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How a Hacker Named P4x Took Down North Korea’s Internet

A North Korean hacker silhouetted against the North Korean flag
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Score one for the little guys. When an American security researcher — who goes by the handle P4x — got hacked by North Korea, the United States Government took little notice. To send a message, P4x wrote some code to take down North Korea’s internet. As Andy Greenberg reports in this fascinating story at Wired, North’s Korea’s internet presence is small, amounting to only a few dozen sites online.

P4x says he’s found numerous known but unpatched vulnerabilities in North Korean systems that have allowed him to singlehandedly launch “denial-of-service” attacks on the servers and routers the country’s few internet-connected networks depend on. For the most part, he declined to publicly reveal those vulnerabilities, which he argues would help the North Korean government defend against his attacks.

After P4x discovered North Korea’s vulnerabilities, he wrote a script to automate his attacks, which included denying access to email and other internet-based services. Not bad for a guy “in a T-shirt, pajama pants, and slippers, sitting in his living room night after night, watching Alien movies and eating spicy corn snacks—and periodically walking over to his home office to check on the progress of the programs he was running to disrupt the internet of an entire country.”

Those relatively simple hacking methods have had immediate effects. Records from the uptime-measuring service Pingdom show that at several points during P4x’s hacking, almost every North Korean website was down. (Some of those that stayed up, like the news site Uriminzokkiri.com, are based outside the country.) Junade Ali, a cybersecurity researcher who monitors the North Korean internet, says he began to observe what appeared to be mysterious, mass-scale attacks on the country’s internet starting two weeks ago and has since closely tracked the attacks without having any idea who was carrying them out.

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The Unlikely Hero in George Saunders’ Short Story, ‘The Falls’

Capsized green canoe wedged between rocks and whitewater rapids in the James River Richmond, Virginia.
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Short fiction? Yes! We’re trying an experiment. Read more stories.

Reading The Falls, a short story by George Saunders at The New Yorker, you’re privy to the self-centered thinking of two very different men on separate strolls around town. Morse is riddled with anxiety; a married father of two who second-guesses his parenting skills, his marriage, and every other thought. Cummings’ interior reel focuses on his as-yet-undiscovered greatness and the shock his family and local residents will feel when his greatness is finally revealed to all. But which of the two will rouse from their reverie to act when two young girls paddling in a canoe suddenly face danger? You’ll need to read the story to find out.

Morse was tall and thin and as gray and sepulchral as a church about to be condemned. His pants were too short, and his face periodically broke into a tense, involuntary grin that quickly receded, as if he had just suffered a sharp pain. At work he was known to punctuate his conversations with brief wild laughs and gusts of inchoate enthusiasm and subsequent embarrassment, expressed by a sudden plunging of his hands into his pockets, after which he would yank his hands out of his pockets, too ashamed of his own shame to stand there merely grimacing for even an instant longer.

…Morse, ha, Cummings thought, I’m glad I’m not Morse, a dullard in corporate pants trudging home to his threadbare brats in the gathering loam, born, like the rest of his ilk with their feet of clay thrust down the maw of conventionality, content to cheerfully work lemminglike in moribund cubicles while comparing their stocks and bonds between bouts of tedious lawnmowing, then chortling while holding their suckling brats to the Nintendo breast.

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What Death Means to Love and What Love Means to Death

The mossy base of a tree that has died and fallen over.
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In this poignant and thoughtful essay at Emergence Magazine, Melanie Challenger considers deep questions about precisely how people differ from animals and how our humanity — this idea that our consciousness is superior to that of plants and animals — has allowed us to justify prioritizing our own well being and survival over all living things, to the detriment of the planet. But how has human exceptionalism affected the environment and the life within it? Challenger asks us to apply our vast human mental capacity to putting real thought and action into preserving a true legacy — a healthy, thriving environment for the good of future generations: “How can we escape a cycle in which we look out on nature, fear the realities we see, arm ourselves with a false narrative of our own superiority, and, in so doing, hobble our moral agency?”

In other words, we are protected against the worst of our cruelties, whereas other species can be exploited, killed, and their homes destroyed, because they are mere bodies, but we are beings.

Unsurprisingly, this belief system is toxic to the rest of life on our planet. If it’s only the human essence that truly matters, then it doesn’t matter that we—this special thinking animal—are killing and endangering the evolutionary pathways of hundreds of thousands of other species on our planet. Because if we tell ourselves that only our special human essence has value, then only we truly matter on this Earth. And by this logic, as long as we pursue human needs, we are doing good in the world, regardless of any wider destructive consequences. That is one hell of a bias.

Today our major societies continue to justify our damaging impacts on Earth and other life forms on this basis. When interrogated, however, the idea of human exceptionalism can be extraordinarily difficult to ground in reality. That is because, at its heart, it is a belief rather than a fact. It is a belief about the value and quality of humanity. It is a belief that human uniqueness allows us both to endure and to triumph. It is the idea to which we default when confronted by human activities that seem to run counter to our moral high ground. The most common form this idea takes is the argument that humans have a special kind of intelligence from which full moral worth and duties follow. But other common forms of exceptionalism rely on the soul or personhood or the idea of “dignity.” We rarely allow ourselves to consider how odd these moral convictions are. But when we dig into them, we soon realize we will have to meet with Death to truly understand them.

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Going into Starbucks to Order Butter Tea

A Changpa boy sips from a cup of steaming yak-butter tea.
A Changpa boy sips from a cup of steaming yak-butter tea. (Photo by David Bathgate/Corbis via Getty Images)

Short fiction? Yes! We’re trying an experiment.

Toronto in winter is the backdrop for Sharon Bala‘s riveting short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks,” published at The New Quarterly. This piece, layered with deep tensions between immediate family and between countries, is told by Pema, a young Tibetan woman caught in the middle. Pema’s sister Karma is struggling to meet a newborn’s demands while trying to assert her independence over their parents, traditional Tibetans who are in conflict with the father of their new granddaughter. In the epicenter of the domestic strife and conflict unfolding in Toronto — sharply juxtaposed with a horrific self-immolation in protest against China’s treatment of Tibet — is newborn Sophia.

The flames flap with a noise like laundry on a line. The fire is an orange column. A plastic bag pirouettes in mid-air. The camera, unsteady, lingers and lingers. And in the middle, the figure stands upright, stoic or suicidal. Pema thinks: she’s already dead.

It is Pema’s duty to marry a Tibetan, to have sweet- faced almond-skinned children. She wants to do her part. But when she plays scrabble with Jamal and Karma she wants what they have too.

Find a Tibetan? Karma raises one eyebrow high on her forehead; the eyebrow says I’m above all this nonsense. Here? That’s like going into Starbucks and ordering butter tea.

Pema’s parents and her sister are like warring nations, old foes skirmishing over a boundary line that shifts imperceptibly, never gaining any ground. What they need is a mediator, someone to broker a peace agreement.

Pema unscrews the nipple off the bottle and tries to think of a neutral topic. For a decade, it was just the three of them. By the time Pema arrived, the unexpected child, there was no place for a fourth party in the fray.

Amala asks about the baby. She calls her Tenzin Dolma.

Her name is Sophia, Karma says.

Pema is surprised. When had this been decided? Tenzin Dolma. Pala speaks with authority. This name will bring her good fortune.

Were you in labour for sixteen hours? Karma’s voice jumps up. Her name is Sophia Naomi Wilson.

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The Complicated Capitalism of Plastics

People pouring champagne into plastic glasses on a picnic table.
Plastic at the picnic. (Getty Images)

Interested in further reading on plastics? Editor Seyward Darby recommends “How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us” by Jeannette Cooperman at The Common Reader in our Top 5 Picks of the Week. Sign up to receive our Top 5 reads on Fridays.

At The Atlantic, Rebecca Altman examines the history of plastics, the first elements of which were conceived as a way to make money from the byproducts of antifreeze production. Altman helps us follow the carcinogenic compounds — and the money trail — through the Second World War straight into the American living room (Tupperware parties!) and out the back door with the trash, as disposable plastics were heavily marketed to keep profits flowing.

The piece is a fascinating history lesson on how humans prioritize short-term profits and immediate convenience over the future of the planet. While the Earth absorbs capitalism’s toxic byproducts and climate change is in full swing, we tout recycling, which for plastics is fraught, complicated, and largely unsuccessful.

Dad once believed that plastics could be reused indefinitely. I imagine that, maybe, he thought plastics, like their makers, deserved the chance to begin again. When Union Carbide downsized in the 1970s, Dad took severance and stayed home with my siblings until he could figure out what a life beyond plastics might look like. The answer, it turned out, was public administration: For a time, he ran my hometown’s recycling program. Recycling, though, never lived up to Dad’s ideal. Of all the plastics made over his lifetime, less than 10 percent has been effectively repurposed.

This failure, like so many other aspects of our relationship with plastics, is often framed in terms of individual shortcomings; plastics’ producers, or the geopolitics that have made plastics so widespread, are rarely called out. But to read plastics’ history is to discover another story: Demand for plastic has been as manufactured as plastics themselves. Society is awash in throwaway plastics not because of the logic of desire but because of the logic of history and of integrated industrial systems.

For decades, the industry has created the illusion that its problems are well under control, all while intensifying production and promotion. More plastics have been made over the past two decades than during the second half of the 20th century. Today, recycling is a flailing, failing system—and yet it is still touted as plastics’ panacea. No end-of-the-pipe fix can manage mass plastics’ volume, complex toxicity, or legacy of pollution, and the industry’s long-standing infractions against human health and rights.

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Our Most-Read Longreads Originals of 2021

Longreads' Most-Read Original Stories in 2021
All "best of" featured images by Kjell Reigstad.

It’s that time of year again! Our annual year-end series has evolved over the past decade, but our aim remains the same: to collect and share the very best in longform nonfiction storytelling across the web. Today, we’re thrilled to kick off our Best of 2021 collection with this list of the 10 most-read stories and essays on our site.

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1. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Lost Album, Human Highway

David Gambacorta | Longreads | March 2021 | 15 minutes (4,190 words)

How CSNY fumbled a chance to record their best album.

2. Shelved: Dr. Dre’s Detox

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March, 2021 | 6 minutes (1,743 words)

Killer beats, huge hype, and failure to follow through. Read more…

‘We Are Alive’: Six Longreads About Music

Shovels & Rope in 2019. Photo by Krista Stevens.

By Krista Stevens

My earliest memories involve music. At first, we had an ancient turntable, a penny taped to its arm to prevent it from skipping. My dad loved Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Elvis. My mom was into Simon & Garfunkel and Jim Reeves, a guy I thought profoundly uncool in his knitted cardigan. Later, I remember waking up early on a Saturday morning to watch cartoons, the Creedence Clearwater Revival 8-Track still kathunking along, blaring “Bad Moon Rising” and “Down on the Corner” hours after my parents had gone to bed following a night of beers and tunes. It took both hands for me to yank that tape out so I could hear the TV. Later still, I recall dance parties at my auntie’s house. With the dining room table pushed to the side of the room, adults and kids alike would be twistin’ the night away along with Sam Cooke. It cost almost nothing; it was fun we could afford. Everyone was happy. I still know all the words to all those songs.

Let me tell you ‘bout a place
Somewhere up a New York way
Where the people are so gay
Twistin’ the night away

Later in life I learned to play guitar and bass, forever chasing that singular thrill of being immersed in music I love. I wanted to get to know it more deeply, from the inside. I’m forever obsessed with all things musical: artists, their inspiration, their craft, their dedication, their instruments, their foibles. When a piece appears on any of these topics, I can’t resist. So here, for the love of it, are six pieces related to music.

Here they have a lot of fun
Puttin’ trouble on the run
Man, you find the old and young
Twistin’ the night away

 

Trigger: The Life of Willie Nelson’s Guitar (Michael Hall, Texas Monthly, December 2012)

For 52 years, Willie Nelson has played the same instrument: A 1969 Martin N-20 classical guitar called Trigger. In this masterful profile, Nelson and Trigger share equal billing as Hall recounts the musician’s career and the meticulous maintenance that keeps Trigger in tune, after more than five decades and thousands of performances.

Erlewine looks forward to Trigger’s semiannual physicals. He oils the bridge and cleans the fretboard, the wood of which is so eroded it looks like waves between the frets. Then comes the lacquering. The mottled area just above the sound hole shows the effects of fifty coats of lacquer applied over 35 years. The darker parts are colored by dirt and dead skin that can’t be removed; the lighter parts are where Willie has dug deep into the spruce. Erlewine carefully rubs the gouges in the wood that run parallel to the strings between the bridge and the sound hole, a sign of the force with which Willie plays.

Like A Shovel and A Rope (Michael Ramsey, Oxford American, November 2019)

In the fall of 2019, we attended a small music festival outside of Athens, Georgia, to see Shovels & Rope, a husband and wife duo who handle all their own guitar, vocals, keys, and percussion, trading duties often during the show. When he’s singing and playing guitar, she’s behind the kit with a stick in one hand and a shaker in the other, singing harmony. When you’re standing there, in front of the stage, and the music envelopes you, it’s hard to believe that there are only two people up there making that magic happen in such an intimate performance. Ramsey’s piece takes you backstage and introduces you to Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent in an ethereal braided essay that intersperses his personal experiences along with the story of the duo’s musical career.

Most rock songs, you imagine either that you’re the singer or that you’re the one being sung to; with Shovels & Rope, you imagine the gate is open and the backyard is full and you’re singing along.

Many of their best songs have a deliberateness on the topic of how to build a life, both wistful and hard-edged. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,” they sing on “Birmingham,” their origin-myth anthem, “two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”

The Spirit of Neil Peart (Brian Hiatt, Rolling Stone, January, 2021)

At Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt wrote a loving tribute to Neil Peart, the late drummer for the Canadian band Rush, published one year after Peart’s death from brain cancer. What I loved about Hiatt’s piece is that despite the fact that I have never been a fan of Rush, I came away with huge admiration for Peart as a music professional. Here’s a highly acclaimed drummer with decades of experience who remained a student at heart, always wanting to improve as a musician.

In May 1994, at the Power Station recording studio in New York, Peart gathered together great rock and jazz drummers, from Steve Gadd to Matt Sorum to Max Roach, for a tribute album he was producing for the great swing drummer Buddy Rich. Peart noticed one of the players, Steve Smith, had improved strikingly since the last time he had seen him, and learned that he studied with the jazz guru Freddie Gruber. In the year of his 42nd birthday, while he was already widely considered to be the greatest rock drummer alive, Peart sought out Gruber and started taking drum lessons. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012.

Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar (Lavinia Spalding, AFAR, June 2019)

As a music student, every new song I learn, every new technique earned, is a small victory. (I’m looking at you, groovy and challenging bass line to Taj Mahal’s “Diving Duck Blues.”) I can’t imagine flying across the world to show up at a master’s door hoping to gain a particular kind of instruction, but that’s precisely what Lavinia Spalding did when she traveled to Spain to become a tocaora, a female flamenco guitarist. Dedicated music students will be able to identify with the sweetness of improvement, often evidenced by the physical discomfort that accompanies it.

I’ve been in Spain only two days, and already my fingers hurt. It’s a prickly, high-pitched sting, like when a fallen-asleep limb returns to life. The sensation delights me. It means I’m doing something right.

Living With Dolly Parton (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 2018)

How do you question a living legend? With grace, care, and deep respect, as it turns out. For Longreads, Jessica Wilkerson took a closer look at the business interests of singer, songwriter, musician, and philanthropist Dolly Parton. There’s no question that Dolly’s work for literacy and science has done a lot of good. But, could Dolly do better? Wilkerson thinks so.

The love for Dolly that I learned was one without doubt. To question one’s devotion to Dolly Parton is to turn the world upside-down. Indeed, it is to question one’s investment in, and rehearsals of, mythologies of whiteness, which are rarely spoken, rarely noted as white. “Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach,” Sara Ahmed writes. Dolly Parton was crucial to my own orientation.

Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives.

I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.

We Are Alive (David Remnick, The New Yorker, July 2012)

The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen live was on October 31st, 1992 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, about 20 years before David Remnick would write this stunning profile. It was a momentous evening — they wheeled Bruce out in a coffin perched on a dolly, and he popped out to start the show with “Spirits in the Night.” It was the first of many performances I’d see in Minneapolis, Fargo, and even Milwaukee, thanks to being married to a Bruce fanatic. I appreciate Springsteen’s music, but I’m not a massive fan, until I get to the show. Anyone who loves music knows it has the power to move them, be it to tears, to sing along, or to dance. At Springsteen shows, I’ve felt my heart and spirit soar when the Fargodome roof almost blew off during the show closer “Light of Day.” I’ve had the hair stand up on the back of my neck with the opening strains of “The Rising,” an experience that was so intense it continues to this day, happening whenever the song comes on the radio. What I love about Remnick’s profile is that he makes Bruce seem like a regular person, despite being someone whose superpower is conjuring life-altering feeling and emotion in even the most casual fans. He’s a guy whose job happens to be running the E Street Band, the Boss who pays their salaries and struggles at times too — both creatively and with his mental health. A man who, even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, is one of us.

After all these years onstage, he can stand back from his performances with an analytic remove. “You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,” he told me. “But you are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.”

78 Revolutions Around the Sun: A Joni Mitchell Reading List

LOS ANGELES, CA - 1970: Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell plays her guitar at her home circa 1970 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

By Krista Stevens 

When Rolling Stoneintroduced” Joni Mitchell in 1969, the magazine derided her as a composer, singer, and musician, saying that she was “Not bad for a girl who had no voice training, hated to read in school, and learned guitar from a Pete Seeger instruction record.” They go on — dismissing her songs as “contrived” — to suggest that listeners are smitten despite their better judgment. “She can charm the applause out of audience [sic],” the editors wrote, “by breaking a guitar string, then apologizing by singing her next number a capella, wounded guitar at a limp parade rest. And when she talks, words stumble out of her mouth to form candid little quasi – anecdotes that are completely antithetical to her carefully constructed, contrived songs. But they knock the audience out almost every time.”

If Rolling Stone didn’t get it at first, her musical contemporaries did. David Crosby (The Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) knew immediately that Mitchell was something special. In the two-part 2020 documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, Crosby recounts inviting Eric Clapton over for the afternoon. Clapton sat, mesmerized by Mitchell’s playing and her altered guitar tunings. (Some of that mesmerization was probably due to all the weed, but let’s not allow that to take away from Mitchell and her guitar skills.) Crosby and Clapton weren’t the only ones who saw the genius in Joni.

To hear him talk about his then lady-love in Laurel Canyon, you get the strong impression that Graham Nash (The Hollies, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) still isn’t over her, 40 years later. “I was in love from the moment that I ever spent any time with her,” says Nash, who wrote the song “Our House” about his relationship with Mitchell. Do you ever really get over the woman who took up with James Taylor after she wrote most of her highly acclaimed album, Blue, in your communal living room?


Staring at the fire
For hours and hours while I listen to you
Play your love songs all night long for me
Only for me

—”Our House” by Graham Nash, recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

BIG SUR, CA – SEPTEMBER 14-15: Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell clap during an act at the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Esalen Institue on September 14-15, 1969 in Big Sur, California. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Canadian painter, poet, composer, musician, singer-songwriter, guitarist, alternate-tuning queen, alto, and overall doyenne Joni Mitchell turns 78 on November 7th. Join as we celebrate Mitchell with five longreads about a brilliant artist whose career has spanned 60 years.

1) Still Travelling (Ellen Willis, The New Yorker, February 1973)

Ellen Willis gets it, or at least she’s trying to. Sort of. Maybe. In this short commentary on Blue, which was released in 1971, Willis says that “‘Blue’ established Joni Mitchell as a better singer-songwriter than Crosby, Stills, Nash & [James] Taylor combined,” but let’s not confuse compositional skill with easy likability. “Joni’s melodies and lyrics and rhythms are so rich and complicated and un-pop-songlike, her voice such a subtle instrument, her artistic pretensions so overt that if the record were any less brilliant it would be a disaster.”

2) Face to Face (Maclean’s, June 1974)

In this piece, Mitchell has a wide-ranging conversation with Malka Marom, the Iraeli singer credited with discovering her. Mitchell is at the ripe old age of 30 here and we get to learn a little bit about her in her own words. Three whole years after the album’s release, I love her personal assessment of Blue: “[It], for the most part, holds up. But there are some early songs where there is too much naïvité in some of the lyrics for me to be able now to project convincingly.”

3) Harness Joni Mitchell’s Acoustic Imagination with this Primer on Dulcimers, Altered Tunings and Cluster Chords (George Howlett, Guitar World, August 2020)

For music students, this short primer on Mitchell’s many altered tunings is fascinating not only for how she approached the guitar. It also features behind-the-scenes recording anecdotes and detail on the people and genres that influenced her music.

4) In Joni Mitchell’s Self-Portraits, She Finally Makes Her Own Image (Janique Vigier, Garage, January 2019)

At the time of this writing, Vigier notes that Mitchell had painted album covers for 12 or her studio albums, many of which were self-portraits. Those paintings allowed Mitchell to reject and transcend the milk-complected, doe-eyed image many people had of her. “But her self-portraits have endless scripts, moving between genres and styles, copying from where they can,” Vigier writes. “If she can, as she does, construct her own self-image and legacy, then it will be less stable than what’s put forward, more instinctual, intentional, veering.”

5) Chords of Inquiry (Bookforum, Carl Wilson, October 2017)

This piece opens with a fantastic anecdote involving Prince and Mitchell and just gets better from there. In this review of Reckless Daughter, David Yaffe’s Mitchell biography, Carl Wilson gives Mitchell her due as a guitarist and an artist. “Mitchell excelled at channeling the subconscious of her time, especially as it was negotiated between men and women, but she was also always trying to get outside that orbit. She didn’t want to be a case of anything, except herself. The very chords she played were unique, belonging to no tradition except the one she generated with her own tuning system. She’s called them her ‘chords of inquiry—they have a question mark in them.’ It wasn’t until she began working with jazz musicians that she found a band that could follow her (the rock dudes were hopeless).”

Twenty Years Later: A 9/11 Reading List

The 9/11 Memorial Reflection Pool in New York City.

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.”

The Deadly Fentanyl Fraud Between the Doctor and the Pharmacist

(Getty Images)

George Otto was a doctor who hadn’t paid his taxes and needed to earn extra to get square with the Canada Revenue Agency. Shereen El-Azrak was a pharmacist trying to provide for extended family in Canada and Cairo. As Brett Popplewell reports at Toronto Life, the pair worked with two drug-addicted dealers to purvey Fentanyl on the street in Ontario, Canada, at $350 CDN a patch, putting addicted Canadians at risk of overdose and death. And the reason? Simply to pad their own pockets.

He’d turn on his computer and write patient charts before his first appointments started filing into the clinic at around 10 a.m. He often treated as many as 80 people in a 10-hour shift. Then, after he was done seeing patients for the day, he’d begin his other work. The work no one could find out about. The work that would destroy his life, along with hundreds of others.

At some point after teaming up with Otto, El-Azrak brought him a new proposal. In recent months, she’d developed a lucrative side hustle, dispensing fraudulent fentanyl scripts. She worked with a few other doctors, who would write the scripts and pass them to drug dealers, who would sell them on the street. He could earn as much as $9,000 per week if he came on as a primary partner. Otto, no stranger to gaming the system, quickly agreed.

In June 2015 alone, Otto took home $33,000 from the scheme. The cash helped pay for the extravagant life he’d set up for himself and his family. It kept his jacuzzi hot and his Lexus fuelled. He had no idea who was using those fentanyl patches in Sudbury, who was overdosing, who was dying. Those people were so far removed from the life he’d built that they didn’t matter to him at all.

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