Yet More on 9/11 Books

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August 23, 2010 7:10 a.m.

Following up on the weekend’s discussion of books on the 9/11 attacks and why there seem to be so relatively few detailed and non-agenda-driven narrative histories of them, we heard from the author of one of the books that did get recommended: Terry McDermott, author of Perfect Soldiers. Here’s his take …

Regarding 9/11 books: I think the lack of books specifically about the event can be explained by one overwhelming fact: the reporting was damned near impossible. That is why the vast majority of the 1,000’s of books related to 9/11 are polemics of one kind or another.

When I was working on Perfect Soldiers, my goal was to write the best sort of near-term, definitive, factual account that was doable given tight time constraints, a book that would stand until a “real” history came along. I’ve been surprised since that these are not now appearing. I’m not sure they ever will. I spent three and one-half years on 9/11; Larry spent five. About half of my reporting for Perfect Soldiers (which, by the way, despite the
title ranges beyond the hijackers themselves) was underwritten by the Los Angeles Times. I calculate the cost at something in excess of $500,000. Who’s got that kind of money to throw at a dubious project most of the reporting for which will take places in areas that are inhospitable to reporting?

The craft of reporting as it is practiced in the United States doesn’t really exist in much of the world. Britain, Germany, Spain do something that approaches what we do, but they are heavily reliant on official sources. There is relatively little knock-on-1,000 doors sort of reporting that I or Larry Wright did in these countries. There is no tradition at all of doing this within the Arab world (in large part because if you do it, you go to jail). Pakistan has a vigorous press, but its vigor derives largely from presenting different political views, not independently-derived sets of facts.

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