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(Originally Published Sept. 11, 2004)

9/11 Report a Good Read

But missing footnotes mar usefulness

Book Review:
The Report of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
637pp, $9.99 (in Canada), St. Martin's Press

Commissions of inquiry in Canada and the United States tend to issue reports whose readability is in inverse proportion to their importance; if the document is truly vital, it will be impenetrable.

But The Report of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is a refreshing exception to that sorry rule. It's readable -- indeed, in places it is downright gripping -- and it contains new information. It is a useful tool for the citizen wanting to better understand that terrible day.

The 10 authors -- four Republicans and five Democrats chaired by former New Jersey GOP Governor Thomas H. Kean -- appear to have decided early on to aim their report at a broader audience than the professional politicos for whom these things are usually prepared. And they have succeeded brilliantly.

The first chapter, entitled We Have Some Planes, recalls how "Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States." Barely 150 words later, they get to Section 1.1, Inside the Four Flights, and they describe what happened aboard each plane without falling into lurid prose overkill. The section on United 93, the plane that crashed into Pennsylvania countryside, is the most lucid account I've seen of the brave fight put up by passengers who learned through cell phones that other planes had been flown into buildings.

The book includes what I regard as two bonuses: a series of New York Times articles on the creation, the progress and the report of the Commission, and the report's Executive Summary. Every political journalist knows that if you come across a really good executive summary, you are saved from the chore of reading every single page. This summary saves you that chore, though you may end up reading the whole thing just for the pleasure of it.

There is one quibble that mars this otherwise fine report: imagine you're on page 186, reading about the Clinton administration's efforts to track down Bin Laden. You read the following:

"But the tribals did seem to have success in reporting where Bin Ladin was."104

That's interesting -- Afghan tribals, the rugged countryside and so on -- so off you go in search of footnote 104. But it's not at the back of the book. It's not at the front. It's not in the middle. Look hard enough, though, and you'll find this on the very last page:

"Due to length and time constraints ... the publisher was unable to include the notes section. The notes ... are available on the internet at the following sites: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/911/index.html and www.9-11commission.gov."

Ok, so by now you know I'm as much a fan of the Internet as the next guy. But when I buy a book to read and to own as a reference, I don't expect to have to go online to check out the footnotes. This practice appears to be a trend -- Irshad Manji does the same thing in her book The Trouble with Islam, where, right there on page 1, she advises that "all claims [in the book] are substantiated by source notes on my website. Visit www.muslim-refusenik.com."

This may be a trend whose time has come; let's push to make it a trend whose time has passed.


Email to joel@joelruimy.com

Copyright 2004 Joel Ruimy

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