The Looming Tower and the 9/11 Generation
On September 11, 2001, I was a 21-year-old, newly minted college graduate, who had managed to parlay my BA in psychology into my first real job. I was in my office at Rutgers University when reports first came in that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers.
An absurd image popped into my head; the pilot of a small craft excising himself from the wreckage and walking onto a floor filled with shocked office workers. A hopeful, nonsensical, complete impossibility. I really was a child.
These were the days of dial-up internet, newspapers, and landlines. The information didn’t travel instantaneously; it took hours, days, months, even years, to really understand what had happened. One by one, pale, hollow-eyed colleagues returned to the office, where we gathered around the radio to listen for any scrap of news. Eventually, we all filtered home, there was little to be done in Central New Jersey. I tried to donate blood, but the wait was 5 hours long, and I was turned away, helpless and powerless, to resume my Sisyphean vigil in front of the television, watching the planes hit the towers over and over. Most of the blood went unused.
For myself and many others in my obscure generation, who hover between Gen-X and the Millennials, that moment demarcated our transition from childhood to adulthood. As suburban Americans born in the late 70s and early 80s, our childhoods were unmarred by mass violence, war was something that happened on television, and relative economic prosperity guaranteed that a college education would provide a secure future.
THE LAST DAYS OF ROME
As The Looming Tower opens, on a scene set in 1998, I’m flooded with nostalgia for AOL, phone booths, the illusion of safety. As such, it stands to reason that my thoughts about the causes of 9/11 tend to expose a hindsight bias, a tendency that we all have to view the events of the past through the lens of the present.
Because of this, The Looming Tower is like heroin to my generation. It not only asks why, why, why, it attempts to answer, replete with engaging characters, sex, and glaring, preventable failures in communication.
This piece focuses solely on my viewing of The Looming Tower, and all its based-on-true-events glory. My analyses of the characters are just that and have no bearing on the actual players.
HERO, ANTI-HERO, OR ZERO?
John O’Neil, portrayed by Jeff Daniels as a man leading a highly complicated life, is initially set up as one of the heroes of this story if in fact there are any. Upon first viewing, I gave an involuntary eye-roll, leftover from my teenage years, and thought, “Okay, so they’re setting the FBI up to be the white hats, and are ultimately going to throw the CIA under the bus.”
Not so fast Scrivani; as I’ve made my way through four, highly compelling episodes, it occurs to me that Mr. O’Neil could benefit from the Dialectical Behavior Therapy module on interpersonal effectiveness. He cajoles, greases palms, and lies to get what he wants, self-justifying all the way that it’s for the greater good. He’s the guy you want to sit next to at a bar, until he isn’t. When he doesn’t get his way, his communication style depends upon his position of power relative to yours.
If you’re unlucky enough to be an accountant working for the FBI, you get aggression – overt screaming and threats. If you’re a peer or above, he uses a more passive-aggressive communication style – from sarcasm to storming dramatically out of meetings. These communication styles have two very important commonalities. Neither of them is effective at getting your wants and needs met, and over time, they sabotage your relationships, making it less and less likely that you ever will.
This leads me to our second main player in the game of communication failures thus far, Martin Schmidt, portrayed to smarmy, arrogant perfection by Peter Saarsgard.
He’s the CIA’s chief of Alec Station, the program tasked with tracking, then capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden. I imagine that leading such a program requires a certain degree of healthy narcissism – however, the Martin Schmidt portrayed on screen quickly devolves into a less shouty void of the malignant narcissism of his own. The screenwriters have made it clear that his main motivation appears to be credit – that is, taking out Bin Laden, and despite a clear directive from on high to share relevant intelligence with the FBI, hoarding it all so that Alec Station and Alec Station alone gets to bask in the glory.
Like most narcissists, he is also convinced that not only is his way the correct way but the only way. Martin’s actions, as depicted here, are great examples of a quieter, more subtle form of narcissism. There was a blink and you’ll miss it throwaway line, where the staff of Alec Station are referred to as The Manson Family. Three guesses as to who Charlie is?
Unlike John, who gets his narcissistic supply from multiple extra-marital affairs, expensive shoes, and hand stitched suits, Martin appears to have created his source within Alec Station itself. Perhaps the best example is Diane Priest; presumably one of the aforementioned Manson girls, she treats her boss with a degree of reverence usually reserved for deities and George Clooney.
Martin has effectively surrounded himself with sycophants and yes-women, while simultaneously refusing to share information with anyone who might disagree with him, including the FBI agents embedded in Alec Station, tasked with the express function of keeping the lines of communication open. The staff at Alec Station thus become a textbook example of Group Think – they’ve insulated themselves so markedly from any opinion but their own, and in the process, have become convinced of the absolute righteousness of their mission.
This study in communication would not be complete without an examination of John O’Neil’s protégé, one Mr. Ali Soufan. Ali is in a vulnerable position; he is desperate to prove himself to his superiors both as a rookie FBI agent, and a Muslim-American, born in Lebanon. This being said, as far as main characters go, he seems to be the most concerned with catching bad guys rather than basking in glory.
Sure, he’s a bit of a loose cannon, angrily cursing out suspects, and breaking protocol during a stake-out, but as far as I can tell, he is the most appropriate and effective communicator of the group. When he has romantic feelings for a young woman – he tells her, when he wants to catch terrorists, he recognizes that the most effective way to do this is to break out of the FBI bubble and communicate with the suspects. Could he be the white hat after all?
There are strong forces pulling him in either direction, and I can’t wait to see which way he goes!
I understand that I’ve neglected a panoply of rich characters and their foibles; tireless worker bee Robert Chesney and the gut-wrenching, Kenyan Embassy storyline, the dysfunctional communication style between the two FBI agents embedded in Alec Station, and countless others.
As the story progresses, I hope to have the opportunity to explore and experience them all. At the end of it all however, I don’t expect that my desire for a satisfying explanation will be sated. I’ll likely end up telling myself (read: shouting at the screen) what I often tell my clients when they blame themselves for a calamitous event; you’re acting as though you had the information you have now at the time the event occurred. If you in fact had, things would have gone differently, but you didn’t, and it isn’t possible that you could have.
There may be things to learn and do differently moving forward, but however badly we want to change it, the past is already written.