Fact and Fiction: Amy Waldman on Exploring 9/11 Through Writing

The author discusses the complexity of Islam, the role of emotions, and the inspiration behind her new novel, The Submission


When the planes hit the Twin Towers, you were working for The New York Times. What was it like to come into work that day?

I literally had just arrived at work when the planes hit. The initial reaction was just shock -- first as a New Yorker, and as a person, and then as journalist just trying to gauge the scale of it. That was unclear at the beginning. Was it 3,000 people or 10,000 people? Nobody knew. 

I spent the rest of that day at the office making phone calls, trying to reach businesses and individuals who'd been in the World Trade Center, doing my best to figure out what actually happened and who had been in the buildings at the time

You spent about six weeks in New York reporting on the aftermath. What were some of the stories you wrote during that time?

I looked at children who had lost parents in the attacks and what it was like for them and their families. I wrote about how families were being notified when deaths were confirmed. I went to the Fresh Kills landfill, where they were sifting through the debris from the towers. After that, I was sent overseas to Russia and Iran and then Afghanistan. I was in Western Afghanistan after the Taliban left. 

9-11 Ten Years LaterYour first Atlantic story was about the way American courts were prosecuting Islamic extremists ("Prophetic Justice," October 2006). It was a very different type of story than the ones you wrote immediately after the attacks.

By that time, I had spent more than three years in South Asia, based there as a bureau chief for The New York Times. I covered a lot of stories, but inevitably, many of them were about the fallout from the attacks. Spending so much time in Muslim societies overseas, I gained a much deeper understanding of the complexity of the religion. I knew it was just like any other religion, with many, many strands and sects and fissures.  

Then I came back in 2005 and was very interested in how the War on Terror was being conducted. I didn't feel that there was a great grasp here of Islam's complexity. I became really intrigued by this idea of Islam on trial -- essentially, of experts trying to parse what the faith advocated, what was called for by the religion. How were they interpreting certain aspects, certain sayings, certain practices? 

I also wanted to explore this idea of preventative prosecution. The courts were trying to identify which people were dangerous before they actually did something. In theory, that's a great concept. In practice, given all our protections for free speech, I think it gets much murkier. In the end, I was fairly disturbed by a lot of what I saw. Some of the expert testimonies on Islam seemed more confusing than accurate.

Do you think our courts have changed their approach much since you wrote that story?

No, but I think there is slightly more discussion of whether this is the right way to track down danger in our midst. The case I wrote about in that article -- Hamid Hayat in California -- involved informants going into mosques, looking around for people who were expressing certain sentiments or willing to undertake certain acts. We've had a lot of similar cases since then.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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