The 9/11 Commission Report

How a government committee made a piece of literature.

The tradition of reconstructed nonfiction narrative has been brief but generally illustrious, beginning in 1946 with John Hersey’s Hiroshima and including Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, David Simon’s Homicide, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But the most recent notable book in this style, Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, is more than 5 years old, and, in fact, the tradition was dwindling, if not withering, until the publication over the summer of a riveting, absolutely factual tale. This book got rave reviews, was the No. 1 New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller for 11 weeks in a row and is one of five nominated contenders for the National Book Award for nonfiction on Nov. 17. That’s right, I’m talking about The 9/11 Commission Report. Improbably enough, it may be this government document—credited to a 10-member commission and an 82-person staff—that leads a noble genre out of the wilderness.

The report is exemplary in two ways—its literary style and its allegiance to the truth. Both offer a lesson to narrative journalists.

The report begins inmedias res. On Page One, we read what many different people were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 (which “dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States”): the workers arriving at the Twin Towers, the tourists lining up for a White House tour, President George W. Bush, who was going for an early morning run in Sarasota, Fla., and hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, who “boarded a 6:00 A.M. flight from Portland [Maine] to Boston’s Logan International Airport.”

“Atta and [Alomari] arrived in Boston at 6:45,” the report goes on. “Seven minutes later, Atta apparently took a call from Marwan al Shehhi, a longtime colleague who was at another terminal at Logan Airport. They spoke for three minutes. It would be their final conversation.”

What’s striking about the four sentences is the precise and authoritative detail—the significance and power of which have been recognized by Thackeray and Tom Clancy, to name two writers among many. The authors package those details in a sure-handed progression of declarative sentences, which together command our attention. The foreshadowing in the last sentence is a pretty good hook, too.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the big group of authors and the highly charged subject matter contributed not only to the report’s narrative emphasis (it’s easier to get bipartisan approval for a story than for policy recommendations) but to the spare, Elements-of-Style quality of the writing, widely praised by reviewers. Every stroll away from just the facts would have made consensus that much tougher. Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton told the New York Times, “Democrats pushed for adjectives to support President Clinton while Republicans pushed for adjectives to support President Bush. It was such a minefield that we finally cut out all adjectives and ended up with a sparse, narrative style.” One imagines that the very multiplicity of chefs preparing the stew—attorneys, investigators, politicians, and historians (including the staff executive director and presiding editorial sensibility, Philip Zelikow)—was helpful, each group canceling out the others’ infelicities.

The core of the book backs up from the events of 9/11 and describes two parallel stories: the resolve and plans of Islamic fundamentalists to attack the United States, and the U.S. government’s well-intentioned but disorganized and ultimately doomed attempts to assess and cope with the threat. Specific, sometimes microscopic, detail is used here, too, in a kind of a cinematic structure cutting back and forth between the two narratives. Here the authors describe some of Atta’s plans, in the summer of 2001, for the “muscle hijackers”:

They would be divided into teams according to their English-speaking ability. That way, they could assist each other before the operation and each time would be able to command the passengers in English. According to Binalshibh [Ramzi Binalshibh, a plot coordinator currently in U.S. custody], Atta complained that some of the hijackers wanted to contact their families to say goodbye, something he had forbidden. … Before Binalshibh left Spain, he gave Atta eight necklaces and eight bracelets that Atta had asked him to buy when he was recently in Bangkok, believing that if the hijackers were clean shaven and well dressed, others would think them wealthy Saudis and give them less notice.

The final chapters tell us what happened on the ground that day. And here the details are deeply moving:

Eventually, when no one else appeared to be descending, the ESU team [Emergency Service Unit of the NYPD] exited the North Tower and ran one at a time to 6 WTC, dodging those who were still jumping from the upper floors of the North Tower by acting as spotters for each other. They remained in the area, conducting additional searches for civilians; all but two of them died.

There’s little chance that The 9/11 Commission Report will lead to an immediate spate of copycat broad-canvas narratives: Writing them is just too hard. To write a competent book in this form requires large amounts of research and ability. To write a first-rate one requires a massive, mortgage-your-house-and-live-on-ramen-noodles commitment, and, usually, the better part of a decade. The object lesson here is Jonathan Harr, who from press reports seems to have mortgaged his whole life to write A Civil Action. He has not produced a follow-up, possibly because he was so traumatized by the experience.

But the report does suggest a solution to the problem that has traditionally tripped up the genre, the problem of truth. Attribution is journalists’ traditional way of covering their butt. But you rarely see attribution or other hedges in a narrative reconstruction: They would break the mood of omniscience and slow the action down. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to state for a fact that x, y, and z took place, when you didn’t witness x, y, and z. Very hard becomes impossible when it comes to he-said/she-said dialogue and descriptions of characters’ thoughts and feelings. These are among the most effective weapons in storytellers’ arsenals—but you can’t vouch for the first without an authorized recording or transcript (one reason for the popularity of trials as subject matter), and you can’t vouch for the second at all. Truth-stretchers are time bombs waiting to blow. It happened instantaneously for Joe McGinniss and his Teddy Kennedy biography, The Last Brother; posthumously and 30 years down the road for Capote and In Cold Blood.

The lonely caretaker of the nonfiction narrative, for better or (mostly) worse, is Bob Woodward. Two of his trademarks are point of view and re-created conversation offered within quotation marks. In his latest work, Plan of Attack, he describes President Bush asking Colin Powell for his support, just before invading Iraq:

“I’ll do the best I can,” Powell answered. “Yes, sir, I will support you. I’m with you, Mr. President.””Time to put your war uniform on,” the president said. …”He’s going to do it,” Powell told himself as he left.

Woodward’s books have value, mostly as chronicles of what powerful people told Bob Woodward they said and thought, but artful and manifestly accurate narratives they are not. The 9/11 Commission Report offers a way out of this dilemma. Take another look at the book’s second paragraph, quoted earlier:

Atta and [Alomari] arrived in Boston at 6:45. Seven minutes later, Atta apparently took a call from Marwan Al-Shehhi, a longtime colleague who was at another terminal at Logan Airport. They spoke for three minutes. It would be their final conversation.

The word that pops out, contra Woodward’s certitude is “apparently.” As the authors state in a footnote, they know that Al-Shehhi was in Terminal C, and that Atta took a call from a Terminal C payphone, but not that Al-Shehhi placed the call. Hence “apparently,” which aids credibility without diminishing readability. As a result of the same circumspection, neither in this passage nor anywhere else in the report is there a representation of anyone’s exact words (except when the authors are working from a recorded air-tower exchange or some other transcript), much less anyone’s thoughts.

I can already hear the protests of the hordes of ink-stained magazine scribes. Yes, I understand that even those clutching New Yorker or Esquire contracts don’t have 82-person staffs and splendiferous budgets, that they aren’t able to interview 1,200 people or read classified documents, and that, most tantalizing of all, they don’t have subpoena power.

On the other hand, they’re not charged with doing justice to the most gut-wrenching national trauma in recent history (and they don’t have to have their every sentence vetted by a minyan of politicos). Journalists would be well-served to emulate the 9/11 commission on a smaller scale. They can choose an event, significant if less cosmic, report it within an inch of their lives, resist the temptation to make up dialogue or go inside their characters’ heads, and still emerge with a compelling narrative. And unlike the writers at the 9/11 commission, they can pocket all the royalties.