If you missed last night’s airing of Lawrence Wright’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda on HBO, have no fear. The film will appear several more times later this month. Yesterday, I wrote about how and why the film came about, along with Wright’s comments on what it was like to hang out with terrorists.and the true effects of U.S. torture policy. Now here are a few highlights from the show and comments by Wright from our interview.
–After watching the show, you may never look at a large dog the same way. I wasn’t aware of the lowly place dogs occupy in the minds of many Muslims (akin to pigs) so the use of them in torture situations is especially brutal. Wright emphasizes the effect on terror leader al-Zawahiri, who was not “violence-minded” at the start: “He entered prison as a surgeon, he left as a butcher.” He adds: “The particular characteristic of al-Qaeda, a thirst for blood” was born out of torture.
–While Wright in his prize-winning book The Looming Towers emphasizes the significance of the founding of Israel in shaping Arab and Muslim attitudes — along with the "humiliation" of Arab military defeats and decades of suffering by the Palestinians — the film makes no mention of this. Wright claims that if the Israel-Palestine conflict "was settled tomorrow, bin Laden would be in tears." He points out that bin Laden has almost never ordered attacks on Israel and, by now, if that conflict was resolved, al-Qaeda would "be smaller but still very much exist." But this overlooks, I believe, the centrality of the Israeli-sparked humiliation to the formative days of radical Islamism.
–The film aptly portrays the negative effect the treatment of women in some cultures, especially in Saudi Arabia, has on the men, who are “nearly incapacitated by longing.” Well, only incapacitated until they take up arms or strap on suicide vests. (In a rare light moment in the film, Wright notes that some call the heavily-robed women BMOs – “black moving objects.”) Wright told me that when he was mentoring newspaper staffers in Saudi Arabia not long ago he was “constantly flabbergasted by the lack of understanding between the sexes.” But he also noted that most of the women were not at all rebellious: “I had thought Saudi women would be a force for change, but this was not really true.”
–At the same time, young men in totally closed Saudi society (no culture, no political parties, and so on) find they “can not get power—but al-Qaeda offers that.” All they have to do to make their mark is—die. “The humiliated are entitled to hate….the truth is, humiliation sells,.” Wright says in the film. And “death is better than a life of humiliation.” He adds, “We think of al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization. Young people think of it as a suicide machine.”
–Given the Taliban’s treatment of girls and women, along with other factors, what does Wright think the U.S. should do about Afghanistan? He told me there are only "two likely outcomes: We remain for a considerable time propping up a fake democracy run by war lords and dealing with a low level insurgency….or we withdraw and the Taliban take over….
"Personally, I feel we need to reduce our footprint and try not to change the entire culture there, which we are incapable of doing anyway." The key is to "separate al-Qaeda from the Taliban." Al-Qaeda’s "univeralist" ambitions have now started infesting the Taliban’s focus on local goals.
Wright points out that the would -be Times Square bomber was the first such terrorist to be sent here by the Taliban. "We don’t need that," Wright observes.