Monday, September 5, 2011

Discovering What Everyone Never Remembered (on Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower)

Sayyid Qutb

Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden

John O'Neill

Lawrence Wright The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Perhaps no book more clearly details the US's determination to keep history a secret than Lawrence Wright's brilliant post-9/11 study of the Muslim terrorist world and its interaction with the American FBI, CIA, and other government organizations, The Looming Tower.

Wright begins by lucidly outlining the various terrorist organizations and the individuals who led them, starting with a young Egyptian student studying in the US at what is now the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Sayyid Qutb had mixed feelings in this community, originally planned as a temperance colony by Nathan Meeker. Greeley was a planned community that "would serve as a model for the cities of the future," drawing from the virtues of "industry, moral rectitude, and temperance." Accordingly, Qutb, a devout young Muslim, had, as Wright describes it, "stumbled into a community that exalted the same pursuits that he held dear: education, music, art, literature, and religion." But just as Qutb had found New York life frantic and unfamiliar, he found disturbing forces at work in this small Western Eden as well. Although the community had been founded on prohibition, students in the summer of 1949 could easily procure alcohol for their weekly parties, and Qutb perceived the fall of prohibition an American failure. As a man of color, Qutb witnessed a black man beaten by a white mob, and, although in the summers students from many different racial backgrounds attended, in the regular season there were only a couple of black students, one of whom, Qutb noted could not get a haircut in the local community. At one point, Qutb and a friend were turned away from a local theater because the owner saw them as being black. Although the theater owner ultimately apologized, Qutb refused to return.

Even the sport of football "confirmed Qutb's ideas of American primitiveness," since he felt it less a team sport, like soccer, than a game in which one player attempts to run with the ball, while others try "kicking him in the stomach, or violently breaking his arms and legs...." Women teachers outraged him. Accordingly he returned to Egypt more radicalized in relation to his religion than he left it. Qutb went on to establish the Muslim Brothers, the first of a series of radical reactionary groups against what they felt was Egypt's failure to keep the tenants of the Muslim faith.

The pattern was to become a quite typical one, with many of the well-educated and often wealthy young radicals receiving their educations in the West, opening them to experiences that only hardened them in their beliefs. The fascinating story of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who grew up in a planned community, Maadi, Egypt—that in its conception, at least, was not so very different from Greeley, Colorado—is a high point of the book. With his father working as a doctor and his mother a professor of pharmacology at Ain Shams University, Al-Zawahiri was raised in one of the most liberal and prominent families in Egypt. But as he grew older, Al-Zawahiri, influenced, in part, by Sayyid Qutb's writings, became more and more dissatisfied with the Egyptian government, ultimately creating, along with others, the al-Jihad movement, and involving himself, if only through his friendships, with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat. Through his friendship with Abdullah Azzam Al-Zawahiri was ultimately drawn to Afghanistan, there befriending the charismatic Osama bin Laden.

Wright outlines these and numerous other relationships, introducing us, one by one, to most of the major figures and their families of the Muslin Brothers, Al-Jihad, the Taliban, Al-Queda, and other terrorist groups, including the numerous young, violent, and dissatisfied youths that eventually would make up the growing world-wide attempt to destroy anything American. It is Osama bin Laden, obviously, who through his early financing of terrorist activities and his gathering of many of these forces in Sudan to train them, who is the most fascinating—and puzzling—of figures. Even Wright's extensive presentation of bin Laden's family history and other major Saudi figures reads like an account by T. E. Lawrence. Through bin Laden's machinations, what began as fairly local attempts in the Muslim world to rid individual countries of Western influences, became a general call to destroy what they came to see as the common enemy: the United States.

Through hundreds of interviews gathered over a five-year-period, Wright brilliantly puts all the pieces of the puzzle together, so that the reader can discover that what seems to be a myriad of terrifyingly unrelated events grew, as the millennium approached, into an interwoven skein with the aim of strangling what all Muslim radicals began to see as the cause of all their misfortunes.

Of course, hindsight is always a superior position than that of suffering blindly through history. But how one wishes that minds like Wrights might have been employed in the very organizations whose function it was to piece these threats together! Instead, we are shown American fact gathering organizations such as the CIA, the FBI, and White House itself, begin by doubting any real threat, and later, when it was almost too late to change course, deliberately withholding information from each other. Given a directory intended to protect later court hearings, the various organizations perceived the so called "wall" as a barrier to any shared knowledge. FBI Chief of Counterterrorism, John O'Neil was perhaps the one man who had the tenacity and intelligence to bring the data together that might have saved the nation from the events of September 11, 2001. However, his own often dictatorial methods, his far flung affairs with various women, and even his dashing way of dressing, made for many enemies, including coworkers in the FBI and, in particular, the director, Michael Scheuer, of the so-called Alec Station in the CIA, which was also attempting to track the activities of Osama bin Laden and Al-Queda.

In the rivalry between the two, O'Neill ultimately won, with Scheuer suffering a psychological breakdown. But O'Neill's breaches of security—at one point he had brought one of his mistresses into FBI headquarters and, at another event, his computer, filled with sensitive information, was temporarily stolen—also brought reprimands and possible termination of his job. Yet, even in those difficult days, had the CIA reported to other organizations that Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, both Al-Queda operatives, had entered the US on January 2001, and lived for a while in San Diego, O'Neill likely could have acted, spoiling bin Laden's plans.

O'Neill's abilities are outlined throughout Wright's book, capsualized, perhaps, in his clever extraction of information from figures involved with the bombing of the U. S. Cole without any torture, tracing, with the help of his Yemeni specialist Ali Soufan, the first real connection between the Cole and Al-Queda. But even in Yemen O'Neill was dogged by personality differences, in this case with US ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, who forced him exit the country.

Even as O'Neill was scheduled to leave the FBI to become—in one of the most ironic situations in American history—head of security for the World Trade Center, he sensed something very large was the wind. "We're overdue," O'Neill told friends.

Only a week before O'Neill's retirement, a report from a flight school in Minnesota to the FBI noted that one of their students, Zacarias Moussaoui, was asking suspicious questions about flight patterns and locked cockpit doors. When the agent in Minnesota asked permission to search Moussaoui's computer, he was told he was "trying to get people 'spun up.'" His answer: "I am trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center."

Wright asks several of his interviewees why the CIA had been so determined to keep the crucial information that two Al-Queda operatives had been in the country secret, particularly since the men had been discovered on US soil, where the CIA had no jurisdiction. The answers range from the belief in CIA plans to use them as potential informants to the often stated argument that for legal reasons they simply could share that knowledge. But the truth, perhaps, is what Wright describes simply as the radically different make-up of the two major information-gathering organizations, the CIA consisting of internationally-seasoned individuals who often gathered information as a kind of protective act, using it only behind-the-scenes, so to speak, to influence the actions of other countries. The FBI world, Wright suggests, was made up primarily of Italo-American and Irish-American men, who much like the immigrant communities out of which they came, believed in information as a justification to act; from the earliest Hoover days, as Michael Mann's recent film, Public Enemies, reiterates, they were men of action. Each organization highly suspected (and perhaps still do) the other as being ineffectual. Their failures to work together, however, along with a weak grasp of the situations by the Bush administration—which clearly led to thousands of deaths—should be repeatedly retold and remembered by all.

O'Neill survived the original attack, running, as bodies fell from the towers into the plaza below, to access the damage. He reentered the South Tower, which, a short while later, collapsed, entombing him within.

Los Angeles, July 4, 2009

Remembering What Everyone Might Like to Forget (on the 9/11 attack of the World Trade Towers)

During the seven years since the horrific events of what are generally referred to these days as simply “9/11,” I have resisted writing about the subject, in part because it seemed to me that nearly everyone in the United States had experienced the destruction of the World Trade Towers, the attack upon the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93—which was to have been crashed into the U.S. Capitol building—near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and there could not possibly be anything new I might say. 
      I still believe that to be so. Any of us might write about our experiences on that morning and throughout that September day—and many have. Moreover, with the confirmed deaths of 2,974 individuals, and the subsequent illnesses of fireman, police, and other workers who tried to help individuals to safety and later worked in cleaning up the disastrous collapse of both towers, there are hundreds of individuals who have much deeper experiences than my distant witnessing of events. 
    What we all generally forget, however, is precisely that—our general forgetfulness. Howard reminded me last night that most of his students at SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture), where he is teaching this semester, were only 11 years of age when these events took place, and, accordingly, their memories of it were those of children rather than adults. Millions of grade-school children today could not possibly comprehend how far-reaching those events, occurring before their births, have been upon their lives: that the war we continue to fight in Iraq was a indirect result of that terrible day in 2001 and that some of their individual freedoms have been permanently curtailed because of those events in the years since. 
      Perhaps we owe it to our future generations, even to ourselves, to once again share our experiences of that day. And in a series of books such as my cultural memoirs, I now perceive it absolutely necessary to remember my own experiences of that day—even if they might vary little from millions of other folks and I, like most others, might like to forget. 
      Howard and I arise fairly early, he at 5:00 each morning, I at 6:00. Accordingly, when a short time after 5:46 Pacific Time on September 11th Howard heard the news report and saw the image on television of American Flight 11 embedded in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he quickly awoke me to tell what had happened. I ran to the television set to see the same image. Although we now know that many people working on the 95th to the 103rd floors and dining in the Windows on the World restaurant were killed immediately, it looked eerily quiet from the camera’s vantage point. I commented to Howard that obviously the crash had killed people, but we were uncertain even how the large the plane was. It looked almost like a small engine plane on our TV set.
      “How could such an accident happen?” asked Howard in a tone that sounded more like a lament.
      “People don’t just accidentally fly into The World Trade Center,” I answered, with suitable bluff. “No planes are allowed in that air path.” And immediately we both contemplated the possibility of a terrorist attack. For a few minutes we sat spellbound by the scene before us. We were nearly speechless.
     “I have to go to the bathroom,” I reported, as if somehow seeking Howard’s permission. As I began my walk down the hall, Howard screamed out: “Come quickly, come quickly. Another plane has just crashed into the other tower!”
      I hurried back, to watch the scene replayed, a clearly full-sized jet crashing into the South Tower. Now we and everyone knew: these were terrorist acts. Our eyes were cemented to the television, when a few minutes later an ABC newscaster announced that they were temporarily switching to a developing story in Washington, D.C., where it appeared that the Executive Office Building, near the White House, was on fire. The D.C. newscaster, however, soon reported that from a distance it appeared that it was the Executive Office Building, but it was believed to be coming from the area of The Pentagon, across the Potomac in Virginia. And soon we saw a fire billowing from the Pentagon itself, where, we now know, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, killing another 189 individuals. 

      “What’s happening?” I asked in utter disbelief. And a few minutes later, as if in answer, it was reported that yet another plane apparently had been hijacked. 
      In Los Angeles, September 11th was a voting date, and the front of my Sun & Moon Press offices was a polling place. I was forced to abandon the television to shave, shower, and dress. By 6:45 Pacific Time, I was opening up my office for the voting registrars. I greeted them and briefly helped to set up the voting booths. 
     We all expressed the hope that the local election would be called off. But, by the time we were to open, we had still received no word of cancellation. I was almost angered by all the noise of the gossipy women behind the voter sign-in desk, and retreated to my back office to watch my office television set.
      Although it was illegal of bring a television into the voting area, one of the women working there, called to ask her daughter to bring in a set. At almost the moment they opened the doors to voters, I witnessed the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapse, people running in absolute horror in all directions. It felt incredulous. Peter Jennings, the ABC newscaster, was nearly in tears. He would continue to report all day and into the night, in all for 17 hours straight, and I watched almost every moment. 
      About eleven minutes after the collapse of the South Tower, it was reported that the missing hijacked flight, United Airlines Flight 93, had crashed into a hillside in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
     When the North Tower collapsed at 7:28, I finally began to cry. I was now worried for friends. Playwright Jeffrey Jones worked in the Towers; I had met with him there on one trip to New York to discuss theater. Poet Tan Lin (brother of Viet Nam Memorial sculptor Mya Lin), whose book, Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe I published, lived nearby. Artist Susan Bee’s studio was within visual distance of the Towers. Fortunately, these friends all survived. 
      As I report in “Death of the Father” [My Year 2002], I called my parents, who at the time had still not heard what was happening. How could anyone not know what was going on? I wondered. Yet the television showed even President George Bush peacefully sitting in a classroom at Emily E. Booker Elementary school in Sarasota at a time when one imagined he might instead be rushing back to Washington; evidently the President did not know what millions of others in his country did, and like Howard, when his advisors heard the news of the first crash several of them, including his Chief of Staff Andrew Card, presumed it was simply an accident: Card is quoted, “It was first reported to me… that it looked like it was a twin-engine prop plane, and so the natural reaction was—‘What a horrible accident. The pilot must have had a heart attack.” 
     After being taken aside in the school corridor by Karl Rove, where Bush was told of the crash, Bush himself reportedly replied: “What a horrible accident!” While Bush was on route to the school photo opportunity, Condoleeza Rice made a urgent call to the President, but even upon hearing of that call, he took time out to talk with Florida Congressmen and the Teacher of the Year before returning Rice’s call, and once he had heard from her, he continued to the classroom, remaining there to hear the story of a pet goat even after the second jet had completed its mission, despite the fact that the newest information was relayed to the President in front of the classroom students and millions of watching Americans. 
      For a number of reasons, including arguments between Bush and Cheney and indecision of his staff concerning where Air Force one should travel, Bush’s flight was diverted to the Louisiana Air Force Base before flying on to the Strategic Air Command at Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base. As the press attempted to follow the various maneuvers of Air Force One and the President, rumors grew, at one point some reporters even suggesting that his plane had crashed near Camp David. 
     It was clear to nearly anyone who could read the signs that neither Bush nor his administration knew how to proceed. Moreover, as the details of deaths and destruction became more and more apparent over that horrific day, there was a continued feeling, registered even the faces and voices of news commentators like Jennings of being caught up in a nightmare from which one couldn’t awaken. 
      In the weeks following, it was gradually revealed that not only were the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center destroyed, but 7 World Trade Center, 6 World Trade Center, 5 World Trade Center, 4 World Trade Center, the Marriott World Trade Center and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were also destroyed or severely damaged. The Deutsche Bank Building and Fiterman Hall of the Borough of Manhattan Community College were condemned and torn down. In short, a whole section of the U.S.’s most populous city was devastated; and one only can wonder what might have happened in the Washington, D.C. had Flight 93 been successful in its attack. 
     It still today seems nearly impossible to imagine that four American Airplanes could have been utilized to bring about such widespread destruction, resulting in so many deaths. 

Los Angeles, September 11, 2008

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Being There (on Edward Kienholz's "Five Car Stud")

"Back Seat Dodge '38"

"Five Car Stud"


Edward Kienholz, restored by Nancy Reddin Kienholz Five Car Stud / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, opened September 4, 2011 / I saw the installation on September 2, 2011 and again on September 3, 2011

Artist Edward Kienholz gained enormous notoriety as far back as 1966 for his "Back Seat Dodge '38," an assemblage that included part of a Dodge car with the backseat door opened, within which manikins portrayed a couple "making out." Today one can hardly imagine the furor it caused upon its Los Angeles County Museum of Art showing, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors declared it as "pornographic" and attempted to shut the show down. A compromise was reached wherein the back seat door would remain closed, to be opened only by a guard when requested and no children were within the gallery! The uproar determined that the piece must be seen by everyone, and opening day more than 200 people lined up to see it.

In September 2011 Kienholz, who died in 1994, is sure to cause some controversy again with the presentation of his 1972 piece, viewed publicly in Germany at Documenta that year, and never again seen. The piece, purchased by a Japanese museum has been hidden away in storage and only recently, through LACMA and the Getty Museum's collaboration, has been restored by Kienholz's second wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz.

If the earlier piece shocked some with its sexual content, this should stun us all for its portrayal of violence. Certainly there are sexual elements; a Black man who has obviously been discovered in a truck with a white woman has been pulled from the car by six men, who, when we look closely at the scene, are in the process of castrating him. But the horror of this assemblage is not just the act, but the dramatic terror of the entire scene. The men are more bestial than human, their faces covered with horrific masks: one, pulling the ropes taught has his face covered with a mask that will remind some of the great circus clown Emmett Kelly; another, standing outside of the victim's truck, wherein a white woman sits vomiting, has a mask studded with horrific warts. The couple has evidently been caught by these brutes in an act of miscegenation. It is difficult to stare too closely at each of these men, even though the audience of 15 individuals allowed into the room at a time must pass close to them in purveying the entire scene.

It is interesting that these men had chosen "clown" masks or something close to them to hide their identities. It reminds us of the role James Stewart played in The Greatest Show on Earth, in which he dressed in clown makeup throughout to hide his identity—even though his crime was evidently an attempt to save someone's life. Further, it will bring to mind for some the serial killer of young boys, John Gacy, who worked as "Pogo the Clown," designing his own clown costumes, and sometimes enticing his victim's through charitable events. Gacy's first assault took place a year before Kienholz's installation.

Remaining within the surrounding cars are not only the sickened white woman, but, in another, a young boy, whom Kienholz describes as "sissy boy," modeled, in part, upon the face of his own son. The horror which this child is witnessing, unlike the sexual acts of Kienholz's earlier piece, is truly devastating, a vision that we recognize will never allow this fearful boy to live anything but a haunted life. These men are not only destroying a man and a woman, but robbing joy and innocence from the entire society in which they exist.

The victim himself is no longer a man, his torso having been transformed by the artist into a receptacle of fluids, a trough of water in which float the letters that occasionally spell out the word through which these men have justified their torture: "nigger."

Walking through this darkened exhibition, I was terrorized, awed even by the devastating act I was observing in tableau. But for me, even worse, was my own "being there," the sense of my voyeuristic fascination with the observation of it all. I could not bring myself to turn my eyes from the series of tragic events being played out before me, and I walked again and again round the circle of the five cars, peering into them, listening to the soft Delta music emanating from one. That can be understood as something good or bad. Perhaps in witnessing such a scene I could serve as a sensitive historian of such events in our own past, reminding others—those even today who might wish to harm people for racial or political differences—of what these actions mean to the individual and the society at large. Yet I might also simply be seen—in my inability to change history, in my own viewer passivity—to be merely an unwilling participant to such events. Only my actions in life can determine which kind of witness I might be. But I was there and cannot hide that fact. On the gallery floor the artist has laid down a carpet simulacrum of a dirt road, into which each viewer's footprints are embedded. I saw my own!

Los Angeles, September 4, 2011