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Sifting new facts and analysis

By Jesse Singal
September 11, 2011

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It’s no wonder that in the decade since the attacks, a veritable subgenre of 9/11 nonfiction has risen. The attacks, after all, could be examined in a myriad of ways, from blow-by-blow accounts of their planning and execution to oral histories from victims and witnesses to examinations of how America’s foreign policy shifted after the towers fell. Each of these books attempts to peel off one layer, to extract something useful or fascinating from that awful day.

■ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, “The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States’’ (2004): It’s not often that a government report climbs bestseller lists and garners praise from a New York Times book critic as “an improbable literary triumph.’’ But in this case the recognition is deserved. The report, produced by a staff of dozens, is a must-read for anyone who wants an authoritative accounting of the most important facts of 9/11: from in-depth examinations of how the hijackers trained to criticism of law enforcement’s inability to adapt to the threat of terrorism in the decades before the tragedy.

Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda’’ (2011): Two New York Times reporters explain the sea change that has taken place in American counterterrorism policy since around 2005, when a consensus emerged that the old model wasn’t up to the task of tracking down enemies who tended to lack tanks and armies. “Counterstrike’’ provides a detailed look at the changes that have occurred and the personalities behind those decisions, as well as the complicated global chessboard of terror networks and sympathetic governments that made adaptation so vital.

Editors of Popular Mechanics, “Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts’’ (2006): Popular Mechanics upends many of the doggedly persistent conspiracy theories that sprang from the rubble of 9/11, from the notion that the hijackers couldn’t possibly have had enough training to fly the planes accurately to the idea that the towers were actually brought down by some sort of controlled demolition. There’s useful technical information in this slim book for the science or engineering-inclined, but the more interesting question of why people believe these things is mostly left alone.

Dr. Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin, “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors’’ (2011): A companion to a documentary on the same subject, “Project Rebirth’’ follows a journalist and a psychoanalyst who introduce us to eight people who lost a loved one in the attacks. There are some differences in the experiences of the bereaved, but for the most part, each discovers that “mourning has a far more messy and unpredictable texture’’ than they might’ve once guessed. This is an honest and heartbreaking short book that largely sidesteps the kind of maudlin storytelling it could’ve easily lapsed into.

■ Eric Darton, “Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York City’s World Trade Center’’ (2011): Darton’s chronicling of the construction of the World Trade Center was initially published in 1999, but has been re-released for the anniversary with a new introduction and afterword. It’s a well-executed work of journalism and criticism about how the towers, from their conception, sat at the intersection of urban planning, cutthroat city politics, Manhattan’s peculiar brand of hyperkinetic capitalism, and many of the other salient themes of New York in the second half of the 20th century. The towers have become symbols of 9/11, but Darton’s book argues that they should be remembered for much more than that.

Lawrence Wright, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11’’ (2006): Wright’s book is an impressive work of narrative journalism that tells the intertwined stories of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and former FBI and Saudi intelligence officials John O’Neill and Turki al-Faisal. Given the extent to which 9/11 has been represented as a clash of ideologies, “The Looming Tower’’ is a fascinating study, a reminder that those ideologies are filtered through individuals who sometimes defy easy characterization.

■ Anny Bakalian and Medhi Bozorgmehr, “Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond’’ (2009): Sept. 11 was a tragic, unforgettable day for all Americans. But for many citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, it marked a new, terrifying chapter in how they perceived their sense of security and status as Americans. “Backlash 9/11’’ admirably illuminates an often-forgotten chapter in post-9/11 American life. It also highlights the extent to which, in certain ways, America’s reaction to the attacks often had more dramatic effects than the attacks themselves.

Jim DeFede, “The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland’’ (2002): Journalist DeFede tells the story of a sleepy town in Newfoundland, where 38 airliners headed to the United States were rerouted on Sept. 11, forcing area residents to scramble to accommodate and care for hundreds of frightened, disoriented passengers caught far from home at a terrifying moment. The stories told here aren’t nearly as dire as the ones that occurred near ground zero, of course, but they’re important nonetheless, highlighting that 9/11 would’ve been even more damaging were it not for countless individual - and mostly forgotten - acts of kindness and compassion.

Jesse Singal can be reached at