Reading 9/11

Wright gets it right and the commissioners get lost in paper
By JASON VEST  |  September 11, 2006


NO OUTRAGE: Most disappointing about Without Precedent is its lack of reflection on the mentality of partisanship.
The five years since 9/11 have seen not just a slew but a deluge of books devoted to the event and anything remotely connected with it. Among the latest arrivals are Thomas H. Kean & Lee H. Hamilton’s Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. The latter is worth an immediate purchase; if you have to buy the former, wait for the paperback.

The first several chapters of Without Precedent may be heady stuff for persons who study organizational management or aspects of public policy, but those aside, it’s not a scintillating read. And that’s true for the rest of the book. Many would agree that a matter-of-fact tone was appropriate for the actual 9/11 Commission Report. But when you see a book subtitled “The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission,” it’s not unreasonable to expect a bracing narrative with at least a few compelling characters, an account that captures the range of feelings experienced by an eclectic group of people handed a near-impossible task. Far from being an “inside story,” Without Precedent has chairs Kean and Hamilton rendering a sober TV procedural drama in book form and adding detached, bloodless observations about the hows and whys of what unfolded.

This isn’t to say it fails to enlighten or illuminate. Although they’re not exactly edge-of-the-seat descriptions brimming with fly-on-the-wall detail, the mentions and recollections of meetings between commission elements and various government officials do provide a crucial layer of detail in establishing the commission’s history. But Without Precedent is short on introspection. Perhaps most disappointing is the near-total lack of reflection on the mentality of partisanship. From the beginning the authors hammer on how important it was for the commission to be “bipartisan” in its composition, and how important it was to them as individuals to act in a “bipartisan fashion.” Yet as the phrase “the commission split down partisan lines” crops up again and again, and as virulently partisan attacks on individual commissioners (in particular Jamie Gorelick) are revisited, there’s no rumination, no outrage — just casual acceptance of a political status quo that doesn’t allow for non-partisanship in the service of the national interest.

We get exploration of the moments where the commission was defined by the disjunction between Kean (a former Republic governor of New Jersey) and Hamilton (a former Democratic congressman from Indiana) on the one hand and the rest of the commission on the other, or of the partisan, petty public spats between commissioners, or between commissioners and witnesses — or the moments where it was the commission versus one party (generally the Republicans). We get no window into the minds and souls of the commission members, no meditation on how party loyalty could be allowed to trump the most fundamental notions of epistemological process. What we do get is having it both ways: all manner of shit-heel behavior from both Democrats and Republicans (on and off the commission) is rehashed, with some meriting stern disapproval, and yet it all ends with self-congratulations for having  done the best that was possible under circumstances. If you were hoping for some insight into the thinking behind some of the commission’s more dubious “reform” recommendations, look elsewhere.

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Related: It’s all true, Bojinka, Rethinking 9/11, More more >
  Topics: Books , Politics, Domestic Policy, Political Policy,  More more >
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