How to Write About 9/11

From a writer’s point of view, the only good thing about the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center is that it’s no harder a subject than the ninth anniversary, or for that matter, the fifth. As long as 9/11 remains within living memory, it should beggar the imagination. It’s awful, it’s epochal. Despite bin Laden’s death, it still feels unavenged. All sorts of ccontroversies, from crackpot theories on whodunnit, to analyses of what should have been done in response, are inseparably built into the subject.

For those reasons, I have only the greatest respect for anyone game enough to take it on. To honor them as a group — the hundredth responders, you might say — I’ve prepared a sampler platter that, hopefully, should satisfy all tastes.

1. Approach No. 1: “Let’s Keep This in Perspective”:

Writing for Front Page Magazine, David J. Rothkop calls 9/11 “an easy event to overestimate.” In support of that point, he lists ten events — some of which are actually more like trends — that ought to dwarf it in the national consciousness.

He makes good points, but he misses one, too. Most of the events he proposes as replacements contribute, somehow or other, to the downgrading of America — either its place in the world or the quality of the future its citizens can expect. The 9/11 attacks were what first put those possibilities on the table. In a word, they set the mood for everything that followed.

2. Approach No. 2: “We’ve Really Gone off the Rails”:

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald is no happier about the prosecution of the Global War on Terror than he’s ever been. Between targeted assassinations, extraordinary renditions, etc., our country’s leadership is at risk of developing an “amoral God complex.” Whatever the merit of its central thesis, Greenwald’s piece is a high-energy screed. If the Geneva Convention set limits on adjectives, he’d be sharing a cell with half a dozen Cetniks.

Approach No. 3: Nostalgia for National Unity:

In high-flown style, Town Hall’s Susan Brown recalls fondly how, for about five minutes after the attacks, we all did manage to get along:

Time seemed to stop for most Americans who found themselves caught up in grief. Nevertheless, the sun continued to rise and fall, and the seasons changed. We bandaged our wounds the best we could, and were forced to move forward, although it seemed inappropriate. Ten years-removed, and amidst wars on three fronts, war-weary Americans have fallen into a regimen of “normalcy” and have adapted to a necessary post-9/11 mentality.

Approach No. 4: “Was It All Worth It?”:

Like Greenwald, the Times’ Ross Douthat recognizes that the War on Terror has become an open-ended proposition. Although the two are coming fom very different places, ideologically, speaking, they reach some similar conclusions. While conceding that America’s managed to strengthen her situation vis-a-vis Al Quaeda, Douthat points out that her overall strategic position has weakened.

Some of this weakening was inevitable: Our extraordinary post-cold-war dominance couldn’t last forever, and the rise of rival powers is a phenomenon to be managed rather than resisted. But our post-9/11 attempts to transform the Muslim world have cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, and won us — well, what? A liberated Iraq that’s more in Iran’s sphere of influence than ours, an Afghan war in which American casualties keep rising, an Arab Spring that threatens to encircle Israel with enemies, a Middle East where our list of reliable allies grows thin …

Approach No. 5: The 9/11 Writing Roundup:

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens does essentially what I’m doing, only much better. He reviews the dozens thought-bozes people have constructed to contain the horror. Hitchens, being Hitchens, thinks they’re all wrong.

Approach No. 6: The Personal Angle:

This week’s America Magazine features the story of Patty Fallone, a 9/11 widow who raised four children by herself. (And they are all grown; time flies.) She seems to be a woman whose faith is as deep as it is unostentatious:

For the 8-year-old, it worked. But for Patty, this choice, between dark and light, good or evil, was rooted not in a Hollywood blockbuster but a deeply rooted theology. “The whole point is we have free will,” she said. “God clearly allows people to do what people choose to do. If he stepped in every time a mistake was going to happen, then that’s not free will. It’s the same attitude for raising kids: You want to raise happy, independent, self-sufficient adults. You don’t want to just have an older version of who they were at 12.”

I have only one gripe with the author: he describes Roosevelt Island as “a thin, two-mile-long strip of land between Manhattan and Queens.” That’s technically true, but I’ve always thought of t as “that place you take the 59th Street tram to.”

  • Rambling Follower

    Max: My husband is a writer. He was before the attacks and he is now. He survived by escaping the 68th floor of Tower One 11 minutes before it fell. If you like, I can send you the essays he has had published on this. Just email me.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a counter-suggestion: Why don’t you just try to stop me from e-mailing you?


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