The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 and its subsequent events have not gone without the literary treatment. Here, a dozen related books that prove to be thoughtful, illuminating reading.
Read our Q&A with A Decade of Hope author Dennis Smith.
The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda
Peter L. Bergen
A revelatory, pull-no-punches history of the War on Terror, from before 9/11 to the present day. CNN national security analyst and journalist Bergen takes a critical look at all phases of the conflict between the West and al-Qaeda. Drawing on an impressive range of both Western and Islamic sources, the author examines the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the jihadist movement, most importantly as exemplified by Osama bin Laden…One of the deepest and most disturbing investigations of one of the defining issues of our era.
Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow
The near-miss courtship of Kristen and Ron Breitweiser was anything but a fairy tale. Seton Hall law student Kristen initially believed Ron to be a boozy stalker and spurned his advances. But he was exceptionally persistent and eventually proved himself to be a romantic husband and a proud father. Daughter Caroline was born a year after the death, from cancer, of Kristen’s mother, and the author herself was diagnosed with a breast tumor just prior to September 11. Breitweiser’s devastation over the loss of her husband—he died at the World Trade Center—quickly morphed into vengeful frustration with the “bureaucracy of death.”…Just over a year after the tragedy, the author fired up her “Widowmobile,” headed to Washington and spoke before the Joint Intelligence Committee of Congress, arguing for the formation of an independent 9/11 Commission to investigate the nation’s intelligence failures…Valiant and heartbreaking.
The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse
Writer/filmmaker Downey looks inside one of New York's elite firehouses before and after 9/11. Brooklyn’s Rescue 2 company is charged with saving endangered firefighters from other houses. Following the Rescue 2 crews on their missions, staying in the firehouse between calls, the author began in the summer of 2000 a documentary film about their work…The author has a keen eye for character, and the rugged individualists of Rescue 2 give him plenty of material to work with. The book builds inevitably to 9/11, when eight men from Rescue 2, as well as their former Capt. Ray Downey, lost their lives. This narrative describes the tragedy without histrionics, making its impact even stronger. A powerful tribute to men whose daily lives are the stuff of heroism.
102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers
Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
Two New York Times reporters take us inside the World Trade Center on 9/11 to give us a more capacious view of heroism. Dwyer, who won a Pulitzer as part of the group that covered the 1993 WTC bombing, teamed with special-projects editor Flynn to interview scores of survivors and their families; the pair also studied e- and voice-mails from those inside. From these sources they’ve pieced together a powerful account of the disaster that hesitates neither to confer laurels nor point fingers…Swift, photographic prose defines the dimensions of hell—and of humanity.
The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America
In a clear-eyed recounting of our culture’s reaction to the terrorist attacks, Faludi finds that we have been living in a dream that offers solace for a national tragedy we cannot comprehend. We need stories to live, she notes. Lacking a story for 9/11, we made up a compensatory narrative filled with heroes and John Wayne–like leaders who went to war to maintain a national aura of invincibility. In fact, there were no heroes on 9/11, she says flat out. Exhaustively examining events and their coverage in media from talk shows to comic books, the author shows how the tragedy sparked a “national frenzy to apotheosize” that turned firefighters into supersoldiers (although they were helpless at the Twin Towers) and cast 9/11 widows as venerated keepers of the hearth—unless they criticized the government or spent newfound money in unseemly ways…Readers with misgivings about post-9/11 America will appreciate Faludi’s fantasy busting; right-wing radio hosts will denounce her as a traitorous feminist. But all will find painful her tearing away of the comforting stories we have told ourselves instead of “learning to live with insecurity.”
The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of American Under Attack on 9/11
Senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission Farmer presents a dismaying catalogue of incompetence and dissembling before and after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The author makes excellent use of declassified primary-source documents from 9/11—including transcriptions of frantic last-minute phone calls of air-traffic controllers—to demonstrate how a massively funded national-security system, a relic of the Cold War, failed to counter a small band of terrorists. Bipartisan in assigning blame, Farmer believes that failure resulted from a bureaucracy-laden government…An important systematic brief on how an elaborately constructed national-defense system was penetrated, and why lessons of that day for disaster response remain dimly understood.
The author married firefighter Dave Fontana on Sept. 11, 1993, and they were supposed to spend their eighth wedding anniversary toddling hand-in-hand through the Whitney Museum. But Dave never made it home that day; he died at Ground Zero. Marian mourned, gave countless interviews to reporters, planned Dave’s wake, wrote his eulogy and conferred with other widows. Gradually, she became a skilled political organizer, founding the 9-11 Widows’ and Victims’ Families Association…An impassioned, non-manipulative memorial, timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of 9/11.
Peeled emotional energy characterizes this portrait by Halberstam of a firehouse that lost 12 of 13 men in the initial response to the World Trade Center attack. It’s a difficult story to tell from almost every angle. The notoriously insular firefighting community doesn't accept strangers in its midst, let alone confide in an outsider, and most of the subjects are dead. Halberstam is striving to achieve sympathetic yet realistic characterizations of men he never met, most of whom were very young. So it’s quite an achievement that the author manages to get into the soul of Engine 40, Ladder 35, to give a glimpse of what it meant for these men to be firefighters…Fine work that will leave most readers with even higher esteem for firefighters.
Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission
Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton
“The opportunity of the 9/11 Commission was to respond to a brutal attack on our democratic society with a demonstration of the value of democracy itself.” So write onetime New Jersey governor Kean and Indiana congressman Hamilton, both of whom know the workings of high-level committee investigations and were appointed by President Bush after original heads Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell could not meet Senate ethics committee requirements. “We were set up to fail,” Kean and Hamilton candidly remark; the 9/11 committee was given far too broad a mandate, too tight a deadline and too small a budget to do the job…As readers will discover, the White House was unhappy with that result, constantly invoking executive privilege to evade still closer examination. Furthermore, Bush failed to act on most of the committee’s carefully considered recommendations for averting another 9/11—which, Kean and Hamilton write in closing, is surely in the making. A valuable resource for those needing proof that the government machine could use a good overhaul.
September 11: An Oral History
Dean E. Murphy
Murphy was one of the reporters who covered that grave day and its aftermath, and for this collection he took on the unenviable task of asking those who survived by the skin of their teeth to relive the catastrophe, plus a handful of people who, by the grace of fortune, were slow at making their morning coffee or decided to change travel plans and so missed a doomed airplane. Murphy admits to some “compositing” of the testimony, but he strove for accuracy and credibility. And the stories simply rattle, first from those who had to wait in jam-ups to get onto escalators or out the door. But those that most whiten the knuckles by far are the near-escapes…One of the real keepers of the flurry of 9/11 publications, destined to find a place on the shelf and be turned to time and again.
Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors
By Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin
Psychoanalyst Stern and journalist Martin combine their skills in this companion to Jim Whitaker's documentary Rebirth, which will premiere on Showtime on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The authors feature a diverse group…the contributors’ accounts open up the warmth and resilience that they shared and used to empower their outreach to others. Stern and Martin situate their contributors within a context informed by ongoing, current work in the medical and psychoanalytical professions on grieving, resilience and coping with loss. The eight contributors participated with the project over time, so the account reflects what these individuals and others like them endured, and also how the country rose to their assistance, as relief and medical programs were shaped to deal with the tragedy and new realities.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of titles dealing with subjects as divergent as “recovered memory” and Manuel Noriega, has written what must be considered a definitive work on the antecedents to 9/11. (He does deal briefly—and horrifyingly—with the attack itself.) Wright argues that the 1948 arrival of Sayyid Qutb in New York City was pivotal. Qutb saw a vast battle between Islam and the West and was disgusted by the decadence in the New World. His disciples would one day be myriad…But at the center is the story of Osama bin Laden. Wright carefully charts bin Laden’s upbringing and gradual metamorphosis into the world’s most notorious terrorist. (In a long note at the end, Wright acknowledges the difficulties of being certain of his facts in some cases.)…Essential for an understanding of that dreadful day.