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What’s Missing from The Looming Tower

It’s the plot of countless Hollywood movies: A sexually repressed totalitarian attempts to gain power over others through violence and intimidation. Footloose, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Goodnight and Good Luck, The Handmaid’s Tale — all these films, and many more, feature a killjoy bad guy trying to button up the rest of the liberal world.

This Elmer Gantry type is mostly offstage in The Looming Tower, the captivating miniseries about the events leading to September 11, 2001. The series, currently streaming on Hulu, focuses on the mistakes in the US intelligence community that allowed a handful of hijackers to fly planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing 3,000 people. The main focus of The Looming Tower is the petty turf wars that prevented the CIA from sharing information with the FBI about Islamic terrorism. It didn’t help that in 1998, when a large part of the series takes place, President Clinton was focused on a sexual scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.

Adapted by screenwriter Dan Futterman from the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Lawrence Wright, and directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), The Looming Tower does not delve into the backstory of how Islamic radicalism came into being. Part political drama and part the-clock-is-ticking thriller, the series leaves out the main thing that set Islamic radicalism in action: Paranoia about sex and Western freedom. While several things can go into making a jihadist – factors such as resentment of Israel, a culture that leaves young men with too much money and too little to do, and a religion that depicts God as punishing, capricious and unbound by reason — the main driver is an obsession with sex.

Jeff Daniels stars as FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill and Peter Sarsgaard as Martin Schmidt, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit. O’Neill is a swearing, drinking and overspending womanizer whose passion and abrasiveness makes him an effective anti-terrorism fighter. He’s the gritty cop who hates bureaucracy. His foil is Schmidt, who is petty and childish, literally shutting down his CIA unit when FBI agents show up so he doesn’t have to share information. Schmidt cannot stand O’Neill, who opts for going into terrorist cells with force and arresting people while Schmidt prefers to pinpoint the enemy with air strikes. Tahar Rahim is outstanding as rookie FBI agent Ali Soufan, one of the only agents familiar with the languages and customs of the Middle East. He works for and is won over by O’Neill.

The Looming Tower shifts from O’Neill, Schmidt and Soufan to terrorist cells in Africa and the Middle East, and then to scenes from a 2004 congressional hearing on 9/11 reveal just how bad the dysfunction in the agencies was. The series is expertly acted, edited and directed. It moves at a good pace, takes time for character development, and is shot crisply.

Still, The Looming Tower begins about 300 pages into Lawrence Wright’s book, skipping the earliest part of the path to 9/11. That story involves a small handful of devout Muslim men whose pathological paranoia about sex led them to radical Islam. The most fascinating of them was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian author, educator, Islamic theorist, poet, and the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1940s Qutb was heavily influenced by the work of Nobel Prize-winner French eugenicist Alexis Carrel, who believed that Western modernity fostered selfishness and killed spirituality. In 1966, Qutb was convicted of plotting the assassination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and was executed by hanging.

The book The Looming Tower opens with a long examination of Qutb’s life, giving particular focus to his hatred of the United States. Qutb came to America in 1948 to study at a teacher’s college in Greeley, Colorado. He was appalled by what he saw. “The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity,” he wrote. “She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” The boys had “wide, strapping chest[s]” and “ox muscles.” As for the music: “The American’s enjoyment of jazz does not fully begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming,” Qutb wrote when he returned to Egypt. “It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires.” Note: This was not Las Vegas in 2018. It was Greeley, Colorado, a dry town filled with churches, in 1948.

A religious fanatic, Qutb reasoned that the only possible explanation for the dominance of America after World War II was because Muslims were not devout enough. To defeat the West and bring in a caliphate with universal sharia law, they needed to pray harder, become even more unyieldingly orthodox, endlessly memorize the Koran. This mania is an echo of scientology, which Wright also investigated brilliantly in his book Going Clear. In that weird cult, any sign of personal failure must be met with increasing rounds of “auditing,” a pseudoscientific method of treatment that just makes things worse. In radical Islam, the failure of a person or a culture can be cured by becoming more and more radically committed to God. It’s a terrible cycle.

Qutb was enraged by the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. But then, he was enraged by most things. He complained that Americans put salt on watermelon. We didn’t know how to give a good haircut, and suffered from “a drought of sentimental sympathy.” On top of that, “Americans intentionally deride what people in the Old World hold sacred.” America and the West are dangerous because they blind people to true values and the real zenith of civilization, which for Qutb began with Muhammad in the seventh century and reached its height in the Middle Ages. Writing for Smithsonian magazine in 2006, David von Drehle connects the dots:

Such grumbling by an unhappy crank would be almost comical but for one fact: a direct line of influence runs from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden, and to bin Laden’s Egyptian partner in terror, Ayman al-Zawahiri. From them, the line continues to another quietly seething Egyptian sojourning in the United States—the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. Qutb’s gripes about America require serious attention because they cast light on a question that has been nagging since the fall of the World Trade Center: Why do they hate us?

It’s puzzling why the film The Looming Tower ignores Qutb – after all, if a historical figure who was a devout Christian shared the same attitudes and became a bomber, he would be the focal point of any drama purporting to tell the story of domestic terrorism. Qutb is a prime mover, the engine that set radical Islam in motion. Even without a historical reenactment, the creators of The Looming Tower could have included a scene where O’Neil or the CIA’s Schmidt are briefing their agents on Qutb. To not do so is like the classic mafia film The Godfather being shot without any scenes taking place in in Italy.

The closest The Looming Tower gets to Qutb is when Scotland Yard Chief Inspector (unnamed and played by Tony Curran) takes O’Neil and Agent Soufan to a pub in Manchester, where the FBI has tracked a terrorist. When Soufan asks why the terrorists aren’t doing more, the Chief Inspector just sips his pint. Al-Qaeda he explains, are losers. “These guys are outsiders and misfits,” he says. “They can’t get girlfriends.”

Finally, an accurate assessment of jihadi motivation. The terrorists who started it all were educated, rich, and often from upper-class and respected families who lived in upper-class neighborhoods. It wasn’t poverty or stupidity that set them on the path of destruction. It was fear of freedom, a desire to explain their failures in light of their confidence that God is on their side, and most powerfully, a fear of the feminine. As good as it is, and it is very good, The Looming Tower should have taken the time to explain the core issues that make radical Islam so pathetic.

Reader Discussion

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on March 23, 2018 at 08:55:59 am

Mr. Judge, I like most of your movie reviews. You're a demonstrably talented writer and clearly a lover of good movies.

I, too, love movies and the literate writing of movie criticism.

I also love history and psychology, especially post-Freudian corrections of Freud's errors and advancements of Freud's few truly genius insights into the nature of the man, which is why I have quoted at length two of your central contentions in reviewing the film "Looming Tower" based on the book of the same title (neither of which have I read or seen.)

You say:
"While several things can go into making a jihadist - factors such as resentment of Israel, a culture that leaves young men with too much money and too little to do, and a religion that depicts God as punishing, capricious and unbound by reason — the main driver is an obsession with sex."
And you say:
"It wasn’t poverty or stupidity that set them on the path of destruction. It was fear of freedom, a desire to explain their failures in light of their confidence that God is on their side, and most powerfully, a fear of the feminine. As good as it is, and it is very good, The Looming Tower should have taken the time to explain the core issues that make radical Islam so pathetic."

Thus, you conclude rather unequivocally that sex, the obsession with it and the fear of it, drove 19 Muslims to drive four commercial aircraft on 9/11 into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a farmer's field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. That is a most Freudian interpretation of the most terrible act of Islamic terrorism in history, which you say the movie fails to convey.

Do you know and understand the history of Islam, the biographies of the dead terrorists and the Freudian psychology of the terrorists and of their Islamic faith with sufficient intellectual depth to support that sweeping assertion?
Please understand, I do not challenge you assertion. I am unqualified to do so. Rather, I am simply amazed at its sweep.

I wonder, what would Bernard Lewis say about your analysis of the motivational psychology behind Islamic terrorism.

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timothy
on March 23, 2018 at 09:11:10 am

You make good points, ones that I would have completely agreed with prior to reading "The Looming Tower." As the review argues, there is a line from Sayyid Qutb to the 9/11 attackers. I also note that Israel and the economic success of the West plays a part in this. But in the early part of Lawrence Wright's book, the obsession for these guys is clearly sex and female freedom. (Why do so many jihadist spend their last nights befroe self-immolation in strip bars?) I recommend Wright's book highly.

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Mark Judge
on March 23, 2018 at 09:47:52 am

Well that leaves the issue of credibility in the lap of Looming Tower's author, Lawrence Wright, a journalist. I don't know his insights into psychology, and I am sure he studied up on Islamic history and the biographical details of the terrorists. But I wonder still about the reliability of his (ostensible) heavy reliance on the sexual psychology of Muslims generally and the 19 terrorists in particular.

Henry A. Murray, a psychiatrist, psycho- analyzed and wrote about Hitler. Anthony Storr, a psychiatrist, did the same with Churchill and other historical figures. Erik Erikson, a psychiatrist, wrote a ground-breaking psycho-analytical biography of Martin Luther. I'm not sure a journalist is up to that monumental a task beyond reporting what historians and psychologist or psychiatrists have studied and written from a psychology perspective about Islam and those specific Islamic terrorists.

Just sayin! Thanks for the response. Keep writing. I love your stuff (most of the time:)

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timothy
on March 23, 2018 at 13:23:14 pm

OMG!
I read Erikson's take on Luther so many years ago. I am not sure a psychiatrist is up to writing a proper biography of historical figures and I recall some recent mish-mash pyschobabble infecting film portrayals of Churchill.

Color me doubtful!!!

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gabe
on March 23, 2018 at 13:32:54 pm

Also, as the terror of the Mohammedans has existed, and been rather forcibly presented, over one and a half millennia, it may be proper to ask:
Has this sexual component of terror always been present?
Is it of more recent vintage?
Do the mass plunder and rapes of the North African, Ibernian and southern European peoples represent either this sexual component or something entirely different.
Recall also that Muhammad's initial success on the battlefield involved vast plunder and the promises of much "booty" (not the modern sense of booty) to his followers. How should this inform our assessment of Wright's book and the film?

I will once again refer LLB folks to a nice volume on the topic, "Mohammad and Charlemagne
Revisited: The History of a Controvery"
https://www.amazon.com/Mohammed-Charlemagne-Revisited-History-Controversy/dp/0578094185/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521826162&sr=1-1&keywords=emmet+scott

wherein, the ravages of the Mohammedan terror are detailed.

(quick reading, BTW) and a somewhat different take than Lewis

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gabe
on March 23, 2018 at 14:58:58 pm

I agree, although I think Erikson's psychological insights into Luther's theological development are intriguing. don't know that anyone puts any stock in them; I don't. But "Who knows what (identity crisis) lurks in the heart of (a great) man!" "The (Psychic) Shadow knows!"
Also, I thought that Ernest Jones' classic 3 volume biography (really a hagiography) of Freud was vitally enhanced by Jones' psycho-analytical expertise and that Anthony Storr's book (not really a biography) had invaluable insights into how Churchill's depression (his Black Dog) positively affected his statesmanship. A similar book by Joshua Shenk, "Lincoln's Melancholy," is my favorite Lincoln biography because of its outstanding discussion of the profound life-long, politically and morally positive impact that terrible depression exerted on Lincoln. Shenk, unlike the author of The Looming Tower, meets my criterion for qualifications to author a psycho-biography because he is both a depressive and self-educated and medically very knowledgeable about the disease.

My concern with the PURPORTED post- Freudian analysis in the Looming Tower of the 9/11 terrorists (and by inference all Muslim terrorists) is that its PURPORTED psycho- sexual motivation theory is so sweeping yet, so far as I know, founded on no medical evaluation of the 9/11 individuals or medically-qualified psycho-analytical insight into tenets of the Muslim religion.

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timothy
on March 23, 2018 at 16:11:30 pm

Timothy:

Hey, I guess that the Pyschic Shadow gets work wherever he or she can. Look at all the Maaahhvelous work the Shadow has done on the pysche of The Trumpster. Wherever would we be in our efforts to understand great (and not-so-great (Trump)) men /women without the assistance of our Shadows???

You have me intrigued by shenk's book!

seeya

gabe

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gabe
on July 20, 2019 at 00:40:29 am

Quran is such a great book of Allah Almighty that in every era honourable scholars of Islam did Tafseer of this great book. In every language the Tafseer of this great book is available. In Urdu great Tafseer of Quran is also available.

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Muhammad Qasim

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.