From terrorism to heroism: Books on 9/11 offer perspective, grace

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is surrounded by high-rise towers in New York in 2017. It opened in 2014.
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The events of 9/11 shocked the world, imprinting sounds and images that resonate to this day. For one writer, who was at the time a recent transplant to New York, the sadness of that day played out against a backdrop of personal grief and uncertainty. Twenty years later, she sought a broader understanding of what had happened, and a better grasp of the heroes, plotters, rescuers, and victims that stoked the narrative.  

Why We Wrote This

How are collective memories of 9/11 shaped? A half-dozen books chronicle everything from the efforts of first responders and the generosity of ordinary people to the rise of Al Qaeda and the failure of U.S. intelligence.

For a long time I resisted reading any book about 9/11, but recently, I’ve read many. I’ve been startled by their power, by how my heart pounded and tears came easily, even 20 years on. I still felt the confusion followed by horror and anguish.

I was living through a more personal heartbreak on that day. A New Yorker for more than two decades now, I’d only been in the city for 2 1/2 years as of Sept. 11, 2001. I already had a strong suspicion I was there to stay, though, symbolized by my decision to get married in New York rather than my native Miami Beach. The wedding was scheduled for the first weekend in October.

Then my father, following a brief illness, died on Sunday, Sept. 9. I flew with my fiancé to Florida early on the 10th. In my childhood home in Surfside, recently the scene of its own catastrophe, we awoke on Tuesday the 11th to the news of an airplane flying into the World Trade Center. For the next couple of hours, as the atrocities unfolded, my fiancé and I stared, dumbstruck, at the television. After the second tower fell, we turned the TV off and made our way to my father’s funeral. Numbness upon numbness, grief upon grief.

Why We Wrote This

How are collective memories of 9/11 shaped? A half-dozen books chronicle everything from the efforts of first responders and the generosity of ordinary people to the rise of Al Qaeda and the failure of U.S. intelligence.

Reading about 9/11 immediately connects me to my own loss from that time, eliciting emotions that are easier to keep locked away. But the 20-year mark seemed like the right time to look back on the day, and as a reviewer, I was interested to look back through books. I gained much from doing so, from emotional catharsis to historical perspective on the current, awful situation in Afghanistan, which reminds us how much 9/11 continues to shape our world.

Avid Reader

Garrett M. Graff’s “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11” is the volume that moved me most. Published in 2019, it’s based on more than 500 oral histories collected by Graff, a former Politico editor, and by other journalists and historians. Graff has organized them masterfully, vividly conveying the shock of events through the recollections of first responders, survivors, members of the George W. Bush administration, victims’ relatives, and others.

Graff includes transcripts of the final messages people in the air and on the ground left for their loved ones. As wrenching as those are, details of less weighty moments can be unexpectedly gutting. A police officer who arrived at the twin towers was puzzled to see women’s shoes everywhere until it occurred to him that office workers were ditching their heels as they ran barefoot from the scene. An air traffic controller recalls being upset with himself for a lack of professionalism because his voice “did crack a little bit” while he helped fulfill the Federal Aviation Administration’s unprecedented order, minutes after the third hijacked airplane hit the Pentagon, that every plane in the air in the United States land immediately. The book stands out for its raw power, poignance, and moments of grace. 


Like “The Only Plane in the Sky,” Mitchell Zuckoff’s “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11,” also published in 2019, seeks to memorialize those who died and provide a clear record of the day. His goal is to “delay the descent of 9/11 into the well of history.” An intimate and beautifully written narrative history, “Fall and Rise” was born from Zuckoff’s early reporting on the attacks for The Boston Globe and is based primarily on his interviews with people connected to the day’s tragic events. We get to know dozens of them, and in many cases, their bravery astonishes. For instance, Zuckoff describes impromptu rescue teams of military and civilian workers at the Pentagon who ran toward danger to help their colleagues, both friends and strangers, up until the affected portion of the building collapsed. Some repeatedly reentered the burning wreckage to search for survivors.

Alfred A. Knopf

Reading about the day itself compelled me to seek out books about the history that preceded it. “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” remains the preeminent source in that regard. Lawrence Wright’s deeply researched Pulitzer Prize winner, published in 2006 (a miniseries based on the book premiered on Hulu in 2018), charts the intellectual and political roots of Islamic radicalism. The propulsive and riveting narrative begins with Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who studied in America in the late 1940s and, in part because of his disgust with the country’s decadence and sexual permissiveness, came to endorse violent jihad. His work inspired, among many others, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who later partnered with Osama bin Laden in the group that became Al Qaeda. 

“The Looming Tower” also covers America’s counterterrorism efforts. As some in the intelligence community sounded the alarm about bin Laden, who declared war against the U.S. in 1996, their concerns were dismissed. “It was too bizarre, too primitive and exotic,” Wright writes. “Up against the confidence that Americans placed in modernity and technology and their own ideals to protect them from the savage pageant of history, the defiant gestures of bin Laden and his followers seemed absurd and even pathetic.” 

W.W. Norton & Co.

That mindset helps explain why the government was so unprepared on 9/11. “Existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen,” The 9/11 Commission Report concludes. Released in 2004, the report remains a valuable resource as well as an unlikely achievement, a government publication that’s also a page turner. (It was even a finalist for a National Book Award in nonfiction.) In clear, sober language, the report presents a comprehensive chronology of the day, explaining government procedures in place – many designed during the Cold War to face a very different kind of threat – and their utter inadequacy to meet the moment. Five Republicans and five Democrats sat on the commission that jointly produced the report, a reminder of the brief period of national unity that followed the attacks.  

Lyons Press

The best books on 9/11 are, as they must be, harrowing and heartbreaking. But of the new books being published to coincide with the 20th anniversary, two stand out for their focus on stories of uplift. While there are indelible images of stunned survivors fleeing the World Trade Center on foot, L. Douglas Keeney’s “The Lives They Saved: The Untold Story of Medics, Mariners, and the Incredible Boatlift That Evacuated Nearly 300,000 People From New York City on 9/11” tells of the massive rescue involving passenger ferries, police boats, harbor-cruise ships, tugboats, and even tiny rubber dinghies. More than 100 civilian captains rushed to the scene by boat to help; many vessels transported casualties across the water to Jersey City, New Jersey, where ambulances awaited. Keeney calls the evacuation by sea “a missing piece of the September 11 story for two decades.”

Flanker Press

Finally, Mac Moss’ “Flown Into the Arms of Angels: Newfoundland and Labrador’s Unsung Heroes of 9/11” describes how the Canadian province hosted and cared for 13,000 passengers and crew on 79 U.S.-bound aircraft diverted there on 9/11. (The same events inspired Jim DeFede’s 2002 oral history, “The Day the World Came to Town,” as well as the musical “Come From Away.”) 

Moss, then an administrator at a college campus in Gander, was part of the relief effort. In writing of the impressive coordination involved in hosting and feeding the stranded for days, he offers a heartfelt tribute to his thousands of neighbors “who brought blankets, sheets, pillows, casseroles, salads, and love.”

Love ended up being a big part of my 9/11 experience, too. 

Borne up by our families and friends, we went ahead with our New York wedding weeks after the attacks. There was grief – both for my father and for the unfathomable losses endured so recently by so many. But there was also joy and hope. 

We have two teenagers now, city kids who love New York fiercely. My son picked up “The Only Plane in the Sky” after I finished it, and he hasn’t put it down. As he encounters for the first time what, for him, is history, I remember.

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