In tomorrow’s podcast, I speak with Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In the months leading up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I knew I wanted to deviate from my normal subject matter and speak very specifically about this event, but I didn’t really know how to do it. There were a number of people I considered speaking with, but as I reflected on the first time I read The Looming Tower, I realized that Lawrence’s story was the one I most wanted to explore.
Effectively, the road to 9/11 consists of two major stories. The first is the story of how Al-Qaeda came to be, which of course focuses on Osama bin Laden, but also his counterpart from al-Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But to understand this alliance you must go back to the story of Sayyid Qutb, the martyr of the fundamentalist movement, and his journey to the United States in the late 1940s. This story is paralleled by an exploration of the conflict within the intelligence community, namely between the CIA and the FBI, and how this infighting led to the ultimate failure to intervene before it was too late.
There’s the road to 9/11, which Lawrence and I discuss in great detail, and then there’s 9/11 itself—and the pain, grief, loss, and search for meaning it resulted in. Twenty years on, it would seem most of the tragic stories of that day have been told. Or so I thought until I came upon the story of Bobby McIlvaine, who died at the age of 26 in the North Tower that morning. His story was recently profiled in The Atlantic. It’s a tale of pain, grief, loss, family, life, love, and the search for meaning that such a tragedy leaves behind. As I read the piece, it felt like I was intimately intruding on Bobby’s family as they coped with his loss. This line, in particular, stuck out to me:
Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down. It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”
As we lead up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and people are processing and thinking about it in a variety of ways, I can’t recommend this article, and Lawrence’s book, highly enough.