The September 11 terror attacks “changed everything,” according to some.
While the subsequent eight years have proven that initial assessment to be a bit overarching, there is no denying the attacks’ real impact on people throughout the world.
For the families of the victims, the death of their loved ones created a gaping and irreplaceable hole in the center of their lives.
For many in the United States, an illusion of security and invulnerability was permanently ruptured.
For other people, the attacks sparked actions that they had long considered, but not yet taken.
Childhood friend and award-winning photographer Andrew Lichtenstein married his then-longtime girlfriend Linda, for instance. The couple has since had two children.
And for self-described Economic Hit Man John Perkins, the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers prompted him to complete Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, the book he had begun nearly 20 years before, but deferred for several reasons.
The book’s title is apt.
Perkins’ work interweaves two related narrative strands.
The first is the role of hit men like him working for a few key companies to perpetuate the simultaneous economic and political domination of elites and environmental degradation and exploitation of the masses in the countries throughout the world.
In addition to MAIN, the company for which he worked, Perkins also writes extensively about Bechtel and Halliburton.
The second is his personal journey, which began in a small and politically conservative New Hampshire town. Perkins writes about going through prep school at Tilton and an unsuccessful stint at Middlebury College, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador with his first wife, and then, through her uncle, entering the far-flung world of the hit men that takes him to, among other countries, Ecuador, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.
Perkins is a skillful writer who knows how to turn a phrase and keep the action moving briskly forward. He has plenty of material to work with, too. At times, Confessions reads like a James Bond yarn, with the difference being he is working to develop models of long-term economic growth that he and others use to convince government officials to accept. Padded with hefty profits for the contracting companies like Bechtel, the contracts also tend to ensure the country’s dim financial prospect and nearly permanent indebtedness to financial institutions like the World Bank.
Confessions also effectively provides brief historical background on the countries on which Perkins focuses before launching into his experiences in that country.
The chapter on Saudi Arabia, which takes places in 1974, shortly after the OPEC oil embargo staggered the American economy, sheds much light not only on a massive money-laundering scheme, but on many of the relationships and forces in Saudi society that received so much attention in the aftermath of September 11.
At times, Perkins reminds the reader of an economically savvy Forrest Gump, zipping from country to country, forging relationships with novelist Graham Greene and General Omar Torrijos in Panama, reconnecting with a college friend in Iran who tells him in the late 70s to leave the country, and returning in the early 2000s to the Ecuador where he had served in the Peace Corps 35 years earlier.
Perkins does not spare himself either from noting his own seduction, immersion into, and dulling of his critical faculties about the world he enters. At different points in the book, he says that he helped to continue a system of slavery and was himself enslaved by the material goods and lifestyle to which he had access – the second claim is less convincing than the former.
He credits a number of people, including a Colombian woman named Paula, who nudged him to consider the moral consequences of his actions. Looking at his inflated resume is one choice of many that moves Perkins eventually to quit the agency in 1980.
The path to the book was far from a linear one, though.
Perkins started working on it after his second marriage and birth of his daughter Jessica, but decided instead to accept what amounts to a bribe to keep the project unfinished and unpublished.
He worked in the energy field for a time in the 80s, deciding eventually that advocating for nuclear energy is not the best way to go, and picked up the story after the two planes flew into the towers.
Confessions contains an epilogue, recommendations for action, and a timeline of key personal and professional events in Perkins’ life. He closes the work by citing both Tom Paine in Common Sense and Thomas Jefferson’s fabled words to begin the Declaration of Independence.
In the end, Confessions does pull back the veil on the workings of the global economic system from the late 60s to the 80s, with a reminder in the epilogue that Bechtel and Halliburton’s strong connections to the Reagan and Bush White Houses remain deep. This is the book’s most distinctive and sobering aspect. The confessional dimension works less well, but brings the reader along to the end.
Perkins’ words may not be enough to undo his actions. Still, we should be glad that the terror attacks moved him to finish the project he had begun shortly after his daughter’s birth.