Twenty Years Later: A 9/11 Reading List

Six stories on the immediate and ongoing aftermath of the attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001.

On Tuesday September 11th, 2001 I was at my desk in the Communications Department at Boeing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The radio was on. Just after 8 a.m. local time, breaking news reported that an airplane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. I imagined a small plane, perhaps a Cessna. A horrible accident, but hopefully one with few casualties, I told myself. I could not have been more wrong.

As more reports came in, we found the only conference room in the building that had a television set with a cable feed. As colleagues converged on the room, we watched in disbelief when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower and in horror as the towers fell less than two hours later. Parts of the two Boeing 767s and Boeing 757s used in the attacks had been hand-made and assembled in our building. We could not believe that four aircraft we’d helped make with love and pride had been used to cause terror and death. We were stunned, silent.

As the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaches, here are six stories about the tragedy and its ongoing aftermath. In curating this list — out of so many stories written in response to the events of that day — I found myself drawn mostly to ones published in the past few years.

1) What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind (Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic, September 2021)

Bobby McIlvaine was 26 years old when he died at the Twin Towers in Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. Reporter Jennifer Senior knew Bobby and the McIlvaine family; senior’s brother had been Bobby’s roommate. Senior’s impeccably paced story is a deep study in grief: How grief differs for everyone. How some guard theirs and others rail, both pitted against something that can never be truly assuaged. Senior reminds us that memory is fallible even in, or perhaps even because of, the most tragic circumstances. That life as a survivor remains exactly that — surviving — day-by-day, knowing you are forever in the after and your loved one is forever in the before.

Then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Bobby headed off to a conference at Windows on the World, a restaurant in a building to which he seldom had reason to go, for a media-relations job at Merrill Lynch he’d had only since July. My brother waited and waited. Bobby never came home. From that point forward, I watched as everyone in the blast radius of this horrible event tried to make sense of it, tried to cope.

Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.

It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”

This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.

That therapist was certainly right, however, in the most crucial sense: After September 11, those who had been close to Bobby all spun off in very different directions. Helen stifled her grief, avoiding the same supermarket she’d shopped in for years so that no one would ask how she was. Jeff, Bobby’s lone sibling, had to force his way through the perdition of survivor’s guilt. Bob Sr. treated his son’s death as if it were an unsolved murder, a cover-up to be exposed.

2) The Falling Man (Tom Junod, Esquire, September 2003)

“The Falling Man” by Tom Junod is among the canon of pieces that surface in my mind now and again, ones I reread because they’re unforgettable. What touched me when I first read the piece in 2003 and continues to resonate today, is the humanity of the man captured by photographer Richard Drew. Amid unimaginable catastrophe, this unknown man — one who became controversially symbolic of the senseless tragedy of 9/11 — accepts his fate with dignity. He does not struggle. He does not flail. Faced with certain death, he chose the way in which he left this world and in his leaving, blessed us with his grace.

But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky—falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame—the Falling Man—became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves.

The photographer is no stranger to history; he knows it is something that happens later. In the actual moment history is made, it is usually made in terror and confusion, and so it is up to people like him—paid witnesses—to have the presence of mind to attend to its manufacture.

In most American newspapers, the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man ran once and never again. Papers all over the country, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to The Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man’s death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography. Most letters of complaint stated the obvious: that someone seeing the picture had to know who it was. Still, even as Drew’s photograph became at once iconic and impermissible, its subject remained unnamed.

In a nation of voyeurs, the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though the jumpers’ experience, instead of being central to the horror, was tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.

3) An Oral History of The Onion’s 9/11 Issue (Brian VanHooker, MEL Magazine, June 2020)

In September 2001, The Onion staff had only just moved to Manhattan, from Madison, Wisconsin. When satire and comedy are what you do, how do you respond to tragedy in your brand-new backyard? With great care, as it turns out.

Hanson: Our normal, irreverent, edgy, cynical, dark humor wasn’t going to be emotionally appropriate with this situation.

Loew: At some point we realized, “Oh my God, this is going to be the first print paper we’re going to drop on the streets of New York City!” So we had to make it about 9/11, because if we made it about Cheetos or some silly stuff, that would be offensive. But this was terrifying because we’re these kids from Wisconsin coming into New York City and we’re going to drop this silly comedy paper about this horrific tragedy. So we knew we had to get it right — it was like threading the eye of the needle.

Loew: We all got back in and we all sat together, pitching headlines, trying to find the right tone. We’ve got to cover it from this angle, we’ve got to cover it from that angle. What about the average person at home, how are they handling it? That’s where “Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” comes from. We have to capture some of this righteous anger, so “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell.” The one that always tickled me was “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York.”

4) Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America (Sorayya Khan, Longreads, September 2017)

In her personal essay, Sorayya Khan recounts the clueless curiosity, microaggressions, and overt racism she endured as a brown immigrant in America. Later, as a mother she relates having to explain that Muslims had perpetrated the attacks, knowing she would be unable to protect her sons, aged 9 and 5, from a deeply wounded and vengeful white America.

Before the week was out, a boy his age told Kamal on the bus that he would come to our house and kill us all. He’d been Kamal’s second grade classmate when he bragged about owning a shotgun, a detail we discussed over dinner. I knew his father, as much as I could know a man who dressed in fatigues on Tuesday afternoons and said nothing while we waited by the classroom door to take our children to after school activities. The boy’s name was Gunner, not yet irony, merely fact, like his eyes that were set not quite right and the blond crop of unruly hair which fell over them. The same day, also on the bus, another child called Shahid a terrorist. Our kindergartener understood the import, but not the word, and at bedtime he insisted on a precise definition. Naeem explained that the pejorative term depends on which side of a fight you’re on. Terrorist is complicated when you’re a political science professor speaking to a five-year-old who is your son, has been to Pakistan, and like all five-year-olds, understands a thing or two about justice.

One afternoon on the school bus, with no better grasp of the term, Shahid was again called a terrorist, and this time a boy named Rich told him he was going to kill him. “Only Gunner has guns, right?” Shahid asked when he got off the bus. Right away, I telephoned the principal who promised to take care of the matter. Trusting that he had, we put Shahid on the bus the next morning, but on the afternoon ride it happened again. We met with the principal who said he’d dropped the ball. Despite the sports analogy, the Americanism never failed to fail me, as if it should be possible to make things right by locating a dropped ball, picking it up, and putting it in its place.

5) The Mystery of 9/11 and Dementia (Patrick Hruby, The Washington Post Magazine, August 2021)

The emotional toll of September 11th is a heavy price families and loved ones have paid every day since. As Patrick Hruby reports at The Washington Post Magazine, first responders are now suffering health consequences after prolonged exposure to airborne chemicals and toxins during the immediate post-attack search and rescue and in the months-long cleanup that followed at Ground Zero. Responders, many of whom are in their 50s, don’t just suffer emotional aftershocks like sleep disturbances and PTSD. Physical ailments, which started with breathing and gastrointestinal issues just after the attacks, now include cancers as well as memory problems and cognitive impairment at three times the rate of others in their age group.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: Rescue workers help one another after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo by Matt Moyer/Corbis via Getty Images)

Ron was one of the tens of thousands of police, firefighters, construction workers and others who worked amid the ruins of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan following 9/11. Like many of those responders, he later paid a price. Diagnosed with asthma and a lung disease both linked to Ground Zero exposure, Ron retired on disability in 2009 and moved to Arizona.

By 2014, however, Ron’s troubles with thinking and memory were becoming unmanageable. Back in New York, he had deftly maneuvered a fire engine along the city’s crowded streets; now, he struggled to parallel park the family’s SUV inside two spaces. He would put toothpaste on his toothbrush and not know what to do with it. He was let go from his security job — in part, Dawn says, because he struggled to use a smartphone.

Ron’s condition is almost unheard of for a 59-year-old man, and it points to an emerging medical mystery: Twenty years after 9/11, Ground Zero first responders are suffering from abnormally high rates of cognitive impairment, with some individuals in their 50s experiencing deficiencies that typically manifest when people are in their 70s — if at all.

Of the 818 responders Clouston and his colleagues first tested, 104 had scores indicative of cognitive impairment, a condition that can range from mild to severe and that occurs when people have trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating or making decisions that affect their everyday lives. Ten others scored low enough to have possible dementia. Clouston was stunned. As a group, the responders were relatively young. Many had to pass mentally demanding tests to become police officers and firefighters in the first place. They were some of the last individuals you would expect to be impaired, let alone at roughly three times the rate of people in their 70s. “We should have seen — maybe — one person” with dementia, he says. “And we had way too many people showing impairment. It looked like what I’m used to seeing when we study 75-year-olds. It was staggering.

6) The Children of 9/11 Are About to Vote (Garrett M. Graff, Politico, September 2020)

As Garrett M. Graff reports, 13,238 Americans were born on September 11th, 2001. In 2020, they turned 19 and were eligible to vote in a U.S. presidential election for the first time. How has growing up in a post-9/11 world saturated by social media, amid near-daily mass shootings and racial inequality, shaped their politics and their worldview? Graff interviewed 19 of them to find out.

The interviews do not represent a strict, scientific cross section of the 67 million children of Generation Z, but collectively they capture a portrait of a generation entering politics seemingly with a more clear-eyed sense of America’s place in the world—a country that still represents hope and opportunity to millions around the globe, yet is no longer the unchallenged superpower or champion of Western values that perhaps it was for previous generations.

Chloe: Every single day since I was born, we haven’t been in a time where we’re at peace.

Tawny: The main mindset growing up with that—actually something that I am ashamed to admit—was this deep-rooted fear, this Arab-phobia. “Oh, these are the bad people.” which was certainly not my parents’ intention when teaching me about 9/11. I think a lot of Americans who grew up after 9/11 grew up with that kind of racism. Anytime you go on an airplane and you saw someone of that race or ethnicity, you get a little uneasy. Thankfully, that’s something I grew out of, and I definitely worked on.

Chloe: When I was younger, my feelings about America were more classic, patriotic, Fourth of July, red, white and blue. You’re proud to be American because of the way that our country values hard work and capitalism. Right now, for me, I would say that being an American is being empathetic to everyone from all different types of backgrounds and races and understanding them, and understanding what they’re doing here in our country. Everyone here is an American.

As Adsel told me, “Millennials are a lot more weary—they came into adulthood during the recession, they lived through 9/11. I think their view is a lot more depressing. Whereas Gen Z—our generation—things can only get better. We’ve been born with the backdrop of 9/11, we’ve lived through shootings, we’ve lived through very polarizing politics, we have the pandemic.”