A Novel Approach
By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B01
In March 1966, after the California Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots released its report, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick wrote a short, despairing essay called "After Watts." She called the whole examination an empty exercise, a ritual of little purpose or consequence. "They investigate, they study, they interview, and at last, they recommend," she wrote. "Society is calmed, and not so much by what is found in the study as by the display of official energy."
In writing yet another report, about yet another tragedy and yet more failures of governance, the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report have made a vigorous effort to leave the public anything but calm. And far from retiring after a palliative display of "official energy," the 10 bipartisan commissioners have expressed their determination to be heard beyond the Beltway and, if asked, to continue work past the scheduled date for their dissolution on Aug. 26. They have written a report that upends the usual expectations -- about language, rhetoric and purpose -- of blue-ribbon prose.
The report's sentences are lean and simple, all the more so as the anonymous authors approach pivotal moments of decision, failure or tragedy. The tone is restrained. A carefully chosen adjective here or there gives color, but there is nothing baroque. The dominant tone is wise and sad, not angry. Rhetorically, the knowing shake of the head trumps the angry clench of the fist. If reviewers blurbed this book, the key word they'd use would be "unflinching."
This writing style is essentially that of America's busy industry of personal confessional. It is the tone of the trauma memoirist, the daughter writing about Daddy's alcoholism, the husband about the car accident that killed his children and left him in a wheelchair, the survivor about incest or abuse hidden under a cloak of shame and secrecy. It is the ultra-spare, purposely unemotional -- yet quietly seething -- language of American pain. The style is a cliché now, at least among memoirists. But adapted for a government document, a 567-page litany of American political and security failure, it works with bracing power. The 9/11 Commission Report is a collective memoir, and the language of memoir has exorcised the cant from its pages.
"Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States," begins the report. "Millions of men and women readied themselves for work."
With those words, the report's authors invoke collective memory -- who can't remember the azure depth of that perfectly clear sky three years ago? -- and put all of America ("millions of men and women") front and center in the drama. Official boards of inquiry love details, lots of dry details; but these details capture a mood, a sense of calm vulnerability. The 1912 Senate committee report on the sinking of the Titanic began by recording who owned the boat; the 1942 presidential commission report on the Pearl Harbor bombing opened with the dry particulars of the attack and then told its readers, "The Territory of Hawaii comprises the group of islands known as the Hawaiian Islands." The 9/11 Commission Report begins like an idyll, with perhaps the exact words that many of us, were we writing our own memories of the day, would choose. And it continues for hundreds of pages to be "compulsively readable," as reviewers say of books that surprise them by being more interesting than they had expected.
Listen to the language as the authors build their case about security failures: "In sum, the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have direction and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI's efforts. The public was not warned."
This is not just a list of mistakes. It is an insistent repetition of a basic sentence structure, driving home the word "not" until the reader can only wince when it is used for the last time: "The public was not warned." The language could be simpler, but not by much, which is remarkable in a government document written by committee.
"Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies," says the report, in a passage devoted to the government's inability to foresee the scope and fury of the attack. Clear writing is not a gift one associates with bureaucracies either, which suggests that an extraordinary effort has been made to gain a wide, popular audience for this document. All indications are that the authors have been successful. The book came out in paperback with a better than bland cover that shows well on the tables and in the windows of bookstores. Sales are brisk. It has hit No. 1 on the Amazon.com sales rank. In New York, the Daily News ran on its July 23 cover a picture of the book in a lurid red box with the words "Act Now!" in huge type. Thus, the book has status as a visual icon as well; simply hold the book and point toward Washington and that, in itself, is argument against government torpor.
In her essay on the Watts report, Hardwick lamented the way language created distance, and how this distance reflected the divide between black and white America. The 9/11 report seems determined to remain open, and transparent. There is little of the defensive, closing-off of inquiry that one finds in the inert language of the Pearl Harbor commission ("it is not within our province," "it [can] have no direct bearing on the execution of the mandate appointing this commission," "we have made no detailed findings on the subject . . ."). And the structure of the report, alternating moment-by-moment narrative with chapters on history and background, reflects a desire to keep things open, and moving, as well.
Chapter 1, "We Have Some Planes," recounts the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but ends with a fax, from 1998, in which Osama bin Laden declares war on the United States. It leaves the reader hanging by introducing the villain, and noting the first of many missed and ominous signals: "The fax had been sent from thousands of miles away by the followers of a Saudi exile gathered in one of the most remote and impoverished countries on earth." Chapter 7, "The Attack Looms," ends on Sept. 10: "Now 19 men waited in nondescript hotel rooms to board four flights the next morning."
Ending a chapter with a dramatic ellipsis is a technique that belongs as much to pulp fiction as to any other form, including memoir. But again and again the language in this report returns to the memoirist's tone of tempered sadness. "Faced with insufferable heat, smoke, and fire, and with no prospect for relief, some jumped or fell from the building," reads a passage in Chapter 9. This sentence pains us not just because the events it describes are painful. It follows a logical emotional progression: insufferable pain, no hope, then death. That moment, when people hurled their bodies off the World Trade Center, into the void, is perhaps the most horrifying and haunting image of that horrifying day. When they come to one of the most dreaded moments in this story, the authors choose simplicity, a single sentence that condenses all the essential facts and balances them with transparent syntax.
Government-appointed panels concern themselves almost exclusively with facts, responsibility and recommendations. Memoirists are primarily concerned with recollection and the problems of memory. And yet, in the middle of this endless parade of facts are sentences that remind one more of a solitary writer pondering the problem of how a single moment can forever alter our ability to see the past as once we saw it. "Hindsight can sometimes see the past clearly -- with 20/20 vision," the authors write. "But the path of what happened is so brightly lit that it places everything else more deeply into shadow."
This is not limpid prose, and it's intriguing that, when the report comes to the issue of blame, its language loses its simplicity and heads toward metaphor, and not a particularly clear one either. But it is a small lapse. Consider this sentence, from a different report, which struggles to express a similar thought about blame and hindsight: "He made a mistake, a very grievous mistake, but one in which, in face of the practice and of past experience, negligence cannot be said to have had any part; and in the absence of negligence it is, in my opinion, impossible to fix Captain Smith with blame." Thus the British investigation into the Titanic sinking absolved the boat's captain of responsibility for having steered the ship into iceberg-infested waters.
The remarkable thing about the 9/11 Commission Report is how little of this nervous, grammatical obfuscation it contains. Someone, in the crafting of this long tome, seems aware of the danger of language that hides, rather than reveals. The hijackers, we learn, developed codes to speak openly of their plans. "They discussed targets in coded language, pretending to be students discussing various fields of study: 'architecture' referred to the World Trade Center, 'arts' the Pentagon, 'law' the Capitol, and 'politics' the White House." And when referring to the date, they "used a riddle" -- 9/11, or 11/9 in the form the rest of the world uses, was called "two branches, a slash and a lollipop."
Compare that with the report's demand that Americans, and their leaders, be precise in thinking and in terminology. Words laden with fear -- words that can be misused to manipulate fear -- don't clarify. "But the enemy is not just 'terrorism,' some generic evil," they write. "This vagueness blurs the strategy." Don't conflate categories, don't mix categories. "Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror." Again, those short, spare sentences.
Memoirs of tragic events, if well written, both recall the past and put the past behind the author. The writer must prove him or herself changed, in some way. A memoir that shows the author still caught in cycles of recrimination and pain is a memoir probably best left in the author's desk drawer. The authors of the 9/11 Commission Report seem aware of that too, but they don't have the luxury of documenting change or growth in our national security policies. In that sense, it is half a memoir. The rest is left to us.
Philip Kennicott is The Post's culture critic.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company