AFTER How America Confronted The September 12 Era

By Steven Brill

Simon & Schuster. 723 pp. $29.95

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, many Americans believed that its acts of previously unimaginable terrorism had bound the nation together, had erased the old divisions among us and replaced them with a spirit of unity, sacrifice and resolve. That illusion faded soon enough, as we discovered to our surprise and chagrin that the old divisions had simply been supplanted, or augmented, by new ones: survivors of those killed in the attacks arguing among themselves and with relief agencies over what compensation was due them; turf wars breaking out among departments of the federal bureaucracy as the war on terrorism steered it into unknown and perilous territories; businesses -- insurers, airlines, defense contractors -- struggling to stay alive or to grab their own pieces of the action; lawyers chasing this way and that after one ambulance or another.

"If the goal of the terrorists had been to split America apart," Steven Brill writes, it quickly became easy to believe "they had succeeded," and Brill himself presents much evidence that this was the case. Yet his book -- massive, detailed, balanced, lawyerly -- has as its central argument that much of this bad business was, and still is, good for us. The name of Adam Smith appears nowhere in these pages, yet Brill proves himself an ardent exponent of one of the central arguments Smith made in The Wealth of Nations, that the pursuit of individual or corporate self-interest "frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than . . . those who affected to trade for the public good."

Obviously, in the context of Sept. 11 and what followed, this is a risky argument. Though Brill persuasively contends that the "slumbering giant" (as Japan's Admiral Yamamoto called America before Pearl Harbor) awakened after the attacks, it did so in fits and starts rather than with careful organization and coherent long-range planning. Brill's essentially optimistic view of the first year after Sept. 11 is not without its naive aspects. Yet the case he makes is on the whole a strong one. Early in his narrative, after describing efforts, a few days after the attacks, by Charles Schumer, the limelight-loving Democratic senator from New York, "to get as much for New York now -- right now -- rather than wait," Brill writes:

"It seems a selfish perspective at a time of national crisis. But much of what follows demonstrates that the American system is built on people and, in this case, their representatives, being free to assert their self-interest, or, as they would rightly say, fulfill their responsibilities. [A customs agent] will be planning to inspect shipments more thoroughly than the shippers who seek faster service want him to; the families of the victims will be contending with those who want to clear the Ground Zero site quickly so it can be rebuilt; law enforcement people will want to issue strong, candid warnings against the next possible attack, while business leaders will fear spooking the economy; and even special interest groups that most citizens might barely be aware of, such as lobbyists representing the country's universities, will seem to act myopically or selfishly as they try to discourage new restrictions on foreign student visas. It would all make for a harrowing test of a system in which all the players in this American symphony square off in a robust, often messy clash of ideas and special interests that is supposed to produce the public interest."

That phrase "produce the public interest" is more than a little awkward -- doesn't he mean serve the public interest? -- but the argument behind it is sound. After more than 600 pages of inquiry into the actions of numerous individuals and institutions, Brill concludes that "what we really saw in the first year after the attacks was how resilient a system could be that is built not only on a generosity of spirit in a time of crisis but also on people asserting their selfish interests in an arena full of competitors who do the same thing."

This book is full of such people. Brill has chosen an old-fashioned narrative method, in the manner of Grand Hotel or a Victorian triple-decker novel. He has brought together in the pages of After a large group of disparate individuals and kept track of them from the day after the attacks until the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, closing with an epilogue that brings the reader up to date on all of them, including Kevin McCabe, a customs inspector in New Jersey; Eileen Simon, the widow of a Cantor Fitzgerald trader who died in the World Trade Center; John Ashcroft, attorney general of the United States; Robert Lindeman and Mark Hall, agents of the U.S. Border Patrol based in Detroit; Sal Iacono, owner of a shoe-repair store that was devastated by the Trade Center attacks; Larry Cox, president of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority in Tennessee; Gale Rossides, associate undersecretary of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration; Brian Lyons, a recovery supervisor at Ground Zero in New York; Tom Ridge, homeland security director at the White House, now secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security; and Larry Silverstein, the real-estate developer who was "putative owner" of the Trade Center.

By now you probably have noticed that though a number of people who live and work in the Washington area are included in Brill's survey, none was directly affected by the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. That attack gets little more than passing attention, as does the fourth airliner, which crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. This diminishes somewhat the book's encyclopedic character, but only somewhat. By far the greatest carnage took place in New York, and the destruction of the Trade Center raised all the most important issues and themes with which Brill grapples.

It is important at all times to bear in mind that Brill is a lawyer, arguably the country's pre-eminent legal journalist, founder of the American Lawyer magazine and Court TV. He is a somewhat contentious figure in American journalism, and an outspoken one, but when it comes to the law he knows whereof he writes, and he (mostly) writes about it lucidly. This is fortunate, because this is in large part a story about lawyers: "The real speculation about litigation centered on who would be able to collect for death, injury, physical destruction, and business losses estimated to be over $50 billion from a cast of defendants that included the airlines; the owners, managers, architects, and designers of the World Trade Center; the companies that provide the people who screen passengers getting onto planes; the [New York] Port Authority, whose police had supposedly told people they were safe in the second Trade Center tower just before it got hit; the federal government agencies that had allowed the hijackers into the country; Boeing, which had made airliners with cockpit doors that apparently were not secure enough; and the terrorists, or the countries that might have financed the terrorists."

This leads to one of the book's recurrent themes: Resolving all the conflicting interests that arose after Sept. 11 "was messy and always mixed emotion with dollars and cents." The nation grieved for those killed in the attacks, yet for their survivors life went on, with needs -- mortgages, tuition, food, clothing -- that could be met only with money. The money had to come from somewhere, and someone had to decide how to distribute it equitably.

It is not, on the whole, a pretty story. Kenneth Feinberg, the capable if abrasive special master for the federal government's Victim Compensation Fund, struggled mightily to determine the "economic damages he would award on top of [the] standard pain and suffering award," and Brill portrays him with sympathy and admiration, but the answers he provided for the terrible question that confronted him -- how much is a life worth? -- inevitably caused pain, bitterness and anger. The Red Cross, however blameless its intentions, was notable for "continued abuses and inefficiencies," for internal squabbles that paralyzed it and then diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief to many undeserving recipients, and for spending $37 million on its "own overhead and administrative costs," which "was more than the Red Cross had given to the victims of any other disaster, except for Hurricane Andrew." Yet though Brill is hard on the Red Cross, he also understands that its "lurches one way and then the other" were characteristic of the country's response to Sept. 11.

Tension was everywhere: between fairness and simplicity, between the public and private sectors, between management and labor, between lawyers arguing opposite sides of a fundamental issue (the "chasm that terrorism presented between being a common crime and being an act of war"), between the airlines and the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, between Ashcroft and the American Civil Liberties Union, between the constitutional rights and liberties of individuals and the nation's need for heightened security.

With regard to the last two of these, Brill's treatment of Ashcroft is interesting. He reports that soon after the attacks, President Bush "had taken Ashcroft aside and said, 'John, make sure this can't happen again,' " which meant that "the FBI's job now was to protect, not gather evidence that would stand up in court for prosecutions." For Ashcroft, whose "stewardship at Justice . . . had so far been uneventful and, in fact, had seemed not to have engaged him fully," this command "was an elixir of sorts." The sense that this elixir sometimes took him over the top is difficult to resist: His response to the president's order often suggested that he was "uninterested . . . in the niceties of the law" and that he "seemed not to appreciate the complexities of the constitutional issues he was dealing with," as he authorized a dragnet that "if it had a code name fitting its focus, or lack thereof, would have been called 'Operation Find and Hold the Muslims.' "

Brill is properly critical of this, yet he acknowledges that "if this dragnet seemed harsh or blunderbuss, it was really because the feds had no better alternative." Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, "was not comfortable with a dragnet that simply held people on the hope that some might know something simply because they were Muslim men," a sentiment shared by innumerable other Americans, but Ashcroft's response was that "their job now was to prevent new crimes more than solve old ones."

In a word: messy. This is a story in which just about everything is messy. Many of those who pass through its pages are diligent, honorable, decent and public-spirited, and many of the public and private institutions portrayed herein carry out their responsibilities with a fine eye for the public interest, but much of the time good things are done for not-so-good reasons (businesses and their lobbyists trying to cash in on the new homeland-security market, yet improving airport and border safeguards in the process) and bad things for good reasons -- Ashcroft going "too far to put government in a position to curb individual freedom," yet trying to stop acts of terrorism before they occur.

It will surprise some readers, but two institutions to which Brill gives overall rather high marks are the legal system and the federal government. He is sardonic, as well he should be, about "a country where fat people can find a lawyer to sue McDonald's (or maybe it's the lawyer who finds the fat people)," yet he describes cases in which lawyers rose above their own (and their clients') purely selfish interests to keep the system working at its best. Thus, lawyers for Larry Silverstein turned over to lawyers for the World Trade Center's insurers documents that effectively sabotaged their own case:

"Those who don't understand the American legal system, or think it's all bad, might not appreciate how this process called pretrial discovery operates: Lawyers are duty-bound to give the other side every relevant document in their client's files. . . . Sure, there are exceptions involving crooked or overreaching lawyers. But most lawyers honor the rules. That they did so here as a matter of routine -- no one even discussed hiding or destroying them -- in a case involving billions of dollars and humongous egos, and where the documents were so destructive to their side, shouldn't go unnoticed, even if the lawyers involved didn't think turning over the documents was anything special. Indeed, the fact that they thought their conduct was routine is what makes it so noteworthy."

As to the federal government, a couple of agencies come off poorly -- the Federal Aviation Agency for breathtaking negligence on matters of safety, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service for laxity, obstructionism and bureaucratic immobility. And Brill obviously shares the indignation of the Memphis airport director over "the cover-your-ass Washington bureaucrats, people who attacked whatever problem was in the public consciousness today because it had just happened, but ignored whatever the real, next threat might be." But he gives the Transportation Security Administration full credit for recovering from a bad start and putting in place a "real system" for preventing hijacking, and he believes that the Department of Homeland Security has a real chance to meet its duties with greater flexibility and responsiveness than the many agencies that were folded into it had usually exhibited.

Brill may well be right, though it would seem advisable to keep one's optimism under control. There also appears to be a good deal of truth to Sen. Schumer's assertion that "the days of government shrinking, which has been going on since Reagan, are over. Only the federal government has the resources and the unity of purpose to fight this fight." One might quibble over "unity of purpose," but the inescapable if unpleasant truth is that we live in an altered world that demands more vigilance from government than we could have imagined a mere couple of years ago.

One message Brill obviously wants to deliver is that this challenge has been met far more effectively since Sept. 11 than many of us would have predicted. Could the United States -- "a country that, depending on your view, had made great strides in protecting the unprotected, or had become gummed up by regulations, interest group paralysis and bureaucratic inertia" -- cope with the challenge of Sept. 11? Brill says yes, and he makes a strong case for it. But we can't protect ourselves against everything. Instead we have to achieve "balance and logic in dealing with the various threats of this new age -- or rational 'risk management,' as the policy people called it." Maintaining some sort of equilibrium between our treasured rights and liberties on the one hand and our heightened need for security on the other apparently means that we're going to have to accept compromises and accommodations that in the more peaceful past would have been unacceptable, if not unthinkable, to most of us. This will not be easy, and it will assure that the clash of conflicting interests will continue to reverberate, but it is the new reality for the new millennium.

The book in which Brill raises these urgent matters is in almost all respects a remarkable and admirable piece of work. It is a pity that he has neglected to examine how the "cover-your-ass Washington bureaucrats" have turned the nation's capital into a fortress by way of responding to events now more than a year and a half in the past, but probably you have to live here to be fully aware of that, and Brill lives in New York. He is considerably more sanguine about the motives and methods of many lobbyists than history suggests is justified. Occasionally his prose gets a bit sloppy -- he misuses "like" as badly and as frequently as any Valley Girl, and he fluctuates uncertainly back and forth between the past and present tenses -- but it is nothing short of amazing that he put together all this material in so short a time. Not merely put it together, but made sense of it and presented a coherent argument that this country, spoiled and flabby and "soft-news-fixated" though it certainly is, can still get the job done. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.