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.

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