Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11 Reading/Viewing/Listening

I'll do regular Sunday questions later, but I'll start off another thread here on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks: what is your reading, viewing, or listening list of September 11 related materials? I'll kick it off by saying that I'm a big fan of the 9/11 Commission Report. Feel free, however, to interpret the question however you want -- I'm interested in everything from academic work to fiction to movies to whatever. Doesn't have to be something produced since the attacks, either. Whatever you think appropriate to recommend.


  1. I saw a small portion of "Sights and Sounds of 9/11" (on the History Channel and plenty of other cable networks), which is a stark, narration-free compilation of found footage and audio from that day -- from office workers' camcorders, police scanners, TV feeds and producers' chatter. It conveys the sense of panic, confusion, and at the same time focus and dedication to survival that emerged among ordinary people that morning, without any sentimental nonsense whatsoever. Really striking.

    Ansary DESTINY DISRUPTED (A History of the World through Islamic Eyes)

  3. Great question. I agree that the 9/11 commission report is probably the best all-around book about 9/11. In terms of other stuff I’m going to go with the Adam Curtis film The Power of Nightmares, that he made for the BBC. It’s a fairly controversial film and I don’t agree with everything in it but I was stuck by how it shows Al Qaeda to be not some bizarre Medieval cult but a political movement that emerged in the 20th Century. The film goes over Sayyid Qutb the obscure guy who inspired the whole thing as a school teacher sent to Colorado (of all places) to study the US education system and bring back new improvements for Egypt’s. Qutb was appalled by what he saw as the rampant individualism of America under Truman (he later wrote a great deal about how obsessed American are with lawn care) and began to Dream of a new type of society that would use modern science and technology but use a political Islam to unite the people. This is the type of story that is totally true but largely unknown to most people.
    In terms of other stuff I’d say Isaac Cronin put together a great book called “Confronting Fear” full other stuff about terrorism in general from Aum Shinrikyo’s nerve gas attack in Tokyo to Timothy McVeigh blowing up some Federal Building in Oklahoma City because he was mad about Waco. The big point I’d say is that 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack in history but was hardly the first, and unfortunately people using violence and mass murder to advance their political goals is probably not over.

  4. I'm not sure I'd go as far as calling 9/11 the worst terrorist attack in history. Depends on how you define "terrorism." From ancient times through World War II you've had whole cities and populations destroyed, sometimes in the context of war (though still with the aim of terrorizing civilians) but sometimes by warlords, pirates or other "non-state actors." There's something of a natural fallacy here, because as soon as a given attack is big enough it tends to be reclassified as an act of war. Hence, "terrorism" almost by definition comes to refer to smaller attacks, and/or the "size" tends to be equated with spectacular-ness. (9/11 certainly tops the list of terrorist attacks captured on TV.)

    Speaking of this, I recommend re-viewing the 1998 movie The Siege in light of 9/11. Edward Zwick directs Denzel Washington as an FBI agent trying to stop a series of terrorist attacks in NYC. The movie correctly predicted some elements of the response to 9/11, including its early militarization -- although it confines the military response to domestic operations and suggests that the liberal rule of law will prevail in the end.

    My own writing on 9/11 argues that right from the early minutes, responses to the attacks were shoehorned into frameworks familiar from movies and TV. I think this may even go further than we've recognized, i.e. that the familiar template of a president responding to a crisis in a certain way -- a scene we've seen a thousand times in TV and movies -- led to the expectation that the US would respond in the way only a president can direct it to: through military attack. Mere unglamorous FBI work wasn't going to cut it, even if that would actually have been more effective (certainly more cost-effective) and more appropriate to what was basically a big crime. In other words, as soon as TV anchors started demanding (by about 9:30 a.m. on 9/11) that Bush get back to the White House, because that's how these things are done in movies, the event was bound to be thought of in military terms, and a military response was basically inevitable.

  5. I should make clear that I think The Siege is interesting both for what it got "right" and for what it got wrong. For instance, what we thankfully did NOT see after 9/11 were mass roundups of American Muslims and their confinement in concentration camps. As bad as Gitmo was/is, it's a shadow of what's imagined in the film (albeit much longer-lived). On the other hand, I wouldn't want to test whether the line against Muslim-bashing that Bush, to his credit, drew in the early going would have held if the attacks had been more spread out over time.

  6. I saw part of the wonderful movie "Heroes of the 88th Floor" on TLC late last night. Sorry to say I couldn't find it on the intertubes, just advertisements. A great story, which for whatever reason escaped my attention these past 10 years.

    A couple of Port Authority guys (Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz) help their fellow 88th floor employees scramble over debris to make it to the one usable exit; once in the stairwell they hear banging above, and then, in a mix of courage, quick thinking and great problem solving, go up a floor and get the 89th floor residents out too - a rescue without which several dozen folks on 89 would undoubtedly have died. The two kept going up, and never made it back down, though I confess I fell asleep after the 89th floor folks were freed.

    If you ever have the chance to see this documentary, I very highly recommend it. Somewhat akin to Jeff above, I find that this date contains an element of outsized jingoism as patriotism that at times feels a bit manipulative. De Martini and Ortiz's story is pure and simple and perfect. Its a bit early to say, but I could see myself primarily thinking of those attacks in the context of their great bravery. I do hope so.

  7. 1. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, by Mark Juergensmeyer

    2. Social Science for Counterterrorism
    Putting the Pieces Together, a Rand publication, available free here:

    PS: 9/11 was definitely not the worst terrorist attack in history; the worst attack was the Belsan elementary school attack in 2004.

  8. Springsteen's "The Rising" and the first season of "Battlestar Galactica" both do a really nice job of exploring the relevant themes of sudden and unexpected loss and vulnerability associated with 9/11.

    I recall a day or two after 9/11 pulling myself away from news coverage to watch the video for U2's "Stuck in a Moment," which had just become available on-line. The song predated 9/11 by a few months, but the song and video theme of being trapped in a bad memory and being unable to escape replaying it over and over again in one's mind reminded me a lot of watching the towers go down over and over again on CNN.

  9. I liked Richard Ford's Lay of the Land, the third of his Frank Bascombe series.


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