This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day's events changed — and didn't change — life in Washington.
The 9/11 Commission Report was that rarest of documents produced by a government body: People actually read it.
And, as the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, observes in a new afterword to the recently published edition marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11, “It mattered, above all, that we were most interested in understanding what happened and why.”
It is that search for answers that stands at the heart of the success of the report, both in a stylistic and a popular sense.
The policymakers, journalists and others with a professional need to understand the events of Sept. 11, 2001, could be expected to devour the report. The ordinary people who bought and read the 9/11 Commission Report had no such need, but they still wanted answers.
For the most part, the report served that purpose.
It offered no final answers to the ultimate philosophical questions that dog us to this day: How does evil of that nature take root and grow in the minds of men? Why do the innocent die?
But that was never its intent. Rather, as Zelikow explains in his 50-page afterword, it was the vision of Chairman Thomas Kean to provide “a reasonably sound understanding of what had happened, a historical foundation that others could then build on for many years to come.”
That building has continued unabated for almost a decade, spawning a mini-industry of spin-off examinations of the attacks and the report. I think it is fair to say the 9/11 Commission Report is the most studied such document since the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and is the most influential, from a public policy perspective, since the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, in 1968.
The 9/11 Commission Report has informed a decade’s worth of policy choices, from changes in intelligence gathering and information sharing to development of new systems of risk management to revised strategies and tactics for war fighting.
It even inspired a graphic adaptation that tells the story of the report in comic book form, published in 2006 with a foreword by Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton.
Like any work of its kind, the report has had its critics, legitimate and otherwise.
Writing in the New York Times, Judge Richard Posner called the report “uncommonly lucid, even riveting” but said “the commission’s analysis and recommendations are unimpressive” and questioned whether the report should have included any recommendations at all.