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The Black Book

Is there any accomplishment more rare or more precious in contemporary Washington than to defeat politics? Sometimes there seem to be no Americans in the capital, only Republicans and Democrats. So it is a measure of the 9/11 Commission's achievement that its report has so far frustrated, and even embarrassed, the attempts to politicize it. Of course, who in good conscience, which party, which president, can find vindication in the story of the years leading up to that lucky day for evil? Osama bin Laden's murderers succeeded on George W. Bush's watch, and the national security policies of the United States on September 11, and, more specifically, its policies on terrorism, had been the work also of the Clinton administration, during which the World Trade Center was also attacked. There is no glory in this tale. It is the Black Book of American Security.

The report is certainly the most riveting book ever to have been published by the United States government. Its narrative portions--the steady and sedulous accounts of the course of the conspiracy and the attacks--are novelistically intense. It is hard to read these pages without leaving the realm of policy for the realm of grief. For example: At 9:00 AM, Lee Hanson received a second phone call from his son [aboard United flight 175]: "It's getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and Mace. They said they have a bomb. It's getting very bad on the plane. Passengers are throwing up and getting sick. The plane is making jerky movements. I don't think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don't worry, Dad: If it happens, it'll be very fast. My God, my God." The precision of the report also chills the reader's blood: "United 175 was hijacked between 8:42 and 8:46, and awareness of that hijacking began to spread after 8:51." The devil really is in these details. And the footnotes give evidence not only of extraordinary investigative diligence, but also of a wider scholarship not usually associated with the grinding of government panels. Here are Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean drawing, for the purpose of historical understanding, upon Henri Pirenne! The policy recommendations in this indispensable tome show the signs of their committee origins: They seem a little platitudinous and do not reflect the intensity of the Commission's chronicle itself. We argued last week in favor of the Commission's proposal to create a new Cabinet-level director of national intelligence (see "Spy v. Spy," August 2), and we believe the Commission's other recommendations are also worthy of serious consideration and prompt implementation. But even we must admit that there is something a little dispiriting about responding to this grave crisis with another bureaucratic reorganization. No, the most significant service that the 9/11 Commission has performed may have nothing to do with policy at all. What this report has furnished the American people is a clarification of history. Its account of the ideology of Osama bin Laden and the rise of Al Qaeda is reliable, calm, and admirably free of anxiety about the sensitivities of, well, anybody. Consider these sentences from the section called "Defining the Threat": But the enemy is not just "terrorism," some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. ... [This] is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground--not even respect for life--on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated. This could not be more lucid or more correct. If Americans really want to scare themselves with their summer reading, they should read this book. It is their civic responsibility to know the truths that it contains, not least so they can judge what will be done to those truths in the ruthlessness of the 2004 campaign.

By the Editors