The number one seller on Amazon.com, The 9/11 Commission Report, is flying off the bookstore shelves across the country. A bookstore in my little Indiana town sold out its first 100 copies in two days. Barnes and Noble on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley is out, too.
Skim the first pages and you will see why: This is a powerful story. Step after step it unwinds, from the minute-to-minute account of the four planes’ final hour back through the intricate maze that led to that hour.
Across America’s intellig ence network in the summer of 2001, individuals and units knew something serious was up, but no one—or at least no one with the power to compel belief—could figure out what it was.
An Aug. 6 briefing to President Bush warned, “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” and mentioned hijacking as a possibility—but not the possibility of using airplanes as missiles. The failure to see that possibility was, the commission says, a “failure of imagination.” President Bush received the report—and did nothing.
A conspiracy theory making the rounds holds that Bush and company did not respond to the crisis because they had cooked it up, providing an excuse for the Patriot Act and the attack on Iraq. Why else, the theorists ask, did the military not shoot down the h ijacked planes?
The commission’s report answers that question in compelling detail, dramatizing the confusion that left planes circling over the ocean while the hijacked planes moved toward their targets.
The commission’s own story line is disturbing enough: A large, complex society, made up of many institutions, is sadly vulnerable. That, of course, is not quite what the commission says. It prefers to believe that rearranging the intelligence bureaucracy will make us secure.
But in focusing on intelligence failures, the report reenacts the conceptual failure that made 9/11 more likely: the tendency to see only one small part of the picture.
Fixing its eyes on Islamic militants from abroad, the commission fails to imagine all the other threats to our security. Should we not fear America’s own capacity for terrorism, the American nuclear arsenal, its military might? Should we not worry about the power in the hands of our president to order, not just the shooting down of hijacked jets, but a rain of missiles on foreign cities?
In the first few hours after Sept. 11, I had the naïve idea that this evidence of our vulnerability might lead us to reflect on our way of life and our role in the world. Do not look to the 9/11 Commission Report for that reflection. Its strength is its narrative, not its vision. Its chapter on “What to Do? A Global Strategy” is a grab bag of suggestions, positioned in the political mainstream and carefully phrased for approval by commission members from both sides of the political aisle.
For instance, taking up the question of how the Islamic world views American support for Israel, the report says, carefully, “Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world. This does not mean U.S. choices have been wrong. It means those choices must be integrated with America’s message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world.”
The commission might have done better to stay away from the large political realities that led to 9/11 since it could not begin to do them justice—especially given the narrow political frame within which the commission was working: the common ground oc cupied by Democrats and Republicans (themselves only a narrow strip of the American political spectrum). On the other hand, perhaps even the gesture, weak as it is, is important: a reminder of how big the picture is.
Whatever its limitations, The 9/11 Co mmission Report will give hundreds of thousands of Americans insight into the way our government works. The section on the Clinton administration’s attempts to capture bin Ladin (or kill him, if that were to happen—accidentally of course) reminds us of all that goes on beyond our line of sight, and that alone is worth the modest price of the book.
Carol Polsgrove is the author of Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement.?o