The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 5 November 2002

American Ground

Unbuilding the World Trade Center

by William Langewiesche

Almost nobody who was alive that day will forget the insanely improbable terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Now, after over a year of war, political posturing, anguish, grief, recovery, remembrance, and arguing over the problems of rebuilding, comes this book looking over the unique social construct of life at Ground Zero during the months after the collapse of two 110-story office buildings. The author had surprisingly free access to the site of the disaster immediately afterward and all during the initial clean-up and recovery of victims. This book is an overview of the odd social environment of the site, as well as a good look at the people who came to lead the effort. Many people found themselves caught in the middle of a race to rescue and recover victims, later to become key figures in the overall organization to clean up the site. Unexpected responsibilities, odd alliances, and an arrangement unique to this event and originating in New York's own cultures of construction companies and the Fire and Police departments. The story is thorough and surprisingly gripping. There are remarkable first-hand stories of the attack and the collapse. And there is great insight to an interesting social response to unprecedented events. The author is somewhat too forgiving of the bad behavior occasionally exhibited by all sides, not least the widespread looting of the disaster site that began among rescue workers even before the towers collapsed. Perhaps, because of his own allegiance to the people who gave him access, he goes a little easy on their behavior, explaining this based on the incredibly unusual environment within the barricades of lower Manhattan. Despite the already revealing nature of this book, there seems to be more going on than Langewiesche lets on. Still, for those many of us who didn't witness this event first hand, or who are not familiar with New York's way of doing things, this is a great look into the aftermath of history. In the wake of the disaster, there have been almost countless books, some of which shamelessly capitalize on grief. This, though, seems among the most detailed and thoughtful of the bunch so far (aside, perhaps, from Chomsky's 9-11).

(This micro-review refers to the version of this book published in three issues of the Atlantic Monthly, August through October 2002.)

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