09/07/2010 11:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lawrence Wright on His HBO Film Tonight: 9/11, al-Qaeda and U.S. Torture

After September 11, 2001, many in the media likened the brutal images and precise execution of the terror attacks to "a movie." Yes, like my movie, comments Lawrence Wright in the HBO special airing tonight, My Trip to al-Qaeda, and he's not just talking about the tragic events of 9/11.

The movie he refers to was The Siege, starring Denzel Washington, released in 1998, directed by Ed Zwick and co-written by Wright. It not only imagined a massive terror attack on America but a crackdown on civil liberties, anti-Muslim attitudes and torture that follows.

A few years later, in real-life, Wright started tracing what led to the 9/11 attacks, and America's unfortunate over-reaction to them (a theme also sounded by Fareed Zakaria in this week's Newsweek). The HBO film concludes with graphic testimony about U.S. torture, and Wright's words: "Al-Qaeda can't destroy America. Only we can do it -- to ourselves."

The HBO film, directed by Alex Gibney, is based on Wright's one-man show from 2006 that grew out of his brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower. But all of that was set in motion, Wright told me Monday, by the reaction of radicals to the trailer for The Siege -- they blew up a Planet Hollywood in Capetown. The reason for that target? Bruce Willis, one of the film's co-stars, was a part owner of the chain. Two people died in the blast.

After 9/11, The Siege became the top-renting DVD in America, "making me the first profiteer of the war on terror," he admits in the film. He decided to write his book The Looming Tower partly out of "guilt" for his movie causing that Capetown bombing. "That bomb was really aimed at me," he said, "or at my imagination." He wrote the book to "find out why."

So, a few months after 9/11, he found himself in Cairo, where he had taught in 1969 (key hijacker Atta later attended the same school), on the trail of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the course of his research he interviewed numerous unsavory characters, which produced, he admits, "moral qualms." In the film he is shown behind the wheel in London getting tips from a local driving instructor - an Islamist radical on the lam from authorities in Egypt. He'd been convicted of a terror attack that led to the death of a young girl.

At another point, Wright muses that if he did snare an interview with Osama, would he reach for his notepad or stab him with "a bread knife"?

Later, his book completed, he needed a break from the grimness, and approached New Yorker colleague John Lahr with the notion of writing a musical comedy of some sort. Wright, a former Rolling Stone writer, plays keyboards in an Austin band called WhoDo. But, impressed with the work of Anna Deveare Smith in turning non-fiction into gripping theater, he changed course, and decided to try "stand up." My Trip to al-Qaeda debuted at the New Yorker festival in 2006 and later had a very successful six-week run in Soho. (He's now written another theater piece, based on his reporting from Gaza, that will debut at the New Yorker festival next month followed by a four-week run downtown.)

The HBO film came about after Gibney (who directed Taxi to the Dark Side and several other acclaimed documentaries) caught a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington and told Wright it could be a real "cinematic experience," with the screen behind him on stage "a portal" that could take readers anywhere in the world. "It's fascinating for me to have written articles and books to now use other forms," Wright told me. "But you can only reach so many on a stage -- a movie can reach so many more, and go around the world, and last for all time."

I wondered why the play, and film, left out the run-up to 9/11 and the actions of a hero in the book, FBI agent John O'Neill, who had tried to sound an alert for a likely attack -- and later died in the rubble of the Twin Towers. "I'd told that story," Wright explained. "But my friends had asked me, what was it like talking to these [radical terrorist ] characters?. The truth is, I hadn't really sorted that out myself, and that was disturbing to me. Writing the play was a way to sort out my feelings, and the film is a continuation."

He decided that if Americans could relate to one person's struggles they might better understand their own reactions. It was also his way of getting at "what happened to our country after 9/11. What happened to the promise we made to be different... to stand for true American values."

While Wright in his book emphasizes the significance of the founding of Israel in shaping Arab and Muslim attitudes -- along with the "humiliation" of military defeats and decades of suffering by the Palestinians -- the film makes no mention of this. Wright claims that if the Israel-Palestine conflict "was settled tomorrow, bin Laden would be in tears." He points out that bin Laden has almost never ordered attacks on Israel and, by now, if that conflict was resolved, al-Qaeda would "be smaller but still very much exist."

The film will air several other times on HBO after tonight.

Greg Mitchell writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. He is the author of 10 books, including "So Wrong for So Long" and the forthcoming "The Campaign of the Century."