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Journalist Lawrence Wright's 'Trip To Al-Qaeda'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. My guest, Lawrence
Wright won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 book, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and
the Road to 9/11."
That same year, he premiered his one-man show, "My Trip to al-Qaida, in which
he talked about the process of writing the book and the moral dilemmas he faced
dealing with sources who were affiliated with al-Qaida and other jihadists
Now, Wright's one-man show has been adapted into an HBO documentary, directed
by Alex Gibney. That film, "My Trip to al-Qaida," will debut tonight.
Lawrence Write is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a fellow at the Center
on Law and Security at NYU Law School. He started researching terrorism in the
In fact, he co-wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film, "The Siege," which is
about a series of jihadist terrorist attacks on New York. The film was cited as
a reason for a terrorist attack on a restaurant in a Planet Hollywood chain in
"The Siege" starred Bruce Willis as Major General Devereaux, who gives orders
to seal off Brooklyn and put all young men of Arab descent in a prison camp.
And Denzel Washington as FBI Special Agent Anthony Hubbard, who objects to
Devereaux's orders. In this scene at the end of the film, Hubbard has come to
arrest Devereaux for torturing a citizen. He's come with armed FBI agents.
(Soundbite of film, "The Siege")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BRUCE WILLIS (Actor): (as Major General William Devereaux) Order your men
to lower their weapons, Hubbard.
Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Anthony Hubbard) I can't do that, General.
Mr. WILLIS: (as Devereaux) Do it now.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (as Hubbard) The law states...
Mr. WILLIS: (as Devereaux) I am the law. Right here, right now, I am the law.
Order your men to lower their weapons, Agent Hubbard.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (as Hubbard) You have the right to remain silent, General. You
have the right to a fair trial. You have the right not to be tortured, not to
be murdered, rights that you took away from Tariq Husseini. You have those
rights because of the men that came before you who wore that uniform.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your
Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (Author, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to
9/11"): Thank you, Terry. It's good to talk to you again.
GROSS: Now, I didn't realize you wrote "The Siege" until I saw your movie, "My
Trip to al-Qaida," and I certainly didn't realize that the movie was used as
the rationale for the bombing of the Planet Hollywood in Cape Town, South
Africa, in 1998. And what was that rationale? Was this an al-Qaida bombing?
Mr. WRIGHT: It was a radical, Islamist group in South Africa that was
sympathetic to al-Qaida. But al-Qaida, at the time, was kind of little known.
The reason that they attacked the Planet Hollywood is that one of the stars of
the movie, Bruce Willis, was one of the investors in that restaurant chain.
GROSS: And he's the heavy. I mean, he's the (technical difficulties) who
Mr. WRIGHT: He's the bad guy.
GROSS: Who puts Muslims in Brooklyn in basically, you know, a concentration
camp and declares martial law. So yeah, go ahead.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I mean, there's so many disturbing ironies in this. But, you
know, we're in the middle of a huge controversy right now in America about the
role and place of Islam in American society. And that was kind of the first
instance where Americans confronted Islam, and it was Muslims that were
reacting to the siege, portraying an Arab terrorist.
And I was thrown in the middle of this controversy as one of the authors of
this movie and told by some of the Arab-American interest groups that I would
be responsible for any anti-Muslim activity that happened in the U.S., which
really didn't happen.
But the controversy stirred up a reaction all over the world. And so when the
trailers were being shown in the U.S., a bomb went off in this Cape Town
restaurant. And the group claimed credit because of "The Siege." They said that
they had done this because they saw the movie as an attack on Islam.
And they killed two people. A little girl lost her leg. It was a very wrenching
experience for me. And, you know, I never really quite gotten over it. You
know, the fact that I had written, and people had died because of it, that's
one of the things that's very hard to live with.
GROSS: But what's amazing is, I mean, the attack was based on the trailer. The
movie, the movie stands for not imprisoning Muslims, not torturing Muslims,
keeping the Bill of Rights for everybody. And that is so clear if you actually
see the movie.
So, like, your movie was so misinterpreted and ended up with someone's death
and someone's maiming. So did that stymie you as a writer, making you think
that whatever you write, someone's going to misinterpret it, and it might
actually lead to catastrophe?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you certainly realize that when you're, especially in the
movie business, you're engaging people's subconscious in a way you may not
And, you know, the truth is that there was a campaign already organized to
attack the next movie that had an Arab terrorist in it, and this happened to be
the next one in line.
And it wasn't a stereotypical movie by any means. We had spent a lot of time
consulting with some of the same groups that later attacked the movie to make
sure that we got things straight.
It was - and, you know, it was the first movie that I know of in America that
had an Arab-American hero, played by Tony Shalhoub, who is an Arab-American and
had never been able to get a part as an Arab-American before. All those things
are, you know, disturbing ironies about it.
But the way the movie was portrayed, the way it was misrepresented, you know,
it was very shocking to me. But it educated me about how dangerous this whole
business is, what a witch's brew is stirred up by people who have an interest
in creating those kinds of controversies.
GROSS: So how deep were you, in 1998 when "The Siege" was released, in your
research of al-Qaida?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, al-Qaida was barely on the horizon when I started
my research, which was, well, let's see. The movie came out in 1998. I think I
started working on the research in '96. And al-Qaida was essentially unknown,
and even to American intelligence, just barely, barely registering.
But it began to be felt by some of the people that I was interviewing in the
counterterrorist community in New York, for instance. And I became, you know,
very aware of the fact that there were these Islamist groups on the horizon.
Then, you know, before the movie came out, around the same time as the trailers
appeared, al-Qaida had its first attack on American interests, which were the
embassies in East Africa, where 224 people were killed. That was in August of
'98. And the Cape Town bombing in reaction to the trailers of "The Siege"
happened shortly after that.
And then, of course, you know, al-Qaida declared itself â it had already
declared war on America. But, you know, so few people took that seriously even
in the intelligence community.
So the movie simply reflected the anxiety of some members of the intelligence
community who thought this could be dangerous, and we should take them
GROSS: I found it so interesting that you, who wrote what many consider to be
the or one of the definitive books on al-Qaida, "The Looming Tower," started
off writing about terrorism in fiction, you know, in a film. And that led you
to this vast reporting project.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, certainly the experience of writing the movie introduced me
to the subject, and then â and of course, I had lived in the Middle East. I had
taught for two years at the American University in Cairo when I was a young
man. So I had some experience in that part of the world.
Those two things were very influential in making me think: Now I want to know
what really happened. I had pre-imagined something like 9/11. So when this
event happened, and it was so creepily similar to events that we portrayed in
the movie, I felt compelled to go out and â it was really kind of a mission, in
a way, to find out what had really occurred.
GROSS: One of the most obvious problems that you dealt with in your research
about al-Qaida, you talk about in "My Trip to al-Qaeda," and you write about it
in the acknowledgements for the book "The Looming Tower," and the problem is
when your sources are jihadists and intelligence operatives, how do you know
who to trust? And how much faith can you put in testimony by witnesses who've
already proven themselves to be crooks, liars and double agents?
So what are some of the guidelines you set for yourself in figuring out how do
you know who to trust, and how do you know what to trust of what they tell you?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, I think journalism is a flawed profession, but it
has, you know, if it's practiced correctly, it has a self-correcting mechanism,
which is, you know, the rule of, you know, journalism is: talk to everybody.
And in the course of writing my book, I interviewed 600 people, and I didn't
get everybody, but I got a lot of people. But the other thing is some of those
sources I interviewed dozens of times, and I find that the more people you talk
to, you know, you get a broader range of opinion and facts and so on than you
can possibly get from any small group. But then you can go back and check
things that don't square with what you heard before.
So if someone told me, you know, I did this, and someone else says he wasn't
there, then you go back to that source that said that they did that, and you
ask them further questions. You either find out that they have no way to
explain the discrepancy or there's a more interesting response than you thought
you'd ever get.
I think, you know, those â you try to check with documents. You always, you
know, try to attain the veracity from other people that you know to be fairly
All of these things are important. But oftentimes, you're being steered, and so
you have to correct it by talking to the people that have an interest in not
supporting that particular line of story to see who has the most plausible
explanation for events.
GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright. His film, "My Trip to al-Qaida," debuts
tonight on HBO. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, and he's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-
winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." Now he has a
new documentary film called "My Trip to al-Qaeda," and it's a film based on his
one-man show about the writing of this book and the research for this book.
So, one of your best sources was bin Laden's brother-in-law, the late Jamal
Khalifa. He was murdered or assassinated. And you say he understood bin Laden
better than anyone. He had married bin Laden's favorite sister. What are some
of the insights you got about bin Laden from talking to his brother-in-law?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, Jamal Khalifa was a delightful person. He had a wonderful,
light sense of humor. He was always kidding. But at the same time, he was very
earnest. And, you know, he had fought in the jihad with bin Laden. He was a
high school teacher. You know, he had a very charismatic way about him.
And all these likeable qualities made me realize why bin Laden liked him. And
in a way, through my own response to Jamal Khalifa, I could sort of identify an
element of bin Laden's personality that actually it was a little uncomfortable
to me because I could see the human side of al-Qaida. I could see why people
might be drawn to bin Laden because of the nature of his friend.
GROSS: Did he defend jihad to you?
Mr. WRIGHT: He defended jihad against the Soviets. But he, not only to me but
publicly, distanced himself from bin Laden, and he actually asked me if he
could talk to the FBI to clear his name. And I said I knew a lot of FBI agents,
and I would try to set that up.
So I did try and tried for actually several years. And I was finally told by a
source that the FBI was forbidden by the CIA to actually make that contact with
GROSS: Did you feel comfortable in that role of intermediary as a journalist?
Mr. WRIGHT: No. It's awkward. It's â you know, a journalist is not supposed to
play that kind of role. But on the other hand, you're thrown into these
situations, and someone's life is on the line. As it turned out, it really was
on the line. And you're asked to do something like that, and there's nobody
else who can play that role.
So I did it. And I'm not ashamed of it. I wish that the FBI had talked to him.
They would have learned a lot. I learned a lot. He was a tremendous source.
But, you know, they declined that opportunity.
At one meeting, in an Iran study I was a part of, some very notable al-Qaida
scholar mentioned, in a room full of people in the intelligence community, that
Jamal Khalifa was a member of the Shura Council of al-Qaida, which is nonsense.
But I think that kind of accepted wisdom is what got him killed.
GROSS: By which side? Which side do you think killed him?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, his family thinks that U.S. Special Operations killed him,
and I don't know that that's true. But nobody was arrested in that killing, and
it was ostensibly a robbery, but all that was taken were his computers.
GROSS: Boy, it must be really difficult to be in the middle of all of this.
Mr. WRIGHT: What I guess the most interesting part to me is it takes you into
deep water that you're sometimes really not prepared to be in because you're
asked to get information from people who have the information.
Well, the people who have the information oftentimes have blood on their hands,
or they have a completely different perspective about the way the world should
be than you do. And sometimes that leads to real conflict.
It wasn't always possible for me to behave in the professional manner that I
like to comport myself. You know, especially in those first months after 9/11,
I found myself engaged in really acrimonious, angry discussions.
GROSS: Give me an example.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, I went to Egypt right after 9/11, and it was a very
sore moment in Egypt's history, and I was still grieving and angry.
And I had a conversation. I was there for three months. And the last day I was
there, I had really been â I thought the next time somebody wags their finger
under my nose, I'm going to snap it off. I was really at the limit.
And I had an interview with one of the chief people in the Muslim Brotherhood
who had just gotten out of prison. I guess his patience was pretty thin, too.
GROSS: And that's a very radical Islamist group.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. We had a furious, furious argument with each other. And A, I
don't think it did anything, maybe cleared the air about what we really
thought. But â and then, you know, actually I went back a year later, and we
had a more civil discussion.
But, you know, that's the â I would never do that, Terry. I never behave like
that as a reporter. It was just, you know, the times were raw.
GROSS: What was the argument about?
Mr. WRIGHT: He started his discussion with a description of American history in
the Middle East, which was so full of lies and misinformation. And I started
imagining how he was standing in, you know, in the mosque disseminating this
completely false view of America's role, not that America's innocent or has its
hands entirely clean. That's not at all true. But you don't need to go out and
make up lies like he was doing. It still makes me mad. I can feel it. I'm
getting mad all over again.
GROSS: Do you ever worry when you're arguing with a jihadist that you will end
up hurt, physically hurt?
Mr. WRIGHT: No. I just don't think about those things. And this guy is not a
jihadist. He's a Muslim Brother. And, you know, that's a different matter.
The â mainly, I follow the Blanche DuBois philosophy of always trusting in the
kindness of strangers. If you think too much about that sort of thing, you
can't do your job.
GROSS: So give us a sense of something that you learned from bin Laden's late
brother-in-law that you don't think you otherwise would have been able to find
out that helped you understand what was going on with al-Qaida.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, for one thing, you know, first of all, Jamal and Osama bin
Laden decided together that they were going to be polygamists out of religious
principle. And in the course of that ongoing discussion, bin Laden offered
Jamal his favorite sister, Sheika(ph). And so Jamal did marry Sheika, and he
had three other wives.
But of course, I desperately wanted to talk to Sheika, but she, as a
conservative Saudi woman, would of course never see me or, you know, talk to
But Jamal agreed to interview her for me. So every fourth night, he would go
spend the night with Sheika, and he would take a list of my questions, you
know, about Osama growing up and, you know, did he like girls, I mean, the
craziest questions that only a sister would know.
And he would interview her, and then the next morning we would talk.
GROSS: So what did you find out about bin Laden, bin Laden's formative years
from the second-hand interviews with the sister?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, and other people that knew him really well. He was always a
very, very pious young man. You may recall the misunderstanding after 9/11 of
this young playboy that spent all this time in Beirut, you know, kicking up his
None of that ever happened. He was very religious when he was young, and he
became extremely religious in his early adolescence. He was affected by a gym
teacher in the private school that he attended in Jeddah. Back then, he was
wearing a sport coat and jeans in his, you know, school attire.
And, but this is a Muslim Brother teacher from Syria, who began to turn his
attention toward politics. And that's I think the seed of when bin Laden began
to awaken to the person that we know him to be now.
GROSS: My guest, Lawrence Wright, will be back in the second half of the show.
His documentary, "My Trip to al-Qaeda," debuts tonight on HBO. It's about the
process of researching his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-
Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lawrence Wright, author of
the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to
9/11." His new documentary, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," is about the process of
writing the book and the moral ambiguities he's faced interviewing sources who
are members of jihadist groups. The film, which is adapted from his one-man
show, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," debuts tonight on HBO.
I want to talk with you about another source who, you know, was a source for
your research on al-Qaida, and his name is Yasser al-Sirri.
Mr. WRIGHT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And he is in England now where he has political asylum. Why did he need
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, because he was convicted in absentia of murdering a 12-year-
old girl in his attempt to kill the prime minister of Egypt. He was one of
Ayman al-Zawahiri's colleagues in this terrorist group that they had in Egypt
called al-Jihad. And he was able to obtain political asylum in England because
he had a death penalty.
GROSS: So how did he become a source?
Mr. WRIGHT: His name had arisen in some of these court suits and I had been
reading quite a lot of newspaper accounts in the Arabic press about Ayman al-
Zawahiri's associates. And so I tried tracking him down and there were a number
of them living in London and Birmingham at the time, so I - through a third-
party, I arranged to meet him. He's a real historian of the movement, and so
it's not just a matter of curiosity. And he has a, you know, a trove of
information and associations that very few people have, so from a reporter's
point of view, he was absolutely invaluable.
GROSS: Now Zawahiri, who you have mentioned as the number two in al-Qaida and
the kind of like the intellectual fuel of al-Qaida, so Yasser al-Sirri was very
close to him. What are some of the things you learned about jihad and al-Qaida
from talking to al-Sirri?
Mr. WRIGHT: The - one of the things that I learned early on with him is that
al-Qaida was really an Egyptian organization with a Saudi head on it. It was
Zawahiri and his group of men that he had assembled since he was 15 years old
when he started his cell to overthrow the Egyptian government. He had created a
cadre of people around him and transplanted much of that to Pakistan during the
jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets. So when they met bin Laden and found
this wealthy young Saudi with some dreams of restoring Islam to its proper
place in the universe, Zawahiri and his men surrounded bin Laden and enabled
him, but also sort of captured him.
They - bin Laden was somebody that a lot of people had an interest in. But it
was Zawahiri and his group that surrounded him and saw him as the golden goose,
GROSS: Literally because he had money in his family, that kind of golden goose?
Mr. WRIGHT: He had money. He had - I wouldn't say charisma, so much as a
mystique. What was intriguing about bin Laden to so many of these men who were
there, is that he was a rich kid from a very - and he was a Saudi, which has a
tremendous amount of prestige in the Muslim world, and he came from an
extraordinarily prominent family. And then to find a person like that living in
a very humble existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan made an impression on
people. So he drew people to him without really having to do very much. I mean
people were already intrigued by the idea of bin Laden even before they met
GROSS: But you make it sound like Zawahiri and his people were in a way using
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, I believe they were. And I think that bin Laden also used them
very cleverly. But initially, especially when bin Laden was, you know, unused
to running an organization like that, had no real people to call upon, Zawahiri
already had the organization. He already had the commanders in place. And so
they grafted themselves on to this new organization that bin Laden wanted to
create. The military commander, the chief of staff and all the central people
in the Shura Council were Egyptians.
GROSS: So was Yasser al-Sirri, who was close to al-Zawahiri, was he still a
jihadist when you were talking to him and he was living in London where he's
working as a car instructor - driving instructor?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, ostensibly, he was a driving instructor and, you
know, the jihad days were behind him. It's difficult to know where
sensibilities lie and, you know, there were other people that I met in London
as well whose views were even more radical than Yasser's. And I don't think
that Yasser would've acted out again in London but there were plenty of people
there that probably have and would be happy to do so again.
GROSS: We've been referring to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is the number two in al-
Qaida and is it okay to call him like the intellectual behind it?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. Sure.
GROSS: Yeah. And he was a doctor before he became a jihadist.
Mr. WRIGHT: Right.
GROSS: So one of your resources for "The Looming Tower," and you talk about
this person in your documentary film, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," one of your
sources was a cellmate of Ayman al-Zawahiri while Zawahiri was in prison in
1981, accused of being part of a plot to assassinate the Egyptian president,
Anwar Sadat. So what did you learn about what prison was like? You say that
understanding that prison experience in Egypt is kind of essential to
understanding al-Qaida. So what did you learn from your source that really
helped you understand why that prison experience was so important in shaping
Zawahiri, who ended up shaping al-Qaida?
Mr. WRIGHT: Zawahiri was picked up after the Sadat assassination in 1981, along
with hundreds of other Islamists and he was charged with a small - a gun
carrying charge, but he was only peripherally involved in the plotting of the
assassination. But he spent three years in prison. And most of those prisoners,
including Zawahiri, were tortured and brutally so. During that period of time,
Montaser al-Zayat is the source that you're talking about. He's an Islamist
lawyer who was Zawahiri's lawyer for some time. The prison became a great
debating society. And a lot of the questions that were posed by these men were
why did we fail? You know, what was the error in our thinking that led to us,
you know, being here in prison and not living in an Islamic state, the one that
And so, many of the ideas that were percolating there, boiled into al-Qaida.
And the - there's one thing that wasn't really I think voiced as an idea, but
the torture that they endured, in my opinion, is what really gave them an
appetite for revenge. And the bloodletting that is so characteristic of al-
Qaida, and really is very unusual for terror groups which are mainly interested
in theater, I think it was born in the humiliation that those men felt in those
GROSS: What kind of torture?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there's, you know, the basic torture, which was simply that
you would be handcuffed and, but with your hands behind your back, and then
your wrists suspended from a door jamb and you're left there to hang on the
door for hours and hours. Some of the guys I talked to still couldn't shave and
couldn't, you know, couldn't bring their hands together very easily, and that
was really common.
Some of the other torture was, you know, with dogs. And one of my FBI sources
said that he had talked to an Egyptian intelligence officer who said that they
used the dogs to rape the prisoners. And it would be hard to tell you how
humiliating it would be to any person, but especially in Islamic culture where
dogs are such a lowly form of life. It's, you know, that imprint will never
leave anybody's mind.
GROSS: So since you think that the Egyptians who were in prison were
radicalized because they were tortured, and this includes Ayman al-Zawahiri,
you must've been like so disturbed when you found out about Abu Ghraib.
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, yeah, it's just - it was unbelievable to me. It just, you know,
it was - and it flashed back, of course, to "The Siege" where we had a scene of
torture, that, you know...
GROSS: There's the movie "The Siege," that you co-wrote that we were talking
Mr. WRIGHT: Right.
Mr. WRIGHT: The, you know, in the movie, torturing a suspect is a plot point.
And that was one of the ones that I was really dreading watching come to
fruition because one by one, all these little points that we had written in the
movie came to pass. And then Abu Ghraib comes along and you see the kind of
pornography of torture that we used using many of the same techniques that the
Egyptians had perfected.
I was, you know, it's crushing as an American to see us engaging in that kind
of behavior. But what's even more worrisome is the loss of faith that so many
people had in America for standing for something different. Even among the
jihadis that I talked to, America always had a better reputation than their own
countries, and especially their own intelligence agencies.
GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright. His film, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," debuts
tonight on HBO. More, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book,
"The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." His new documentary, "My
Trip to Al-Qaeda," is about researching the book. It debuts tonight on HBO.
Now, you talk in your documentary "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," about the Quran and
what the Quran has to say about suicide. And you said that the Quran says, do
not kill yourself and that the punishment for suicide is to spend eternity
killing yourself with the same instrument you used to die. What insights do you
have about how al-Qaida managed to make suicide a holy thing, where these, you
know, beautiful things happen to you as a result of it and you become a hero in
the eyes of the prophet?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it was actually Ayman al-Zawahiri who pioneered this. He was
the very first to use suicide bombers, even before the Palestinians did, in his
attempts on political figures inside Egypt. He even pioneered the use of
martyrdom videos. And after 1996, when he had blown up the Egyptian Embassy in
Islamabad, killing mainly Muslims, a lot of other Muslims were very angry with
him and, you know, wanting to understand how can you justify that? And so he
wrote a response to their queries. He compared the suicide bombers to the
martyrs of Christianity.
There weren't very many examples he could draw upon from Islam because of this
absolute prohibition within the Quran. And it's really ironic that it was
Christian martyrs that became the basis of his argument.
The notion is that you are a guided missile. And the idea that you're going to
be sacrificing yourself for a cause that's greater than you overcomes this kind
of prohibition. It's sophistry. It's - in my opinion, many people don't really
pay attention to the argument. I think that the young men that are drawn into
al-Qaida with a goal of committing suicide have other causes driving them than
simply Zawahiri's legalistic argument about how you can kill yourself and get
away with it.
I think that, you know, it's almost a total ban on the idea of suicide in
Muslim countries. It's completely taboo. So if you are feeling despairing and
you are the type of person that in another society might want to kill yourself,
how do you go about that? Well, for one thing, al-Qaida offers you a route to
paradise, at least they say so.
GROSS: So you think that a lot of people who join al-Qaida to become suicide
bombers are clinically depressed?
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, I think there's no doubt about it. And, you know, the studies
that have been done about the young men drawn into these groups typically show
them to be fairly well-educated. You know, especially, you know, the early
leaders of al-Qaida, you know, professional men, well-educated, some of them
not even very religious. So, you know, what is it? You know, what are all the
elements? And if you're going to try to pin down a single word about what is it
that characterizes the drive into this kind of radical reaction, I think a word
might be despair. Because there are many different rivers that lead into
despair, you know, there's poverty. There's political repression. There's
gender apartheid. You know, there's a sense of a cultural loss. There's
religious fanaticism. All of these elements are present in many different
Muslim countries in varying degree.
And, you know, the world is full of poor countries that don't produce
terrorists. And the world is full of repressive governments that don't have
violent insurgencies. But when you start mixing all these different elements
together then you get a very combustible combination, and I think that's what
you see in so many of these countries.
GROSS: And you think that some of that despair is a result of the kind of
limited life that you have in countries like Saudi Arabia, the lack of freedom,
especially for women.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. And, you know, each of these countries is entirely different
entities, so the mixture is different. In Saudi Arabia, you have practically no
civil society at all. You know, there's nothing between the government and the
mosque. It's just, you know, it's a very, very diminished sense of what you're
- what's available for you to do in life. And certainly, the gender apartheid
is a real problem.
You know, these young men are not socialized. They haven't grown up learning
how to please girls, which is a lot of what civilization is, in my opinion. And
this absence of contact with females is just a profoundly negative influence on
the development of young male minds, in my opinion.
GROSS: How do you think your sources from the world of al-Qaida saw you? Do you
think they saw you as like a good guy because you were trying to tell the
genuine story of al-Qaida? Or do you think they saw you as a bad guy for just
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, it's hard to know. One of the worst problems that a
foreign correspondent has, especially in that part of the world, is that people
are constantly accusing you of being in the CIA, which is, you know, almost
like a fatwa on your head and that always was following me around. And, you
know, I was not in the CIA and yet there was that common idea that if you
wanted to know this kind of information you must have an affiliation with the
Their own presses typically were not very sophisticated and the role of the
journalist, it was kind of poorly understood. So all that said, one of the
great mysteries of life is how desperately people want to have their story told
and how much they want to believe that you're going to be the one to tell it.
And there's a sense so often that if they could only talk to you in a
reasonable manner, you would see why they act the way they do, why they behave
that way, why they think those thoughts. And so, what I'm mainly trying to be
to them is the reasonable person they've been looking for.
GROSS: And is that a part that you're playing or did you see that - did you see
your presentation as genuine?
Mr. WRIGHT: Both of those things were true. I mean sometimes I really had to
portray myself that way, meantime thinking yikes or, you know, I'm - who is
this guy? Or my God, what did he just say? And I'd just try to keep my
composure. On the other hand, I really am a very reasonable easygoing person
and I very much am interested in other people's stories. So it's not a pose all
the time, but sometimes you just have to grip your chair to try to hang on to
GROSS: Lawrence Wright, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR and
talking with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: It's always a pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright's film, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," debuts tonight on HBO.
In the controversy over the building of an Islamic center near ground zero,
both sides are arguing that sensitivities should be respected. Coming up, our
linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the use of the word sensitivity in public
life. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Maybe We All Need Some 'Sensitivity' Training
TERRY GROSS, host:
Whether people are objecting to building an Islamic center near ground zero or
to Glenn Beck holding a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of
Martin Luther King's "I Had(ph) A Dream" speech, the word sensitivity is sure
to play a role in their argument.
Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts on an old word that's taken on
new meaning in public life.
GEOFF NUNBERG: The sensitive was complicated long before it was political. Like
other words for feeling, it alternates between an inert and an active meaning.
Somebody can be sensitive the way a tooth is, pained by the slightest touch. We
talk about that as a bad thing, as in gee, don't be so sensitive. Or it can be
like having a sensitive nose, attuned to what's in the air. That kind of
sensitivity is usually considered a good thing, at least in moderation.
Novelists have always made a butt of the bluff, insensitive male â the man of
the undeveloped heart, as E.M. Forster called him, the character who says
things like good lord, woman, now what's the matter?
But we're apt to mock men who demonstrate too much sensitivity, that long line
of broody souls that stretches from Gilbert and Sullivan's Reginald Bunthorne
to Sal Mineo and Johnny Depp to those emo guys in hoodies with a shock of hair
falling over their glasses.
The ambiguities of the word sensitivity were multiplied when it was promoted to
a civic virtue in modern times. Sensitivity training was originally developed
in the 1940s, using encounter groups and the like as a path to personal growth.
But in the 1960s it was repurposed as a technique to help managers, police
officers, and others come to grips with the perplexing demands of social
diversity. By now, most people associate sensitivity training less with self-
actualization than with learning to avoid cultural gaffes and miscues.
And it was also in the '60s that people invented the new plural form
sensitivities to refer to the sore spots that called for delicacy in dealing
with the members of a particular group. Having sensitivities wasn't the same
thing as being sensitive. The new word left it open whether the feelings were
exaggerated or irrational. You didn't have to understand or agree with them,
just not go there.
That was the birth of the modern regime of sensitivity - the age of can't we
all just get along? At the outset, the approach seemed to have a lot to
recommend it. For one thing, it was easier to persuade people to modify their
language than to get them to root out their deep-seated attitudes about race,
gender and the rest. And the hope was that if you changed behavior, attitudes
would eventually follow. It's cognitively more efficient to believe the words
you're obliged to say rather than always surrounding them with mental air
But over the long run, the stress on sensitivities probably set back cultural
understanding as much as it advanced it. For one thing, it permits people to
blur the distinctions between mere thoughtlessness and antipathies that run
deeper in the heart. It's only insensitive when Michael Steele uses the phrase
honest injun â he probably never gave the expression any thought before. But
there's a moral obtuseness in talking about the insensitivity of carrying a
sign that depicts Barack Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose.
A lack of sensitivity is the least of that person's problems.
And while most people are raised to be polite, it turned out not to be such a
good idea for institutions to try to impose deference to the sensitivities of
certain groups. In response, a lot of people took to pronouncing sensitivity
with that mocking tone and derided it under the heading of political
That actually gave a new life to a lot of the very language the speech codes
were supposed to eliminate. When you preface a sentence with, this may not be
the politically correct thing to say, you can make what used to be mere
boorishness sound like a daring defiance of fashionable attitudes.
But it isn't just in the liberal enclaves of the academy that people invoke
their sensitivities to trump other objections. People have used that argument
to oppose the Islamic center near ground zero, to urge Glenn Beck to move his
rally at the Lincoln Memorial, to object to public displays of affection by
gays. In fact, these cases usually turn out to be the ones where honoring the
sensitivities of one group involves ignoring the sensitivities of another:
Merry Christmas or happy holidays â you're treading on somebody's sensitivities
whichever way you go. So these controversies always devolve into squabbles
about whose sensitivity should have precedence: We've been through more than
you have, we were here first, there's more of us than of you.
Some people suggest we'd be best off paying a lot less attention to
sensitivity. On ABC's "This Week" recently, George Will dismissed the whole
Islamic center brouhaha as a filler for a slow August news season: You can
always tell a fundamentally weak story because it turns on sensitivity, he
said. Sensitivity is overrated.
He may be right about that story, but it's not as if we could ignore
sensitivity, it's the oil of civil society. But pointing to somebody's
sensitivity doesn't close off the discussion. It's not like a food allergy that
everybody has to defer to when picking a restaurant. In public life, it isn't a
valid argument to say well, it makes me uncomfortable, without spelling out the
reasons. Sensitivities can be a stand-in for a lot of different attitudes, some
more defensible than others. It's like having a sensitive tooth: you want to
find out if it really needs attention.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at
the University of California at Berkeley.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm
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