from the archives

The Encyclopedia of 9/11

On the 10th anniversary, we found ourselves asking: With all we now know, how to begin to address the enormity of the event?

Photo: New York Magazine
Photo: New York Magazine
Photo: New York Magazine

This special issue of New York Magazine was originally published on September 5, 2011.

Here in New York City, we heard it first, the drone of the plane down the West Side, surprisingly loud. Then, if we were outside, our heads pointed in the right direction, we could see it: the dull-red gash in the North Tower, smoking ominously. Just as we’d begun to absorb this strange sight, wondering what pilot could have been so dim as to steer his plane into one of those towers on what seemed the clearest, bluest September day anyone could remember, came a second plane, then a terrible blossom of flame, then the billowing smoke enshrouding downtown. There would be more, of course, two planes aimed at Washington, one that would dive into the Pentagon, the other downed in a field in Pennsylvania. But for New Yorkers, it was the most intimate of tragedies. Within weeks, the day had become a number, a kind of shorthand for a whole universe, one that hadn’t existed on 9/10.

Photo: Joseph Rodriguez

Many of us here remember going to work that week, searching for an appropriate journalistic response to a world that was changing in ways we couldn’t yet see. As this anniversary loomed, we found ourselves asking the inverse of the same question: With all we now know, how to begin to address the enormity of the event? Our solution was not to shrink from its scale but to embrace it. We decided to reach back to an old form that might allow us to account for a wide assortment of what was created in the wake of the destruction: heroes and villainsgreat and awful ideas, twisted fatespop songs and myths and wars. The alphabetized jumble of an encyclopedia, with its preposterous aspiration to describe whole cultures and continents and bodies of knowledge in a single place—that, we thought, might be an interesting way to take in the multiplicity of 9/11’s effects. So we asked our own writers, and a host of distinguished others, to explore a range of subjects that might in their aggregate add up to a kind of idiosyncratic assessment. Some of the resulting 92 entries we kept in the vernacular of a reference book; some we allowed to deviate to accommodate remembrances and other emotional responses. We sought imagery that either felt fresh to us or hauntingly familiar—we were looking throughout to balance sentiment with distance. Borrowing from the old musty volumes on hand, we ran illustrations and data and artifacts up the margins.

In spite of its form, our encyclopedia makes no claim to be comprehensive. It’s neither a first draft of history nor a verdict—just a set of impressions from some point in between. September 11, 2001, changed everything, or it did not; it will take a lot more than ten years to figure that out.



Pastoral deathplace of a terrorist mastermind.

Airport Security

Where the new normal has become (almost) routine.

Osama bin Laden with Ayman al-Zawahiri. Photo: Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn/Reuters

Al Qaeda

Post-Osama, now what?


An idea with many authors.


How terror created a rush to judgment.


The things left behind.


Blind Sheik

His American fatwa had terrible repercussions.

Foley Square, where people lined up to donate blood on September 11. Photo: Brian Finke


A touching, unnecessary sacrifice.

Bloomberg, Michael

The mayor’s tough, crucial attitude: Get over it.


What everyone would remember first.

Building 7, Collapse Of

The conspiracy-theorist’s favorite structure.


What the president used to find his voice again.

Bush, George W.

Will history judge his presidency the way it did Truman’s?


Cantor Fitzgerald

The firm that lost the most.


Liz, Jacko, and Marlon: The starriest refugees in history.

Cheney, Dick

The other leader of the free world, 2001–2008.

Collected Works

How artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, video-game designers, and quilters responded to the attacks—a selection.

Commander in Chief, Accidental

The brief, harrowing administration of Richard A. Clarke.


Dead, Accounting of the

From the dust, a numerology of loss.


A season of suspicion in Little Pakistan.


Election, Mayoral

How America’s Mayor created New York’s mayor.


Secrets left in an airport parking lot.


Families, The

A potent coalition forms and fractures.

Firefighter Michael B. Sauer drinks and washes his face at a fire hydrant hours after the collapse of the Towers. Photo: Yoni Brook


Wrestling with the myths of martyrdom.

First Responses

A race to the scene, and then—chaos.

Flight Attendants

The heroes of the day weren’t all men.

Freedom Fries

What’s in a word? A culture war.

Frozen Zone, Life in the

Behind the fence, a kind of Utopia.



Despite the fast-food counters, Twilight Zone endures.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani at his office, August 24, 2011. Photo: Christian Weber

Giuliani, Rudy

Giving him his due.

Gold, Recovery of

The Towers’ buried treasure.


A phone call from the 105th floor.

Green, Mark

The almost mayor.

Ground Zero

A label to rally around.


Highway Deaths

Forgoing flight, at peril.

Hijackers, The

Who were they?

Holding Out

The family for whom the truth is more important than the money.

Homeland Security

Big threats, bigger government.


Timing was everything.



Hunting for a link.

Irony, The End of

Why Graydon Carter wasn’t entirely wrong.


A story of reformation.


Richard Drew’s Falling Man photograph. Photo: Lyle Owerko


Why the most haunting images of 2001 were hardly ever seen.



The kindergarten class of P.S. 150 remembers.


“Let’s Roll”

Catchphrase for a rattled country.

Libeskind, Daniel

The lessons of the master planner.

Live from New York

The return of Saturday Night Live.

Lynch, Michael

One name, three guys.



Affecting remembrance or adornment for real estate? A review.

Missing-Persons Posters

Street art with awful power.


“Never Forget”

Memory, playing tricks.

New York

What we were before; what we are now.

An NYPD officer twenty minutes after the second Tower fell. Photo: Richard Agudelo/My 9-11

9/11, Name of

We had to call it something.


Looking for terrorists, the police look at everyone else.


One World Trade Center

Making the Freedom Tower safe for Condé Nast.


Person of interest.


Paper from the Towers, 10:25 a.m. Photo: Bill Biggart/SIPA PRESS

Paper, Dispersal of

The odd sparkle of devastation.

Pataki, George

Ambition unrewarded.

Patriot Act

The kitchen-sink approach to national security.

Pentagon, The

The target the terrorists got right.

Philip, Sneha Anne

The most mysterious of the missing.

Planes, The

Flying weapons.

Portraitists of Grief

2,400 lives, each in 200 words or less.


An idea whose time was made.



The dumbstruck city.


Republican National Convention protests near Rockefeller Center. Photo: Thomas Dworzk/Magnum Photos

Republican Convention

When Bushworld came to town.

Rove, Karl

Choreographer of a war presidency.

Rumsfeld, Donald

The Pentagon poet found his rhythm, then lost it.


Satan’s Face

In the smoke, a sign.

Sex and the City

Was it still okay to drink cosmos?

Stairwell A

The only way out.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz

The unsettling question of the Sublime.

Surfing the Collapse

A Tony Hawk–meets–Tom Cruise fantasy, based partly on fact.

Survivor, Last Pulled Out

Only twenty escaped from the rubble.


Television News

The last days of intermediation.

Terror Sex

Love (or at least lust) in the ruins.

Tora Bora

Where the new way of war failed.


Once anathema, now a choice.

An abandoned fruit stand on 9/11. Photo: Aristide Economopoulos/Star Ledger

Toxic Dust

“The air quality is safe and acceptable.”

Total Progressive Collapse

Why, precisely, the towers fell.

Tribute in Light

The first memorial.

Twentieth Hijacker, The

Who else was supposed to join the attacks?


Unidentified Remains

The ongoing task of cataloguing hell.


A Union Square vigil, September 22, 2001. Photo: Gus Powell


Union Square, the gathering place for public grieving.


Wall Street Journal, The

A long commute.

Wall Street West

The backup plan that wasn’t.

Widow, the Fake

The making of a perfect victim.

Windows on the World

It was never about the food.



The politics of the mosque.


An American flag being hoisted on a steel column to the top of the North Tower on December 23, 1970, for the topping-out ceremony. Photo: Anthony Camerano/AP Photo

Yamasaki, Minoru

An architect whose legacy didn’t work out as he’d planned.

Yankees, The

Baseball as therapy.


Zazi, Najibullah

The face of terrorism to come?

The 9/11 Encyclopedia