The Book on Terror

David Ignatius does a traditional book review of the 9/11 Commission’s report in WaPo’s Book World.

If the 9/11 report had been written as a novel, nobody would believe it. The story is too far-fetched: an attack by a group of Islamic fanatics that the CIA saw coming, had been warning about for years but could do nothing to stop; the murder of nearly 3,000 people to which investigators had the necessary clues before the event but couldn’t see the pattern; a multiple airplane hijacking in which a computer system identified 10 of the 19 hijackers as potentially suspicious but prevented none from boarding; a morning of mayhem that knocked the United States so far off balance that, nearly three years later, it still hasn’t recovered.

Think about it this way: Imagine that key details of al Qaeda’s plot had been known beforehand — the names of several operatives, their possible method of attack, their likely timing. Suppose one back-up member of the team, Zacarias Moussaoui, had actually been arrested beforehand. How could the terrorists still have succeeded, and with such devastating consequences?

The 9/11 Commission was charged with unraveling this mystery — with making sense of an implausible, heartrending story. For months, its hearings provided a kind of national theater, in which witnesses tried to explain how the tragedy happened and why they had failed to avert it. Now, in its final report, the commission has compiled its findings in a book that is something of a literary phenomenon. In the 10 days since it was published, the report has become a runaway bestseller. And deservedly so. For in its meticulous compilation of fact, the report makes the horrors of 9/11 even more shocking. Try to read the story as a narrative, a nonfiction thriller in which the characters move inexorably toward the cataclysm of that cloudless morning. The strength of the report is precisely in its narrative power; by telling all the little stories, it reveals the big story in a different way. We see the bland evil of the plotters, the Hamlet-like indecision of government officials, the bravery amid chaos of the firefighters.

The report draws authority from the fact that it compiles some of the most secret information ever gathered by the U.S. government. Unlike the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy, which was instantly implausible partly because the authors hid the secrets they knew (and ignored the ones they didn’t), this book has a comprehensiveness that seems likely to stand the test of time. New facts about 9/11 may emerge to supplement this account, but they won’t challenge its basic integrity. It may be the history that is read and remembered by future generations of Americans. As Janet Malcolm once said of the narrative voice of a novel: The reader feels it could only have happened the way it’s described on the page.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. My problem with the few pages of the report I read were exactly what Ignatius cites as a strength: the 9/11 Commission Report is written in narrative form — as if they wanted to ensure that it was a gripping read rather than an objective historical account.

    So maybe when I’m finished reading it that’ll be my conclusion: that it was written as prose and not historical analysis, which causes the reader to consider it a tale, not a disinterested account of an act of war.