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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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The Writing Life...
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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Monday, September 04, 2006  

An important book
Lawrence Wright brings clarity and coherence to the history and events that led to 9/11. It's a story that would be a black comedy, the Keystone Cops chasing the Marx Brothers, if it weren't so tragic at the same time. Extensive excerpts follow.

Background and historical context:

This experience [studying in America after WWII], among many others, confirmed Qutb's view that sexual mixing led inevitably to perversion. America itself had just been shaken by a lengthy scholarly report titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues at the University of Indiana. Droll commentary shattered the country's leftover Victorian prudishness like a brick through a stained-glass window. Kinsey reported that 37 percent of the American men he sampled had experienced homosexual activity to the point of orgasm; nearly half had engaged in extramarital sex; and 69 percent had paid for sex with prostitutes. The mirror that Kinsey held up to America showed a country that was frantically lustful but also confused, ashamed, incompetent, and astoundingly ignorant. Despite the evidence of the diversity and frequency of sexual activity, this was a time in America when sexual matters were practically never discussed, not even by doctors. One Kinsey researcher interviewed a thousand childless American couples who had no idea why they failed to conceive, even though the wives were virgins.
The speed and decisiveness of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War humiliated many Muslims who had believed until then that God favored their cause. They had lost not only their armies and their territories but also faith in their leaders, in their countries, and in themselves. The profound appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and elsewhere was born in this shocking debacle. A newly strident voice was heard in the mosques; the voice said that they had been defeated by a force far larger than the tiny country of Israel. God had turned against the Muslims. The only way back to Him was to return to the pure religion. The voice answered despair with a simple formulation: Islam is the solution.
One line of thinking proposes that America's tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt. Human-rights advocates in Cairo argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Sayyid Qutb and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri. The main target of the prisoners' wrath was the secular Egyptian government, but a powerful current of anger was also directed toward the West, which they saw as an enabling force behind the repressive regime. They held the West responsible for corrupting and humiliating Islamic society. Indeed, the theme of humiliation, which is the essence of torture, is important to understanding the radical Islamists' rage. Egypt’s prisons became a factory for producing militants whose need for retribution -- they called it justice -- was all-consuming.
For aroused young Muslims such as Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam embodied in a modem fashion the warrior priest, a figure that was as well established in Islamic tradition as the samurai n Japan. Azzam combined piety and learning with a serene and bloody intransigence. His slogan was "Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues."
Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing m its rewards. A glorious death beckoned to the sinner, who would be forgiven, it is said, with the first spurt of blood, and he would behold his place in Paradise even before his death. Seventy members of his household might be spared the fires of hell because of his sacrifice. The martyr who is poor will be crowned in heaven with a jewel more valuable than the earth itself. And for those young men who came from cultures where women are shuttered away and rendered unattainable for someone without prospects, martyrdom offered the conjugal pleasures of seventy-two virgins….The pageant of martyrdom that Azzam lined before his worldwide audience created the death cult that would one day form the core of al-Qaeda.

The Soviets invade Afghanistan. Arabs join the fighting. There would be dire consequences during and after the fighting.

For the journalists covering the war, the Arab Afghans were a curious sideshow to the real fighting, set apart by their obsession with dying. When a fighter fell, his comrades would congratulate him and weep because they were not also slain in battle. These scenes struck other Muslims as bizarre. The Afghans were fighting for their country, not for Paradise or an idealized Islamic community. For them, martyrdom was not such a high priority.

Bin Laden reiterated his vision of creating an Arab force that would defend Muslim causes everywhere. That’s what he was trying to establish in this miserable mountain camp. “We came here to help the Afghans, not to form our own party!" Khalifa reminded him. "Besides, you're not a military man, so why are you here?"
As they talked, their voices began to rise. In the ten years that they had known each other, they had never had an argument. "This is jihad!" bin Laden cried. "This the way we want to go to heaven!"

Al-Qaeda was conceived in the marriage of these assumptions: Faith is stronger than weapons or nations, and the ticket to enter the sacred zone where such miracles occur is the willingness to die.

Saudi intelligence guessed that between fifteen and twenty-five thousand Saudi youths trained m Afghanistan, although other estimates are far lower. Those who came back to the Kingdom were taken directly to jail for two or three days of interrogation. Some countries simply refused to let the fighters return. They became a stateless, vagrant mob of religious mercenaries. Many of them took root in Pakistan, marrying local women and learning to speak Urdu. Some went to fight in Kashmir, Kosovo, Bosnia, or Chechnya. The cinders of the Afghan conflagration were drifting across the globe, and soon much of the Muslim world would be aflame.

The rise of Osama bin Laden.

Turabi envisioned the creation of an international Muslim community headquartered in Sudan, which would then spill into other countries, carrying the Islamist revolution in an ever widening circle. Sudan, until then a cultural backwater in the Muslim world, would be the intellectual center of this reformation and Turabi its spiritual guide. In order to carry out this plan, he opened the doors of his country to any Muslim, regardless of nationality, no questions asked. Naturally, the people who responded to his invitation tended to be those who were welcome nowhere else. The government of Sudan began its courtship of bin Laden by sending him a letter of invitation in 1990…

There was one galling fact that prevented bin Laden from relaxing into the life of business and of spiritual contemplation that so strongly beckoned: the continued presence of American troops m Saudi Arabia. King Falud had pledged that the nonbelievers would be gone as soon as the war was over, and yet months after the Iraqi defeat coalition forces were still entrenched in Saudi air bases, monitoring the cease-fire agreement. Bin Laden agonized over what he believed was a permanent occupation of the holy land. Something had to be done.

But Christianity -- especially the evangelizing American variety -- and Islam were obviously competitive faiths. Viewed through the eyes of men who were spiritually anchored in the seventh century, Christianity was not just a rival, it was the archenemy. To them, the Crusades were a continual historical process that would never be resolved until the final victory of Islam.

Al-Qaeda's duty was to awaken the Islamic nation to the threat posed by the secular, modernizing West. In order to do that, bin Laden told his men, al-Qaeda would drag the United States into a war with Islam, "a large-scale front which it cannot control."

A new vision of al-Qaeda was born. Abu Hajer's two fatwas, the first authorizing the attacks on American troops and the second, the murder of innocents, turned al-Qaeda into a global terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda would concentrate not on fighting armies but on killing civilians. The former conception of al-Qaeda as a mobile army of mujahideen that would defend Muslim lands wherever they were threatened was now cast aside in favor of a policy of permanent subversion of the West. The Soviet Union was dead and communism no longer menaced the margins of the Islamic world. America was the only power capable of blocking the restoration of the ancient Islamic caliphate, and it would have to be confronted and defeated.

America is blind to these developments.

Few Americans, even in the intelligence community, had any idea of the network of radical Islamists that had grown up inside the country. The blind sheikh may as well have been speaking in Martian as Arabic, since there were so few Middle East language specialists available to the FBI, much less to the local police. Even if his threats had been heard and understood, the perception of most Americans was dimmed by their general insulation from the world's problems and clouded by the comfortable feeling that no one who lived in America would turn against it.

He traveled widely in the United States and Canada, arousing thousands of young immigrant Muslims with his sermons, often directed against Americans, who he said are "descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communists, and colonialists." He called on Muslims to assail the West, “cut the transportation of their countries, tear it apart, destroy their economy, bum their companies, eliminate their interests, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air, or land."

Given the diversity of the trainees and their causes, bin Laden's main task was to direct them toward a common enemy. He had developed a fixed idea about America, which he explained to each new class of al-Qaeda recruits. America appeared so mighty, he told them, but it was actually weak and cowardly. Look at Vietnam, look at Lebanon. Whenever soldiers start coming home in body bags, Americans panic and retreat. Such a country needs only to be confronted with two or three sharp blows, then it will flee in panic, as it always has. For all its wealth and resources, America lacks conviction. It cannot stand against warriors of faith who do not fear death. The warships in the Gulf will retreat to the oceans, the bombers will disappear from the Arabian bases, the troops in the Horn of Africa will race back to their homeland.

History moved in long, slow waves, he believed, and this contest had been going on continuously since the founding of Islam. "This battle is not between al-Qaeda and the U.S.,” bin Laden would later explain. "This is a battle of Muslims against the global Crusaders." It was a theological war, in other words, and the redemption of humanity was at stake.

The plan to confront America gains momentum.

THE MEN WHO CAME TO TRAIN in Afghanistan in the 1995 were not impoverished social failures. As a group, they mirrored the "model young Egyptians" who formed the terrorist groups that Saad Eddin Ibrahim had studied in the early eighties. Most of the prospective al-Qaeda recruits were from the middle or upper class, nearly all of them from intact families. They were largely college-educated, with a strong bias toward the natural sciences and engineering. Few of them were products of religious schools; indeed many had trained in Europe or the United States and spoke as many as five or six languages. They did not show signs of mental disorders. Many were not even very religious when they joined the jihad.

WHAT THE RECRUITS tended to have in common -- besides their urbanity, their cosmopolitan backgrounds, their education, their facility with languages, and their computer skills -- was displacement.

In the three years since Khaled Sheikh Mohammed had proposed his "planes operation" to bin Laden in a cave in Tora Bora, al-Qaeda had been researching a plan to strike the American homeland. Mohammed envisioned two waves of hijacked planes, five from the East Coast and five from Asia. Nine of the planes would crash into selected targets, such as the CIA, the FBI, and nuclear plants. … in the spring of 1999 bin Laden summoned Mohammed back to Kandahar and gave him the go-ahead to put his plan into operation.

There is intelligence about what is happening, but only a few in government take it seriously. Clarke and O'Neill were among the few.

A FEW MONTHS after the inauguration of George W. Bush, Dick Clarke met with Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor for the incoming Bush administration, and asked to be reassigned. From the moment the new team had taken over, it was clear that terrorism had a lower priority. When Clarke first briefed her in January about the threat that bin Laden and his organization posed to the United States, Rice had given him the impression that she had never heard of al-Qaeda. She subsequently downgraded his position, that of the national coordinator for counterterrorism, so that he would now be reporting to deputies, not to principals.

ON THE FIFTH OF JULY 2001, Dick Clarke assembled representatives of various domestic agencies -- the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard, the FBI, and the Secret Service among them -- to issue a warning. "Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon,” he told them.
The bureau was a timid bureaucracy that abhorred powerful individuals. It was known for its brutal treatment of employees who were ambitious or who fought conventional wisdom. O'Neill was right about the threat of al-Qaeda when few cared to believe it. Perhaps, in the end, his capacity for making enemies sabotaged his career, but those enemies also helped al-Qaeda by destroying the man who might have made a difference. Already the New York office was losing focus and without O'Neill, terrible mistakes were made.

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