The 9/11 Commission Report
Carlton W. Austin
“It was the sickest feeling I’ve ever had in an airplane.”
One of the first F-15 pilots to arrive over New York City on September 11, 2001, as the World Trade Center towers dissolved into billowing clouds of dust and debris beneath him, said in a PBS interview, as he recounted his actions and emotions on that fateful day, that “It was the sickest feeling I’ve ever had in an airplane.”
Imagine, therefore, how much more intense was the feeling of the passengers and crew on the four hijacked airliners, with their rabid cadre of religious lunatics, that hideous band of 19 who ultimately wrought such chaos in all our lives on 9/11 and after. Terror. Screams. And an aftermath of tears.
More than anything else, that’s what the 9/11 Commission Report does: It puts human faces—and hearts—before us, laid out in a montage of tragic biographies, missed opportunities and, yes, some not unexpected examples of human venality and incompetence.
There are reams of detail for the historian here, interesting stuff, though presented in a somewhat bureaurocratically self-serving way. (It was, after all, put together by politicians, who, however bipartisan the committee members may have been, are still politicians.) Much of it is riveting; some is wrenchingly painful to read.
But it is not, as some have suggested, a put-up job that tries desperately to exculpate the Clinton and Bush administrations, the CIA, FBI, FAA and both Houses of Congress by glossing over or covering up “important” questions, such as why members of Bin Laden’s family were allowed to leave the country only a few days after the attack, which Michael Moore made much of in his ludicrous attempt at documentary film-making.
No, if chasing conspiracy theories is to your liking, read a good summer thriller (perhaps Second Eden? or The Da Vinci Code, or some other speculative entertainment). For in reality, real people make real mistakes, sometimes big ones, and all questions cannot be answered as quickly—or as completely—as we’d like, at least not always when we’d like those answers the most.
And while this book reaches few unexpected conclusions, its biggest contribution, in my mind, was in at last defining for us who the enemy is: Radical Islam, in all its many guises, not just al-Qaeda but Hezbollah, Hamas and all the others from Israel to Indonesia.
Ultimately, this insight is what’s so scary about the report: The world really has changed since 9/11; there’s no turning back. Primitive people, inflamed by religious intolerance, with access to the modern technology of mass death, which is ever more miniaturized and portable, has made us all vulnerable in new and frightening ways.
In the final analysis, it makes George Bush’s preemptive doctrine look not just rational but essential.