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Authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (Handout/Handout)
Authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (Handout/Handout)

Review: Non-fiction

The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan Add to ...

It seems a collective nightmare now, the way the horrors compounded on that sunny September morning.

First, the 767s smashing one after the other into two of the world's tallest buildings. Then the jumpers, faced with suffocation and fire 100 storeys up, opting to plummet to their deaths instead. Finally, the World Trade Center floors themselves crumbling upon each other, leaving only billows of white dust sweeping across southern Manhattan. Somewhere in those clouds, the atomized remains of thousands, including hundreds of firefighters and 10 al-Qaeda suicide-hijackers. Nine other terrorists died commandeering a third and a fourth plane, striking the Pentagon but missing the Capitol, thanks to the “Let's roll” passengers who bravely fought to wrest the controls away.

We know all this now, much as we might want to forget it, just as many of us have long known of an appalling succession of security blunders surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

One new book, The Eleventh Day, bills itself as an investigative work, though it often reads more like a somewhat opportunistic exercise in collation. Though hardly 9/11 for Dummies, this one-volume primer will be of most utility for those who never tackled meatier works, such as Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, Steve Coll's Ghost Wars , Bob Woodward's series on the Bush Presidency or the U.S. government's bestselling 9/11 Commission Report. The husband-and-wife authors, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, acknowledge a debt to all these works and many others. Not subject-matter experts, they've penned past bestsellers on surefire subjects: Frank Sinatra, Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe.

While it's gratifying on some levels that someone has finally gone to the time and effort to try to herd all of 9/11's narrative cats, one can't help but feel that a cohesive story has been sacrificed on the altar of sweep. The authors read everything they could get their hands on – 300 books, reams of media, scads of U.S. archives – and let us know it in more than 150 pages of notes. They supplemented the document-digging with dozens of interviews of their own.

Somewhere in the book's back nine, a worthy analytical focus finally starts to emerge: Who let 9/11 happen and why? You don't have to subscribe to “inside job” conspiracy theories to believe that the U.S. government showed gross negligence in failing to protect its citizens. Security institutions – particularly the CIA – repeatedly covered up failures.

Seventeen of the 19 al-Qaeda sleepers entered the U.S. from overseas without raising much in the way of red flags. But two were on the radar screen – the CIA first learned about them during a 2000 al-Qaeda summit in Myanmar and then went on to log their arrival in California. The Eleventh Day establishes that the two even surfaced on wiretaps talking to a major al-Qaeda operational planner weeks before the attacks. Yet for reasons that remain unfathomable, the CIA failed to pass this information on to its domestic counterparts at the FBI – even as frustrated FBI field agents struggled to alert Washington to the alarming trend of fanatics with dubious credentials training at U.S. flight schools.

The CIA “blew the chance to grab the two future hijackers not once, not twice, but time and time again,” the authors assert. The Eleventh Hour goes on to float a theory that the CIA could have regarded the two al-Qaeda terrorists as intelligence assets being run by Saudi Arabian spies – a scenario that might explain why the agency took a such a monumentally stupid wait-and-see approach, rather than rolling the terrorists at the first opportunity.

It's impossible to say how much truth is here; the relevant files are still largely classified. But The Eleventh Hour succeeds in making the reader realize that vital questions remain unanswered, even after years of lawsuits and fact-finding commissions. Did the 9/11 hijackers have support networks in the U.S.? What roles might Saudi officials have played in supporting al-Qaeda? Why was no one in the U.S. government prosecuted or fired for gross negligence?

Answers to these questions would be worthy of developing into books in their own right.

After 9/11

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks has spawned an army of books.

The 9/11 Effect: Comparative Counter-Terrorism, by Kent Roach, Cambridge, 477 pages, $33.95

A university of Toronto law professor examines the impact of a UN resolution on terrorism in seven countries to discover the best way to craft anti-terrorism policies and how 9/11 reshaped international law.

A History of the World Since 9/11: Disaster, Deception and Destruction in the War on Terror, by Dominic Streatfeild, Bloomsbury, 408 pages, $33.50

British journalist travels the world, concludes that the war un terror is not only bungled and unwon, it is unwinnable.

Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses, by Charles B. Strozier, Columbia, 276 pages, $31

A psychologist compares accounts of witnesses and survivors and puts them in context of Hiroshima, Auschwitz et al.

The 9/11 Wars, by Jason Burke, Allen Lane, 709 pages, $18.50

A Guardian correspondent’s sweeping investigative report on the world since 2001.

A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends, by Dennis Smith with Deirdre Smith, Viking, 364 pages, $31

The author, himself a former fireman, looks at the lives of first responders since the Twin Towers fell.

Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors, by Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin, Dutton, 228 pages, $30

A psychologist and a journalist look at how eight survivors rebuilt their lives.

Colin Freeze writes on security issues for The Globe and Mail .

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