA/NSA/FBI turf warfare, relentless advocate against Al-Qaeda, who dies on 9/11 trying to save co-workers only days after leaving the FBI) might be considered cliché. But before reading this book I’d never heard of him and his story seems to me emblematic of the inevitability of that horrible day (and without saying so, I think Wright is saying just that). Some time in the near future the wounds will have healed enough for John O’Neill’s story to be told in full; it has a lot to say about America—and will be one hell of an exciting story!