Words on the day of terror: Only time will bring clarity

Amid the huge outpouring of volumes on the attacks, the best so far are the eyewitness accounts

Books: Writing about Sept. 11

September 08, 2002|By Clare McHugh | By Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

Despite the fact that I live in Manhattan, less than seven miles from the World Trade Center, my experience of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, resembles that of millions of others: I watched it on TV. And, like lots of others in the days that followed, I walked around in numb disbelief. When, I wondered, would the reality of the atrocities sink in? Friends of friends were reported killed, Manhattan's streets were quiet, and for weeks if you ate at a New York City restaurant you never heard people laugh.

But it wasn't until mid-November that the events came into focus for me. I was waiting on a street corner holding hands with my son, a second-grader at the time, and a fire engine, siren wailing, slowed at the intersection to make a turn. The firefighters on the back of the engine came into view, and our eyes met briefly.

In that moment, as I looked into the weary, desolate faces of these men who no doubt had lost close friends at the World Trade Center -- and who were rushing to danger yet again -- the sadness enveloping the entire city, and the country, seemed palpable. And so did the sense of grim resolve. I waved to the firefighters, and they waved back. "Why are you crying, Mommy?" my son asked. "Because I never knew," I said. "I never knew our world was so fragile."

We all understand that fragility now, but the events of Sept. 11 largely remain beyond interpretation -- we are still too close to that day for history to parse and to explain how 19 fanatics with the support of who knows how many others, succeeded beyond their twisted dreams in carrying out mass murder in Lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Facts we have, or at least some of them, but the meaning is beyond us.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the attacks is that the perpetrators snuffed out the lives of thousands by exploiting the very openness of our society -- with its easy-to-access commercial airline system and loose control over who comes into the country and where they go once here. War may distract us, but only time will give the perspective and the distance needed to digest all that happened on what had dawned as a beautiful morning in much of America.

Right now, the books about 9 / 11 that are worth reading are the personal testimonies of those who were there. And since thanks to television we were all there, the field is open to many comers: politicians, novelists, reporters called to the scene, office workers caught in the maelstrom, firefighters and police officers doing their jobs, and little children trying to understand the unfathomable. Sure, some people were physically closer than others, but everyone has something to say. And judging from the tsunami of books emerging in the weeks around the anniversary, many, many have chosen to say it.

Unless it's a particular interest of yours, you can pass on any of the new histories of Islamic fundamentalism. People knew about the Nazis' anti-Semitism years before the Holocaust, yet those views and the Germans' "grievances" after World War I tell only part of the story of why six million Jews were slaughtered.

Skippable, too, is The Cell: Inside the 9 / 11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA failed to Stop It by John Miller, Michael Stone and Chris Mitchell (Hyperion, 304 pages, $24.95). TV journalist Miller and his collaborators throw together lots of information about how American officials tracked al-Qaeda for years but didn't follow up on the leads that might have prevented the attacks.

Most Americans know that the intelligence community failed in this case, on a scale unequalled in the country's history, but this book adds only new details, not new insights.

Out of the Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001 from Jihad to Ground Zero by Richard Bernstein and the staff of The New York Times (Times Books, 288 pages, $25) is a more comprehensive and thoughtful piece of writing, but if you've read the papers attentively for the last 12 months, you don't need this book.

Penetrating political and social analysis is not what's thick on the ground at this moment -- it's still primary sources time as people recount what they saw, and how they felt, and as photographers assemble their unforgettable images (see below.) Look to September 11: An Oral History by Dean E. Murphy (Doubleday, 224 pages, $22.95) for a well-written collection of the memories of people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that day. New York Times reporter Murphy found a wide range of front-line witnesses.

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