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Interview with Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright

HBO

Lawrence, your interest in this region goes back many years. What brought you to the subject of Al-Qaeda, and why have you devoted so much time and energy to it?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT

I got my initiation into the Middle East in 1969 when I went there to teach at the American University in Cairo for two years.  It was actually alternative service for me.  I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I didn't know anything about the Middle East.  I flew to Cairo and I got there at midnight and the next morning, I taught my first class.  So that was my initiation. And I really enjoyed my time.  I was very involved in the lives of my students.  And so when 9/11 came along and this culture that I had such a feeling of fondness for had attacked the culture I lived in, it was really upsetting to me.  Every American was upset, but there was a side of this tragedy that was particularly personal to me.

HBO

You turned your interest into a acclaimed book called "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."  What prompted you to then create a theater piece as well?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT

After the book came out, a lot of people were asking me how these experiences had affected me personally. The play was a way of dealing with the emotions and experiences, and explaining to people what it would be like if you were an American citizen, like me, who went to try to find out who these people are and why they attacked America.  That's sort of the reporter's role.  I never had the experience as a reporter before this of having such a difficult time separating my personal feelings from my professional obligation.

HBO

Alex, what sparked you to want to work with Larry to turn his play into a movie?

ALEX GIBNEY

Well, I had never been a kind of Middle Eastern expert.  After 9/11, like everybody, I became much more aware.  And I had done a film called 'Taxi to the Dark Side,' which was in its own way about Iraq and Afghanistan, but in a fundamental way it was actually about a kind of change in the American character.  I had heard about Larry's play, I had certainly read the book, and I was a huge fan. I loved the play because it was kind of the flip side of what I had done in 'Taxi to the Dark Side.' Larry's play was a journey of an individual going to the Middle East to find out more about it, and the people who lived there.  And for me, that was very compelling because it taught us a lot in a very condensed space about the Middle East, but also did so through the journey of one individual.  And I always think that that's a more interesting way of going about it. It was in the great tradition of storytelling because it was at once so educational and so personal.  So I thought it would make a great film.

"We had no idea were going to be flying in at such a high rate of flame, as they are right now."

HBO

Because of 9/11, many people have a distorted view of the Middle East, and their anger often gets directed not at the people who attacked us and are a threat, but at Islam in general. Why do you think that is?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT

I think that ignorance is the state that we were in before 9/11 that left us so unprepared for what happened, not only in terms of understanding but responding to it.  And staying in a state of ignorance is no solution to getting out of the predicament that we are in now. I mean the levels of misunderstanding and mistrust, and naked opportunism among political figures right now is really out of scale, and I think very perilous. 

One of Osama bin Laden's goals is to create a clash of civilizations, and that can only be done if both of those civilizations collaborate.  And if we are sophisticated in our response by being able to distinguish between radical Islam and mainstream Islam, if we are able to modulate our responses politically and socially and morally in the Middle East, we will be able to diffuse this.  But if we continue to pour gas on the fire, we are headed for a lot of trouble for a long period of time.

ALEX GIBNEY

One of the interesting things about Larry's book and the play is that you see the inhumanity of Al-Qaeda's actions,  yet you see that they come from ordinary human beings.  Beyond al-Qaeda, Larry's play allows viewers to see the humanity of a lot of people in the Middle East.  That's vital, because you can't walk into a battlefield - if the "global war on terror" is such a battlefield - and begin to assume that everyone is your enemy.  Then you have really created much more of a threat than you had in the beginning.

The other thing I think that bin Laden tried to accomplish, and the other reason we should really care, has to do with coming home.  Because one of the great goals of terror is to provoke liberal democratic societies to expose themselves as hypocritical and to embrace the tendencies that sometimes we see in terror-and to become less liberal and to become less pluralistic and to undo the shibboleths that we, in times of peace, claim to live by: E Pluribus Unum, "From Many, One."  Bin Laden's goal is to provoke us to abandon our fundamental principles. If we succumb to his provocation, then we are lost, we are done.

HBO

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

ALEX GIBNEY

I don't think people could do any better than to see this film and understand that the need to go forward and not only live in this world, but defend ourselves from our enemies, really depends on our ability to understand what's going on, to educate ourselves.  We can't be ignorant. Nobody in their right minds would advocate an intelligence service that would be blinding itself. But that's precisely what we are doing.  Larry is a guy from Oklahoma and Texas who decided to go to the Middle East to try and understand what was going on there.  And for me, this is a kind of an object lesson for people.  It's like, "Yes, you can do it too.  Understand more.  Learn more."  Then we have a chance to understand both how to diffuse the conflict. And when it comes time to face blood-thirsty enemies, we will better understand how to face them down and how to distinguish them from our friends.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT

This movie is coming out at a very heated moment.  Alex and I have been trying to address issues we had no idea were going to be flying in at such a high rate of flame, as they are right now.  But it couldn't be a better moment to consider the questions that the movie raises.

My Trip To Al-Qaeda