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What HBO Teaches Us About Terrorism

Lawrence Wright’s new documentary My Trip to Al-Qaeda is the best antidote to the Bush administration mind. Finally, Chris Dickey says, here’s a chance to understand the enemy.

09.07.10 3:06 PM ET

I’m a little worried about my old friend Lawrence Wright, whose stunning documentary, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, airs on HBO Tuesday night at 9 p.m. The film, directed by Alex Gibney, is developed from Wright’s one-man off-Broadway play of the same name, which in turn grew out of the research he did for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. On the page, on stage and now on television, nobody has ever done a better job explaining how Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri built their terrorist organization. Wright grasps better than anyone why and how these zealots find their recruits, and what they see as their goals. Wright has spent a lot of time talking to terrorists, trying to make them “human”—which is not about forgiving, but about understanding.

Lloyd Grove: My Trip to Al Qaeda Gives Evil a Human FaceSo, you can see why I worry about Wright. There is a current of thinking—or rather, un-thinking—in the United States that says you cannot look at any Muslims as human, let alone try to comprehend the background, motivations and mindsets of that tiny minority among them directly responsible for al Qaeda’s terrorism. Any time you turn on the news you can see the spit-sputtering rage of America’s anti-thought shock troops flocking to protests against the non-mosque that is not at ground zero. So what will they make of this soft-spoken Texan who wears Saudi perfume before he goes on stage because it reminds him of one of his sources—and friends—the late brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden?

We ought to thank God we’ve got Wright doing this job, because for most of the Bush administration, the War Party couldn’t be bothered. In a particularly revealing segment, Wright talks to Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and lead interrogator who rejected “waterboarding” and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” because, as he saw it, they were “borderline torture.”

“We need to know our enemy,” says Soufan, one of only eight Arabic speakers in the FBI in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. “Unfortunately we did not know the enemy. We did not study the enemy. We didn’t want to study the enemy. We thought”—or at least the Dick Cheney crowd in the Bush administration thought—“enhanced interrogation techniques can teach us about the enemy—and we forget who we are.”

If there is a problem with My Trip to Al-Qaeda, it’s that the narrative doesn’t quite bring us into the present. As it ends, it seems Barack Obama has just recently taken office and there is still a general feeling that he shares—and inspires—a feeling of hope and a commitment to rational thought. When Obama’s voice is heard, it is the voice of his powerful speech in Cairo more than a year ago, not the tired platitudes about page-turning that announced the not very convincing withdrawal from Iraq at the end of last month.

One has the deeply disturbing sensation watching this film today that things are worse than it lets on. After all, not only the Bushies, but Obama, and the American public as well, have decided to follow bin Laden’s script for a clash of civilizations. “Al Qaeda can’t destroy America,” Wright says at the end of the program. “Only we can do that to ourselves.” And this film is a disturbing reminder of just how good a job of that we’ve done.

So, good for you, Larry. But keep your head down.

Christopher Dickey, the Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor of Newsweek Magazine, is the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD.

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