Lawrence Wright Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11: Conversation with Lawrence Wright, Staff Writer, The New Yorker; November 13, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Movie: "The Siege"

You wrote a story and then a screenplay which resulted in a movie which came out in 1998 called "The Siege," which I reviewed in preparation for this interview. I was immediately struck by how prescient this film was, even to the extent that when I first saw it in '98 or '99 I wasn't able to appreciate. Was it harder to do a work on terrorism as a screenplay than this book? Talk about the difference in those two projects.

This project began when a producer named Lynda Obst approached me to write a script. Her idea was a woman in the CIA -- it was more of a notion than a real movie idea but we spent about a year with me prospecting ideas. But the Cold War was over and it was difficult to see who the enemy was. I finally recognized that the CIA did have a real-life antagonist and it's the FBI.

Which is one of the important themes there.

So, once I realized that, the question was what were they fighting over, and what they really were fighting over in the mid-nineties when I was working on this project was who was going to be in charge of controlling terrorism inside the U.S. They were both struggling for this franchise. And so that became the aperture that the script is built upon.

I went to New York and talked to some counter-terrorists in the FBI. It was ironic, as it turned out. It pre-figured what would happen with my book. I was very surprised at their level of anxiety even then about the possibility we were going to be attacked by a radical Islamist group and it was going to do a lot of damage. I didn't have those same anxieties at the time. We had been attacked in '93, the World Trade Center bombing in '93, and there had been a plot that had been squashed to blow up the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and various other landmarks in New York, but we hadn't really felt that we were under attack. The FBI bureau in New York saw what was coming, and the movie reflected their anxieties that I was able to channel in the [script].

When one sees the movie today -- and I recommend that everybody should run out to the video store and see it -- there are a number of themes that become terribly important after the events of 9/11: the threat to civil liberties, as you've already mentioned; the fight within the intelligence and police agencies in the United States about who would control this turf; and so on. This was a product of your research as you explored this idea of what kind of movie to make.

It was a movie of ideas, and the idea that [director] Ed Zwick and I were posing was, what would happen to our country if terrorism came to our shores the way that it already had in London or Paris, not to mention Tel Aviv, but just already in those Western cities? They were experiencing a rather high level of terror within those countries. What would happen if it were in New York? Once that premise is posed it then becomes an examination of our culture and how would we treat it. Unfortunately, the plot line of the movie so replicates what actually occurred, the rounding up of Arabs, the army in the streets of New York, torturing of suspects -- all of those things were to some extent predictable.

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