After the 9/11 attacks, when Americans were “semiotically aroused,” Walker writes, quoting a phrase coined by historian Richard Landes. To be “semiotically aroused” is to fall under the influence of signs and symbols. A few weeks after the attacks, the constant broadcast of images of Islamic extremists caused such a spell to overcome several otherwise rational people in Tyler, Texas, according to Walker. An object made with wires and duct tape was found in a mailbox. Authorities called in the bomb squad. An entire neighborhood was evacuated. The object turned out to be an 8-year-old boy’s homemade flashlight, built for his science class.
Writers willing to attack the sacred cows of the right and left with equal amounts of intelligence and flair are rare. Walker is, thankfully, that sort of writer and a tireless and thorough researcher. He also states an obvious fact many skeptics are unwilling to accept: Behind just about every conspiracy theory there is also, more often than not, a grain of truth.
Yes, al-Qaida staged the 9/11 attacks. But in a “paranoid” retelling after the attacks, the al-Qaida movement became a centralized organization controlled by one man, a fact contradicted by most intelligence reports. In the American imagination, al-Qaida became something akin to “the global networks of mayhem found in James Bond movies,” Walker writes.
Instead, years later, when American forces actually reached Osama bin Laden’s last hideout, they found not a “Goldfinger” or a “Dr. No” but instead a pathetic and lonely man who colored his beard. He didn’t even have cable TV or a cellphone — a truth that was more mundane but also more interesting.
Hector Tobar reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times