The 9/11 terrorist attacks not only killed 3,000 innocent people in New York and Washington, D.C., but also shattered the post-Cold War peace Americans had become accustomed to during the 1990s. Suddenly the U.S was plunged into a worldwide fight against terrorism. There were new security procedures at airports and office buildings. And, of course, new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Sept. 11 was one of those history-making events that we will always be grappling with. Below, some of the books, movies and podcasts that have done the most to bring clarity to the tragedy.
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WHAT TO READ
“102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers”
Unimaginably gripping, this book by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn is arguably the best record of the attacks themselves. The title refers to the span of time between American Airlines 11 hitting the South Tower at 8:46 AM and 10:28 AM, when the North Tower collapsed.
With incredible detail, Dwyer and Flynn recreate the fight to survive as thousands of people inside the World Trade Center complex tried to make sense of the morning’s events. Some hurried down to street level. Others called loved ones to assure them that all was well.
The authors “unflinchingly place the reader in the minds and hearts of the people who actually confronted our worst fears,” James B. Stewart wrote in his New York Times review of the book. “I suspect that you, like me, will read this book in a single suspenseful sitting, even though we know the ending.”
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“The Falling Man”
In his 2003 story for Esquire, acclaimed writer Tom Junod tried to answer one of the enduring mysteries of the attacks: Who is the subject of the famous “Falling Man” photograph, which shows a figure plunging with almost haunting serenity from the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
The story is less about the answer than about the tragic plight of the people who, faced with infernal conditions inside the burning towers, jumped to their deaths.
“They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died,” Junod writes.
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“The Real Heroes Are Dead”
This powerful New Yorker story memorializes Rick Rescorla, a fascinating figure who died on 9/11 in the midst of trying to save people from the South Tower. As one of Rescorla’s friends from military service in Vietnam says, “There are certain men born in this world, and they’re supposed to die setting an example for the rest of the weak bastards we’re surrounded with.” Beautifully written, this is a story filled with adventure, romance—and, yes, loss.
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“What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind”
Jennifer Senior won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2021 article in The Atlantic about a 26-year-old Merrill Lynch who was attending an event at the Windows of the World restaurant atop the North Tower when the building was struck by American Airlines 11.
Senior had known Bobby, who roomed with her brother at Princeton. “The boy was incandescent. When he smiled it looked for all the world like he’d swallowed the moon,” Senior writes.
The story is less about the attack itself but about the monumental grief that followed.
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WHAT TO WATCH
French documentarians Jules and Gédéon Naudet were in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, to shoot a documentary about a TriBeCa firehouse. That was not, however, the movie they wound up making.
Instead, the Naudets got unprecedented access to the New York Fire Department’s heroic response, which saw companies from across the city flock to the World Trade Centers. The documentary shows scenes of confusion, destruction and valor. Working in unimaginable conditions, New York’s Bravest ascended high into the towers to rescue as many civilians as they could.
In all, 343 members of the NYFD would die on 9/11. But, as Jim Dwyer would later write in The New York Times, “Thanks in large part to the Naudet film, the world witnessed the valor of emergency responders on 9/11.”
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Zero Dark Thirty
On the evening of May 1, 2011, President Obama announced that 9/11 mastermind and Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden had been killed during an audacious raid inside Pakistan by members of the American military. It was a moment of closure many thought they would never see.
Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film, which stars Jessica Chastain as an intelligence analyst,
dramatizes the search for Bin Laden, which took more than a decade, spanned continents and culminated in an audacious Navy SEALS assault on his walled compound.
Though some criticized the film as propaganda, it unflinchingly shows the cruelty of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” also known as torture. As for the raid that took out the terrorist leader, Bigelow recreates it with heart-pounding skill.
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WHAT TO LISTEN TO
In the years after the terrorist attacks, “9/12” became shorthand for life in a new world: a world of airport pat-downs, color-coded warnings and foreign wars. 9/12, a popular podcast from Pineapple Street Studios, is about how people tried to make sense of the attacks. One episode is about The Onion, a humorous magazine facing the question of how to make light of a dark time; another is about a leader in Brooklyn’s Muslim community, which came under intense scrutiny after the attacks.
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