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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As you look back on your movie and this book, it's very clear that through words and stories and cinema and book that you're trying to affect our imagination and the way we think about the Muslim world and how we should respond and think about terrorism. Talk a little about that. What do you hope to achieve in these works?

I think right now we're in a vacuum of political leadership and diplomatic leadership, and it falls on journalists in an odd way to do a more critical job of informing the public than we might otherwise be in. The imaginative, creative community, which has until recently not done a very good job of dealing with 9/11 and our response to it, but I think is beginning to -- it's more on the intellectual class and the creative class to address these problems because we have such a failure of leadership and of an understanding at that level.

I guess there's a sense of being drawn into the void, that I feel because I've been blessed with the background that I have that I've been called to duty, that I have to present myself in the service. We're in a really critical moment, Harry, and it's not going to be resolved anytime soon, it's going to last for a long time. We have made a ton of mistakes. So, right now I'm hoping to enlighten people a little bit about the nature of our adversaries and the kinds of things that we can do to lessen the strife. I always feel that things are dangerous when they become simple, when it's good-and-evil and us-versus-them and the West versus Islam. When these kinds of paradigms are thrown up things get very simple and they get very dangerous because they're polarizing. The role of an investigative reporter or of a movie maker, someone that takes these issues seriously, is to complicate issues. By complicating, you make things more human and therefore less dangerous.

If students or the general public were to watch this program, what would you tell them, especially the students, about what they should draw from the story and your career about how they should prepare for the future, where these conflicts with the Islamic world will be there? How should they think about that or think about preparing themselves to be ready to deal with it in some leadership capacity?

The first thing is to not be afraid to engage. It's the absence of engagement that has been such a liability for us. It's important that Americans get out in the world and experience the world and also present their own American perspective. People are hungry -- America represents something potent in the world. It's interesting: when 9/11 happened I felt, and I think many Americans felt, "Oh, we're going to have to stand for something now. Our parents have been tested, our grandparents, our forefathers, and it's our turn now." And in many ways that feeling has been lost, and yet that's really valuable, because we do have a great treasure that the world depends upon.

I was in Syria recently and a young Syrian filmmaker said to me, "What have you done with your country? I live in a police state but when I look at you now, I see us." Now that's a perception that we can't afford to have. We need to control our own society, we need to protect the things that are valuable and uniquely American, and we need to be able to provide a model for the world. We do have that duty, and it is our turn to protect it.

Students are going to be coming into their own in a period of real difficulty. It's not an easy time. Learning foreign languages is very important, and living abroad is extremely important, and also standing up for the things that you feel are vital to your society. Those kinds of things -- you are going to be tested. This is not a generation that's going to get away easily.

Larry, on that note I want to thank you very much for being our guest, and let me show your book again and suggest that everybody go out and buy it, The Looming Tower. Again, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

Harry, thank you. It's been a fun time. I enjoyed it.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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