23 December 2008

Trauma, Grief, Anger, Action: A Wrenching Recipe for Social Change Through the Ages

What is new in the activism of 9/11 family members, and what is old? This is one of the important questions I am dealing with in No Truer Hearts. Throughout history, people who have suffered some outrage, who have been wronged, or injured in some way, have responded by attempting to right the wrongs, redress their grievances, make sure that others would not suffer as they had. People make history by making the world a better place. 

When things are going well, people are content to live their lives quietly and tend to their own needs and wants. But when their situation changes, either materially or emotionally, they can be spurred to action. The death of a loved one is one of the strongest shocks a person will ever suffer, and countless Americans have turned such grief into action, often with the goal of making sure others will not suffer the same fate as their loved ones. Think of all those groups dedicated to finding cures for serious medical conditions, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Such activism is certainly not new, but carries on a long tradition of people striving to improve their lives. 

In one sense, the 9/11 family members are part of this group of reformers, but the causes they championed arose directly from the various organizational shortcomings and failures before during and after 9/11, not a disease or social ill. Theses cause have included air transportation security, skyscraper safety, first-responder reform, immigration policy, the various victims' memorial projects, and the government and private sector reforms dealt with by the 9/11 Commission. 

So what is new? Other groups have made significant changes in America and the world, but the family members who pushed for the 9/11 Commission and subsequent reforms literally turned Washington upside down. The result of their efforts was one of them most wide-ranging government reform movements in American history. If the the various bureaucracies in America were the often immovable objects, the 9/11 family member activists were the irresistable force.

A couple of recent articles in the Washington Post set off this train of thought. The first is a lovely piece by Michael E. Ruane about the families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988. The article echoed many of the themes I've encountered among family members: the importance of memory, the special bond of those left behind, the persistence of pain and grief, and pride in their accomplishments. The Flight 103 family members were able to pressure the US and other governments "to bring Libyan agents to justice for planting the bomb and to force the Libyan government to pay compensation for it," according to Ruane.

The other article shows vividly how victims' families can be helped and hindered by the sometimes capricious nature power in Washington. Kimberly Kindy describes the trials and tribulations of another group of family members. These were the loved ones of seven Americans killed when a suitcase bomb blew up French-operated UTA Flight 772 on 19 September 1989. In order to put power in the hands of American victims of terrorism, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, which opened the door to lawsuits by private individuals who had financial claims against countries that sponsored terrorism. According to Kindy, "Family members of the American victims made history in January by becoming the first and only group to successfully sue Libya in federal court." The judge awarded 44 relatives $6 billion in damages.

But power and politics has gotten in the way. As part of the US effort to improve relations with Libya, the lawsuit was nullified and the amount available to families was replaced by a smaller sum. This turn of events, though outrageous to family members and others, is not surprising. It happens all the time. Politics trumps everything, and those with the power decide on the politics. 

The same sort of "through the looking glass" logic has been employed after 9/11. Saudi Arabia, home to most of the hijackers, and possibly connected indirectly to the plot, was treated with kid gloves for obvious reasons, political and economic. At the same time, Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, was invaded and occupied, at the expense of the fight against al-Qaeda, the real perpetrators. It could be argued that the travesty of the Iraq adventure set in motion the "reform movement" that culminated in the electoral results of November 2008.

This post will give you an idea of some of the other themes I'll be touching on in No Truer Hearts.

19 December 2008

'Without Precedent': An Account of the 9/11 Commission by its Leaders

If Philip Shenon's book is the best critical expose' to date of the 9/11 Commission, the book written by the panel's co-chairs, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, is the definitive "official" history. As such, Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission often sounds like a book written by committee, because controversial episodes are portrayed by presenting the talking points of each side without assessing their value. In doing so, the authors re-employ in the writing of the book the principles that guided their leadership of the commission: an overarching desire for "balance," moderation, "bi-partisanship" and compromise. 

But as we have seen in the work of the commission, this approach worked like a double edged sword. On the one hand, it could be convincingly argued that the non-judgemental, evenhanded consensus-building style of Kean and Hamilton was a vital strategy to win support for the commission and to permit it to complete its work despite massive opposition from many quarters. However, this method also guaranteed that many questions that the 9/11 family members wanted answered were either ignored or downplayed. And one of their greatest concerns -- accountability -- was pushed aside in favor of other priorities. To their credit, Kean and Hamilton managed to drive the commission down the middle of the road, as it were, successfully guiding it to its destination. They did this despite many potholes, roadblocks and detours along the way. There were powerful people in all three branches of the US government, for example, who had exerted strenuous efforts on one side to make sure the 9/11 Commission was merely a toothless nonentity. And on the other side, there were family members and others who wished to endow it with almost absolute power to expose and punish every example of incompetence, error and apathy.

I am of course particularly keen to see how various books portray the role of the family members. And in Without Precedent we are given a more complete account than in the Shenon book, but still not the definitive version I am preparing. Again and again, Kean and Hamilton note the importance of the family members' involvement, and the complex nature of the commission's relationship with those who were instrumental in its establishment. 
Over the next twenty months, we had our ups and downs with the families, whose list of questions would grow. Often they were our closest allies, supporting our requests for more funding or more time on Capitol Hill. Sometimes, they were aggressive critics, issuing press releases blasting our approach. But there was no question that the families would be essential validators of our report. They had pushed for the commission, they were the public face of the most extreme form of suffering and loss that took place on 9/11, and they were watching us like hawks. If they were unsatisfied with our work, the impact of our findings would be greatly diminished.
I love this image: "... they were watching us like hawks." It was because many, many people were not paying attention to keeping the country safe, "like hawks," that the 9/11 attacks could unfold almost unhindered. This was the sort of thing the family members were determined to prevent in the future.

11 December 2008

'The Commission,' by Philip Shenon: Hailing Heroes and Pointing Fingers

I have been reading a number of books pertaining to 9/11 as part of my research, and this is one of the best. Shenon has done a great job of giving credit to the unsung heroes of the 9/11 Commission Report: those hard-working staff members who dug through mountains of documents and conducted countless interviews in order to present a riveting and credible (though not definitive) account of the the rise of al-Qaeda, the unfolding of the terror plot, the aftermath, and commission's recommendations. And these staff members dug in their heels when their superiors attempted to twist the commission's findings to suit political agendas, and sometimes they succeeded in presenting the truth rather than watered down mush. 

In addition, the author is not squeamish about "pointing fingers." Members of the Family Steering Committee and other 9/11 family members throughout their struggles had hoped to bring accountability to the process of the commission's work. But the co-chairs of the commission saw this as a serious stumbling block to their work, and sought instead to criticize inept agencies and outdated worldviews rather than incompetent individuals. Thus, Shenon presents a hard-edged  new version of events, which includes shady involvement in the 9/11 plot by Saudi officials; serious conflicts of interest and efforts at spinning the report in favor of Rice and Bush on the part of the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow; a failure to adequately examine the records of the National Security Agency; and serious failures at the FAA, NORAD, CIA and FBI.

The last paragraph of the author's acknowledgements gives a final, emphatic note of credit to the family members:
If anyone is responsible for this book, ultimately, it is the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The families were responsible for the creation of the commission, over the fierce opposition of the Bush White House and many in Congress; the families fought to try to keep the investigation honest, against incredible odds. They did much of the digging that produced scoops for me and raised important issues abut the commission, its leadership and the conduct of the investigation. I cannot imagine their suffering. If the full truth is ever told about Sepember 11, 2001, it will be their doing. It has not been told yet.

It shows how important was the role of the family members, and this vital role is at the core of the story I will tell in No Truer Hearts. 

25 October 2008

The brightest of mornings; the darkest of days

I remember how bright the sun had shone that morning, how blue the sky, how fresh the fall air. Like any other day, I had kissed my wife goodbye as she left for her State Department office, gotten my children ready and taken them to school, and sat myself in front of my computer in the basement. I don't remember what I had been working on, but I do remember the low, ominous "boom" that had rattled the windows of the house and made me pause. Not long afterward, I remember the sirens. First one, then another, then many. Puzzled, I walked out into the street in front of our house and looked around, glancing up at the clear sky, and hearing the sound of sirens from all around.

The unspeakable horror of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks slowly made itself manifest to me through that boom and the sirens. Then a frantic telephone call from my high school-age daughter. She and the rest of her school had been watching the television coverage. "They said there was a car bomb at the State Department! Is mommy all right?" she asked anxiously. I reassured her, and quickly turned on the television. 

And I watched, like the millions around the world, shocked, outraged, heartbroken, numb. Traffic began pouring through my normally quiet neighborhood streets. The Pentagon is just a couple of miles away. There was a massive rush of humanity away from Washington, DC. I made my way to pick up my youngest kids from school, and soon we were together at home. Safe? perhaps. But together. Except for my wife, who spent a long, chaotic, frightening day at work.

That evening, I watched as the column of dark smoke rose in the distance above the Pentagon crash site. For no reason other than the need to do something, I walked toward it, but of course there was a wide security cordon up. Nearby roads had been closed, but by now there was almost no traffic. Others had come to see the destruction, and stood by the police line, and watched the smoke continue to rise in silence.

In the weeks and months following the attacks, I had devoured the media coverage and pondered how I might help. Americans everywhere were hungry for answers, eager to help their fellow citizens. The sense of patriotic unity was palpable. As a Middle East expert, I looked toward the possibility of government work, but I was too old to enlist in the military. I had applied for a number of government positions but the only interview I received was at the Central Intelligence Agency, after many months of trying. At the time, I shrugged off the odd quirks of my interviewer. For one thing, he seemed to have the temperament more of a gung-ho used car salesman than an analyst. And he seemed more excited about the access his boss, the director, had to the president than about his division's intelligence product. Finally, on the way to his office among the Middle East analysts, there were signs marking hallways that seemed inappropriately whimsical to me, like "Axis of Evil Ave." It was only later that I realized that these were all symptoms of a larger problem. In retrospect, I'm relieved I was not hired.

Another possible way for me to help, I thought, would be to work on the staff of the 9/11 Commission. Perhaps too naively, I thought I could present my credentials and assist the commission in its probe. But later I learned what a hyper-political creation this was, and connections often were key factors in whose resumes were considered seriously. Washington connections? I had next to none.

But it was through the commission that I came to embark on this book project. I attended the 24 March 2004 hearing of the commission, at which former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke gave his dramatic testimony and surprising apology. The family members attending the hearing had become angry and frustrated by the evasions and self-justifications of previous witnesses, and when Clarke said he was sorry, that he failed them and their country failed them, it struck an emotional chord. Several gratified family members approached Clarke afterward and shook his hand, among them Beverly Eckert, a member of the Family Steering Committee. I spoke to Beverly afterward, and wrote a short article about the hearing for the History News Network web site. In the days that followed, as I learned more about Beverly's story, and the activities of the FSC, I asked her if she would work with me on a book. She agreed. And now, after completing other pending projects, I am devoting the bulk of my energies to the book, tentatively titled No Truer Hearts: How Beverly Eckert and Other 9/11 Family Members Took on Washington, and Won.

Through Beverly's eyes, I will be carrying the reader through a moving political odyssey: the coming together of the leaders of various 9/11 family groups; their push to establish an independent commission in the face of determined presidential and congressional opposition; and the final, improbable passing of legislation that dramatically changed the way the US government would operate.

This blog is one of a number of ways I will be seeking input and providing reports on my progress. In the end I hope No Truer Hearts will be the 9/11 book every American will want to read.