The Looming Tower is a history of stupidity, of stupid people who got stupider over time, and how through countless failures and a bit of luck, they made a name for themselves and like-minded stupid people. The Looming Tower is a history of al-Qaeda, and it is a history of men sequestered in rooms debating political struggle. We know that good and evil can come from men in rooms debating; at one end of the spectrum we have the Declaration of Independence, and at the other end one can place the Wannsee Conference. Everything al-Qaeda dreamed up from debate and discussion belongs at points past the Wannsee marker; that is how stupid al-Qaeda was, how feeble their insight and aspirations.
Deep-seated within the story of al-Qaeda it is all the stranger to discover that learned people, people with education and ideals, can become so delusional and so inherently poor thinkers that there is no turning back their minds, no way out of the morass of ignorance, which more than the Koran is the founding principal of al-Qaeda. It is a sad and frightening thesis on the stark limits of human development.
Sayyid Qutb was the architect of the stupidity. He was a bright Egyptian kid from nothing who made it to university and became something of a literary gadfly, penning essays and critiques that were at best middling, and yet that career was set for him if he wanted it. In the late 1940s he traveled to America and somehow America and its freedoms appalled him. Mostly American women appalled him, with their dress and manners, and Qutb, lousy with the fair sex, lived a hermit's life as a bemused scholar, and one gets the impression that had he gotten laid everything might have turned out different. Qutb returned to Cairo and wrote a complaint against America that found an audience in the type of man who one imagines shared the author's fear of women and life. Qutb joined up with the Muslim Brotherhood and began protesting the westernization of Egypt and its insufficiently Islamic rulers. He dedicated himself to the Koran, insisting that its words were meant literally.
The succession of stupidity that follows Qutb was taken up most famously by two dim bulbs, Zawahiri and bin Laden. They were the Laurel and Hardy of nonsense thought and theology; we know the results of their work, and in the case of bin Laden, how he was killed by a foxy redhead named Jessica Chastain.
Wright's accounts of these two simpletons as they make their way around the world is amazing and filled with blunder. Bin Laden comes off as the biggest fool. He was a silly irrelevant youth in Saudi Arabia, and became sillier when he moved on to help the Afghans fight the Soviet Union. The Arabs that came to fight treated it like spring break, and were routinely mocked by the Afghan warriors. It is hilarious folly reading Wright as he describes these nincompoops in the caves, playing at war. And the chapters of bin Laden in Sudan are a riot; bin Laden was taken for most of his wealth by Sudanese politicians and hucksters, and his stupidity reigned in every decision he made. It is quite remarkable it took the US ten years to kill him, as bin Laden seems the type who would die by a step on a garden rake and a smack in the head by its handle.
The Looming Tower made many things clear, and importantly solidified the understanding that Islam at its core and as it is practiced by most is a harmless delusion, just like Christianity and Judaism and all the rest of the fantasies people choose to enrich their lives with. It never occurred to me the total engulfing stupidity that one had to adopt to choose to follow Qutb or bin Laden or any of the insane proclamations they divined. Anyone not involved with them or their ilk is exemplary compared, and a chasm separates them from the troglodytes.
Toward the end of Wright's book the laughs and gaffs quiet down as the threats build and the reactions by the west become muddled, and a reader invites equally dire critiques of intelligence on the people who are paid to know better, who might have done something, anything. The Looming Tower is terrific reporting and storytelling and rarely exhibits a dull paragraph.