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Journalist Author Brings Al-Qaida to Stage


In 1998, screenwriter Lawrence Wright had no idea that his movie "The Siege" would touch on the frayed nerves of Americans three years later in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But it is the research for that movie, and his subsequent Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower" that provide the basis for Wright's one-man New York stage production called, "My Trip To Al-Qaida." VOA's Kane Farabaugh spoke with the author about his work, and about the enemy the United States now faces.

As the screenwriter for "The Siege," Lawrence Wright knows all too well that it is almost never a good sign in Hollywood when your movie does not draw crowds on the opening weekend.

Little did he know in 1998 that this movie would be different.

" 'The Siege' was a box office failure, but it was the most rented movie in America after 9/11, and I reflected on that," says Wright.

In the movie, an FBI agent – played by Denzel Washington – tries to knock out a terrorist sleeper cell in New York City before it has a chance to strike. It is a race against time as an overzealous army general, played by Bruce Willis, curbs the civil rights of Muslims while the city is under martial law.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the movie seemed eerily similar to real events playing out in the United States.

Wright tells us, "I began, with some dread, to wait for the next thing to happen because we had already predicted it in the movie."

While "The Siege" ends well, Wright does not believe life in the post-9/11 world is imitating the art he brought to the big screen.

"I think that one reason people turned to 'The Siege' after the strikes on 9/11 is that the movie turns out well. We behave well as a country, finally. We turn to our original constitutional guarantees of liberty and due process and so on. It's not clear if we're going to have the real life good ending anytime soon. We have a lot of work to do to restore those liberties."

After the attacks, Wright set out to research al-Qaida as the basis for a book that would provide a detailed history of the radical Muslim movement. Called "The Looming Tower," it is now a national bestseller and one of the most prominent books on the subject.

It is also the basis for a one-man stage show that premiered in New York in March. Called "My Trip To Al-Qaida," it features Wright as himself. Equipped with books, notes, and a projector, he sets out to share with the audience his discoveries and research.

"Most Americans simply, after five years, don't really understand the nature of this movement,” says Wright. “No one really has sat down and laid it all out for them in an understandable fashion. And that's what I'm attempting to do – explain to them who these people are. What radicalized them? What caused this appetite for blood that is so characteristic of al-Qaida? These are things that, you know, have never really been understood. So I hope that through the play that people can get a sense of who these people are, and why they attacked America, and what we can do about it."

Wright has tackled other issues as a columnist for The New Yorker magazine. He also wrote the screenplay to the film "Noriega" about the ousted Panamanian dictator. But no issue has driven him as much as his work trying to understand the rise of terrorism against the West, and the lessons to learn.

"What's really important for Americans to understand is al-Qaida can't destroy America, but we can undo some of the most important things that set our country apart. We're the ones that can destroy some of the things that are really meaningful about America. America really does stand for something in the world. Without America, the world is a more dangerous place. We're the ones -- we're the custodians of this liberty, and we have to be very careful to guard it."

After his stage show comes to a close at the end of April, Wright plans to make a public speaking tour at universities across America.