I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks, by Laurie Garrett. 2011. Kindle
Reviewed by Maia Szalavitz
Laurie Garrett is the only reporter to win the three major prizes for journalism: the Pulitzer, the Peabody and the Polk (she won that one twice).
Her first book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance was a New York Times bestseller. Her follow up, Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health, also brought the threat of infectious disease into sharp focus (disclosure: I am acknowledged in it for help on addiction information related to IV drug use). Her work on AIDS and Ebola (for which she won the Pulitzer) is stellar, and she is an essential writer and thinker on public health.
Her latest, I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks, was published as an ebook on the 10th anniversary of those events. Like her prior work, it is relentlessly and thoroughly reported, profoundly important and often compelling. Any historian of 9/11 focused on public health will have to reckon with this work.
Parts of it—particularly the first section, which is written in present tense as the unbearable and mystifying airplane and anthrax attacks unfold—read like a thriller, as we follow Garrett’s reporting and the attempts made by public health officials to deal with the crisis in real time. Excerpts from Garrett’s daily email updates sent to friends at the time evoke the terror, indecision, boredom, search for meaning and distress that made the first few months following the attacks seem unreal and outside of normal time for those who lived them.
Anyone wanting to understand exactly how federal, state and local public health and law enforcement officials coordinated or failed to coordinate their response to the attacks must reckon with this account. Garrett uncovers important new information about what was known about the toxins in the smoke that polluted New York’s air for months after the World Trade Center fell— and what was covered up.
She also reveals the bungling and bureaucratic infighting that plagued the anthrax investigation, while raising serious questions about whether the true culprit in the unsolved “Amerithrax” case was Al Qaeda. She reports that two of the 9/11 hijackers turned up at a Florida emergency room shortly before the attacks, one displaying what Garrett describes as a “large black scab” with “necrotic tissue beneath” on his leg. He was prescribed antibiotics and when the FBI later tracked down the doctor who saw the wound, he agreed that it might have been the result of an anthrax infection. It's chilling that we still don't know who was really to blame.
The book will be invaluable to those who want to understand what it was like for New Yorkers to live through 9/11 and to anyone involved in planning public health responses to epidemics, whether manmade or natural.
Unfortunately, Sirens also suffers several flaws, all of which could have been solved by a good editor. Although it’s impossible to tell how many pages it would be as a print book, this truly felt like a long read; often, not in a good way.
While The Coming Plague weighed in at 768 pages and Betrayal of Trust clocked 800, it seemed to me that I Heard the Sirens Scream was of equal or greater length. Such intensely detailed history really doesn’t work well on a Kindle, which at least some research suggests, makes recalling what is read harder. (Watch this space for more on that issue).
Moreover, this problem was exacerbated by the fact that there were no chapter breaks in at least the first section of the book. While Garrett's website includes impressive photos of 9/11, the ebook is a pure text Kindle edition. The lack of landmarks combined with intense detail and some outright repetition made me feel as though I didn’t know where I was going or how close I was to the conclusion.
In general, a real downside to ebook reading is not really knowing how far into it you are and how far you have to go: the Kindle’s “percent read” numbers just don’t provide the same type of information as the thickness of pages in a book. Also, it’s practically impossible to skim material that’s not of interest on a Kindle—had I been able to do so, I might not, in fact, have found the length problematic.
Moreover, the disparate nature of the anthrax investigation and the aftermath of 9/11 almost felt as though they belonged in two different books. Judicious editing could have made this into two excellent reads, neither of which would require much cutting.
Still, I wholeheartedly recommend I Heard the Sirens Scream for those who want to understand the nitty gritty, on-the-ground details of maintaining public health during catastrophes, which don’t always split themselves into discrete events or happen far enough apart to allow the responders to deal with them separately. I’ve avoided reading much of the 9/11 literature because I haven’t particularly desired to relive that time: but for those who do and those who care about making government work, I Hear the Sirens Scream is an excellent and comprehensive history and analysis. Garrett's website suggests that a print edition is forthcoming and that would be welcome.
Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist for TIME.com and the author of five books, most recently Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered, with Bruce Perry, M.D. Ph.D.