He established himself a decade ago as an expert in the history of Islamist terrorism with the magisterial Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Yet, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, journalist Lawrence Wright had no experience as a foreign correspondent or war reporter.
Wright, 69, who has written for the New Yorker since 1992, doesn’t really have a beat. You could say he covers the zeitgeist. Consider a major cultural shift in American life, and you’ll find Wright right there, somewhere in the background, notebook in hand.
He began his career in the late 1960s and early 1970s covering the civil rights movement as a young newspaper reporter in Nashville. Since then, he has published books about the transformation of baby boomers from protesters to investors in the 1980s (In the New World: Growing Up With America, 1964-1984); the importance of religion in American life (Saints and Sinners); and the child-abuse and recovered-memory controversy of the 1990s (Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory). And he caused a stir in 2013 with his second book on religion: the searing exposé Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
Wright’s coverage of terrorism remains the high point of his career. And he returns to the topic with The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, a collection of 10 previously published essays that tackle territory familiar from the earlier book, but from fresh, unexpected angles.
He will talk about the book with former Inquirer foreign correspondent Dick Polman at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library.
Ask Wright about his range of interests, and he’ll tell you he’s just being a dutiful reporter.
“I guess I made a resolution years ago that I would only do things that were only really important or really fun,” Wright said during a recent phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas.
“Life gives you so many alternatives to choose from and … you judge these as best as you can until something comes along like 9/11. And it’s the central event of my lifetime, so I knew I had to write about that.”
Wright’s engagement with the Islamic world goes back to a strange job he landed in his 20s.
A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he fulfilled the requirement that he serve in a nonmilitary capacity by teaching English at the American University in Cairo. “I didn’t even know what language they spoke in Egypt,” Wright said.
Nearly five decades later, in 2004, he was back in the region to teach once again, this time mentoring journalists in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It gave him a chance to do research for The Looming Tower.
Wright laughed when asked about press censorship in Saudi Arabia.
“What I learned from my experience is that it’s OK [for journalists] to have opinions, and [Saudi] newspapers were full of columns by columnists who were expressing one thought or another,” Wright said.
“There just wasn’t any access to real facts. You could say your opinion, and the government was fine with that. But facts were a different matter. Newspapers there were just really impoverished in the area of real reporting.”
Wright said the Saudi press reminded him of American journalism in the era of the blog.
“To me, so much of what’s going on today reminds me of the Arab press,” he said. “You know, there’s a tremendous amount of opinion in the media based on a very small bank of information. I think the commentarian has taken over, so now what you get is a lot less reporting and more opinion.”
The Terror Years isn’t a study of abstract ideas. It’s a collection of beautifully etched profiles about personalities caught up in the war on terror.
There’s a postmortem of sorts on the career of former FBI counterterrorism head John O’Neill, who had left the FBI under a cloud and was head of security at the World Trade Center when it was attacked Sept. 11.
“Here was the FBI agent who had been after Osama bin Laden since the 1990s, and no one cared. He had a warrant for bin Laden’s arrest. And he was fired for taking classified documents out of the office,” Wright said.
“I was in Austin on 9/11, and there were no flights, so I couldn’t get to New York to cover the story, so I had to find more creative ways. Then I read that John O’Neill had died in the attacks. It was one paragraph. And I thought it was so ironic.”
Irony, Wright quickly found, was the wrong word.
“After speaking with his family and his colleagues, I realized this wasn’t ironic; it was tragic. It was a Greek tragedy.”
Wright also devotes an essay to O’Neill’s protégé, Ali Soufan, one of fewer than 10 FBI agents who spoke Arabic at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Soufan also was the inspiration for one of the characters in Wright’s first film as a screenwriter, the strangely prescient 1998 thriller The Siege, about the effects of a terror attack on New York featuring Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis.
“I based Tony Shalhoub’s character on Soufan,” Wright said.
And the film, which was both a critical failure and a box-office flop?
“After 9/11,” he said, “it became one of the most-rented DVDs in America.”
Lawrence Wright, "The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State"
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27, at The Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library, 19th and Vine Streets.
Information: 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org/authorevents/.