What to Read Next (No. 139): remembering 9/11 + the world’s first global manhunt
If you’ve been reading this newsletter from the beginning, you’ll know that I like to read something related to 9/11 every year around its anniversary. I was in 8th grade at the time, at a very normal middle school in Minnesota, and I had some idea even then that the world would never be the same. It struck me very powerfully as a 13-year-old, and it continues to do so today.
At 8:46 am on that Tuesday, the first plane struck the North Tower and although things were terrible and chaotic, the world wasn’t changed quite yet. There were 17 more minutes of innocence. Reporters, politicians, victims themselves weren’t sure what had happened, but the general sense was that it was a tragic accident.*
Then at 9:03 am, when the South Tower was struck, that sense of freedom—in so many ways—was shattered and the world knew something sinister and era-defining had happened. Condoleezza Rice said, “It was the moment that changed everything.”
A small part of why that day has such a hold on me can be traced to such pinpoints of meaning. Innocence at 8:46; never-ending war in the Middle East at 9:03. The clarity of that line in the sand is astonishing.
This year my book of choice was Garrett Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.** It’s a moving, mesmerizing, and incredibly meaningful book.
Related to terrorism and manhunts is Steven Johnson’s newest book—I read it back in May but haven’t had a chance to cover it here—which is about pirate Henry Every. Johnson draws a couple straight lines from Every’s terrorism to what happened in the world because of 9/11.
Let’s get to it.
The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett Graff
Published: 2019 | Pages: 425
Oral histories are hard to pull off. They aren’t just a collection of interviews; they’re meticulously edited and arranged in a way that creates a flowing narrative while not changing the meaning or intent of the interviews. I’ve read some very good ones and some poorly executed ones. Graff’s work on 9/11 is masterful.
A few of the most memorable characters include an astronaut who was in the International Space Station and saw not only the smoke over Manhattan, but also the single aircraft contrail in the sky that day: Air Force One’s.
We meet the woman who was laid off on September 10—her job was at the top of the North Tower.
There’s the Air Force pilot who was authorized to shoot down United 93 and fully expected to when she got in the air—when that plane crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside, a number of military commanders, including George Bush and Dick Cheney, assumed that’s what had happened.
You can’t help but feel intense sympathy for Ben Sliney, who was on his first day at his new FAA job running the nation’s airpsace. Ditto for Robert Mueller, in his first week running the FBI.
Those are the types of stories that stand out from Graff’s narrative. The chance, the confusion, the heroism, the lasting trauma.
The format naturally leads to a quick reading. I often had a hard time putting it down, sometimes only doing so to keep myself from tears. While the chaos of the day makes it impossible to form a perfectly linear narrative, it actually works well in this instance, moving the reader from New York, to DC, to Air Force One, back to New York, etc. It sounds confusing, but truly it’s not—you actually get a microscopic sense of how people tried to figure out what was unfolding, in real time.
In my humble opinion, and even though we’re nearing the 20-year anniversary, there are only a handful of indispensable 9/11 books: most notably Fall and Rise, The Looming Tower, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Robert Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky has joined that list. Read it. Absorb it. Never forget it.
Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson
Published: 2020 | Pages: 255
“Few human beings had ever captured the imagination of so many strangers around the world without commanding an army, presiding over a major religious sect, or being born with royal blood.”
As I wrote back in April, after I read the spectacular Ghost Maps, Johnson writes with a storytelling flare that’s hard to beat in non-fiction writing. His books have been all over the place in terms of time period and subject matter, which speaks to his immense talent for research and narrative; in Enemy of All Mankind he ventures back to the late 17th century to tell the story of a ruthless treasure heist and the world’s first global manhunt.
While some pirate names are better known than Henry Every—Blackbeard and Captain Morgan come readily to mind—none were as notorious in their time period as him. In 1695, his crew raided an Indian convoy laden not only with gold but also royal princesses. Henry made off with nearly $100 million in treasure (today’s dollars), making it the most profitable pirate theft of all time. It was a brutal fight which included the sexual assault of numerous Indian women.
The royal family was, of course, outraged, and the world community came together to find the marauders. It was the first globally coordinated manhunt ever. Don’t google the ending—it’s surprising all the way through to the final page.
As Johnson does so well in all of his writing, he connects Henry Every’s tale to a number of broader themes—mass communication, true crime as a genre of storytelling, and terrorism. In fact, Johnson convincingly asserts that “the legal groundwork for the abuses of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib was first laid down to address the unique transgressions of pirates on the open seas.”
Enemy of All Mankind isn’t my favorite of Johnson’s works, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of your reading. Let’s call it a 3.5/5, rather than the 4-4.5 rating of his other books.
That’s all for me this week. Let me know what you’re reading and enjoying; I’d love to hear. Thank you for the time and inbox space.
*I understand the long road to 9/11 and the various governmental failures and that the attacks weren’t “out of nowhere” for the intelligence community; in this newsletter, I’m referring to American consciousness and culture on a broad scale.
**The book idea originated from the success of this article of the same name. It’s also well worth reading.