First Impressions of The 9/11 Commission Report

Kevin Drum starts off his first post on the 9/11 Commission Report saying, “I would rather stick bamboo shoots under my toenails than actually read the entire 9/11 report.” This is too bad because the report is very well written, more like any other book you might read on the post-September 11th world than a government commission report. It might be even more important than other books in its category because it was written with the highest level of access imaginable. It’s endnotes include references not just to witness testimony and classified government documents, but academic and popular literature on the subject, NPR segments and so on.

The strange thing about the report is its sensitivity and the restrained, yet dramatic use of language with which it is written. Let me make three examples from the first chapter.

  • After a few pages of material about the hijackers checking in at the airports, the quality of the metal detection wand screenings, and respective times of airplane departure that are true to the tedium of the airport experience, the report suddenly changes direction, hitting the reader with the poignant cause for all this seemingly innocuous information:

    The 19 men were aboard four transcontinental flights. They were planning to hijack these planes and turn them into large guided missiles, loaded with up to 11,400 gallons of jet fuel. By 8:00 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, they had defeated all the security layers that America’s civil aviation security system then had in place to prevent a hijacking. (4)

    I recently took another look at some photographs from that morning. The one of the south tower with the impossibly huge fireball coming out of the side opposite the impact was as shocking as if it had happened yesterday. That last sentence in the above passage gave me a similar pause — and was, I suspect, calculated to do so. A sentence of calculated emotional efficacy in a government report is highly unusual.

  • In the the story of the hijacking of United flight 175, the report recounts telephone calls from Peter Hanson and Brian Sweeney to their parents:

    At 8:58, the flight took a heading toward New York City.

    At 8:59, Flight 175 passenger Brian David Sweeney tried to call his wife, Julie. He left a message on their home answering machine that the plane had been hijacked. He then called his mother, Louise Sweeney, told her the flight had been hijacked, and added that the passengers were thinking about storming the cockpit to take control of the plane away from the hijackers.

    At 9:00, Lee Hanson received a second call from his son Peter:

    “…I think we are going down — I thing they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building — don’t worry, Dad — If it happens, it’ll be very fast — My God, my god.”

    The call ended abruptly. Lee Hanson had heard a woman scream just before it cut off. He turned on a television, and in her home so did Louise Sweeney. Both of them saw the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center. (8)

    This story adds nothing to our understanding of the causes and the security failures that led to the successful attacks, nor the reforms necessary to prevent future attacks. What it does add is something of an understanding of what those directly affected when through that day.

    There is almost an element of “a people’s history” of September 11th. When future historians turn to one of their primary sources on the subject, it will contain the names and stories of some of the people, usually overlooked or addressed only as “the three thousand”, who died that day. The report calls out the names of the pilots of the flights, all the terrorist hijackers, the stewardesses such as Betty Ong who made phone calls to alert ground staff, Daniel Lewin, the former Israeli military officer whose throat was slashed as he jumped up to stop Mohamed Atta, not realizing that one of the hijackers was seated right behind him, Barbara Olson’s calls to her husband, the Solicitor General of the United States. It is terrifying reading.

  • Recognition is growing that the passengers of United flight 93 did something amazing the morning of September 11th. The Commission Report makes a near memorial of itself when recounting their efforts with the stark sentences,

    With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes’ flying time from Washington, D.C.

    Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93. (14)

    The use of the lofty term, “the American Republic,” suggests much more than a mere government report.

Interpreting their mandate as “sweeping,” the commission goes way beyond the immediate failures of intelligence enabling the September 11, 2001 attacks, and lays out an entire history of militant Islam and a strategy to combat it.

I think that David Brooks (“War of Ideology,” The New York Times, 24 July 2004), is accurate when he writes,

When foreign policy wonks go to bed, they dream of being X. They dream of writing the all-encompassing, epoch-defining essay, the way George F. Kennan did during the cold war under the pseudonym X.

Careers have been spent racing to be X. But in our own time, the 9/11 commission has come closer than anybody else.

I suspect that the 9/11 Commission Report will play a significant roll in our future policy debates. As such, it deserves as wide a reading as it may be getting.