AFTER: A REVIEW
Steven Brill. After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era. Simon & Schuster, 2003. $29.95. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
This is not the kind of book I normally review here; it isn't about libraries or information or the internet. I'm reviewing it for a couple of reasons.
First, what it IS about, is relevant: how government and other institutions respond to catastrophe. During crises is when people automatically turn to their institutions, the magical THEY who should do something about it, should have prevented it somehow, and should keep it from ever happening again. Which means that crisis is an opportunity for institutions to prove their value and re-earn the public's trust. There are lessons here for any organization, including libraries.
It's also a model of what good, careful journalism should do: it answers up front the question, "How do you know that?" The book is carefully sourced. Every quote is attributed, and every conversation is verified with the other participants; if those participants disagree, that is noted. A detailed list of source notes documents where and when Brill acquired each account. As a well-known critic of news media's penchant for anonymous sourcing and sloppy research, Brill gives very little ammunition to a journalistic establishment eager to catch him in the same sins.
Brill chose about 47 people to follow through the year after September 11: members of victims' families, the owner of a small business near the World Trade Center, New York Senator Charles Schumer, the head of the Red Cross, members of the Customs Service, the CEO of the swiftly put-together September 11 fund, Tom Ridge, the president of an insurance company, members of the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, a recovery supervisor at ground zero, a Border Patrol agent, the administrator of the Victim Compensation Fund, the defense attorney for John Walker Lindh, among others. Through their stories, he shows the human needs of survivors and a terrified public, and the ways that institutions succeeded or failed in meeting them.
There were plenty of flubs. It's clear that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been and remains a hopelessly incompetent agency entrusted with two vital security issues: guarding our borders and keeping track of foreigners when they enter our country and leave it. INS management seems chronically incapable of producing even a course of action, let alone a timeline for achieving each goal along the way. Its response to border guards who warned that the INS policy of releasing people caught sneaking across the border could be dangerous was to fire the guards. One of the quotes Brill was unable to confirm has an absolute ring of truth: When INS was taken away from the Department of Justice and incorporated into the new Department of Homeland Security, John Ashcroft reportedly said, "I have three things I'd like to give whoever gets this job and takes over INS: my best wishes, a bottle of whiskey, and a bullet."
Some mistakes were made simply because none of these organizations and agencies had dealt with a problem of this magnitude before. The Red Cross literally ended up with too much money, all of it clearly intended to specifically benefit victims and their families. Yet the policy of the Red Cross had always been to spread the wealth from high-visibility tragedies and use them to also support the routine work of local Red Cross groups. When Healy tried to honor the donors' wishes to spend the money on September 11 victims only, she was attacked by her own membership and ultimately fired, while at the same time she was being attacked by Bill O'Reilly for not handing out money to victims fast enough. The Red Cross' response to such terrible PR was to hand out astounding amounts of money to people who claimed victim status, without demanding any evidence of loss.
Other mistakes were made because of the crisis mentality of "Don't just stand there, do something!" When George W. Bush told John Ashcroft to make sure something like this never happened again, Ashcroft believed his job had just changed from punishing crime to preventing it, and he just happened to have the FBI's wish list of expanded powers it had tried and failed to get following the Oklahoma City bombing. He presented it to Congress without any prior consultation with them or with the White House, and demanded instant action. The bill was signed on October 26, 2001, and many members of Congress admit that they hadn't read the final version before they voted on it.
More important, however, are the things that went right. Among them: Dean O'Hare, Chairman and CEO of Chubb Corporation, a major insurer, realized that he could legally disallow September 11 claims, but chose to do the right thing. He immediately announced that his company would honor the claims in full, setting a standard other insurance companies had no choice but to follow. If the Red Cross screwed up, the administrators of the September 11 fund performed magnificently, using established agencies that already had in place the mechanics for processing claims and getting aid to victims' families quickly. After the American Arab community in New Jersey complained about the disrespect they and their religious principles were treated with in the first FBI roundup of immigrants, the FBI invited them to conduct sensitivity training for their agents. Members of Congress saved the jobs of the border guards who had blown the whistle on the INS.
The impressive thing is the way so many conscientious people in public agencies dealt with serious and complex issues. To prevent the airline industry from going belly up, it had to be given a damage cap protecting it from break-the-bank lawsuits. Since that meant limiting the victims' rights to sue, the government had to offer them compensation instead. Deciding what was fair compensation, for the widows and orphans of stockbrokers and window-washers alike, was an extraordinarily complex question, handled by a professional negotiator as thoughtful and willing to listen as he was personally abrasive.
The best stories of all are about the people who did their jobs despite constant sniping attacks. The Transportation Security Administration was given an impossible deadline and insufficient funding based on a guess about how many personnel would be required. In one year, the brand new agency, which didn't even have an office and phone lines, was to staff all security checkpoints at every airport in the country AND buy and install devices that would screen baggage for explosives. We get to see how the agency nonetheless met the deadlines AND provided a new level of professional courteous service that airline passengers had never seen before.
The most complex job of all was sorting through every single agency in the government to decide which ones had jurisdiction over vital security functions, and figuring out how to mesh them into the new Department of Homeland Security. Tom Ridge was was calmly and invisibly putting the new cabinet department together the whole time he was being treated as a national joke. It's too early to be sure it the new Department of Homeland Security will work, but watching the way its administrators went about the task of thinking out and building the department gives me far more confidence in it than I had beforehand.
The book didn't do a thing to change my mind about John Ashcroft, although it gave me a better understanding of his motives. It didn't do much to change my mind about our dysfunctional Congress, blinded on both sides by ideology, and more interested in scoring political points than on working together to solve critical national problems. Nor did it change my opinion of our president, largely absent in the book because he apparently prefers not to deal with any issue until all that's left to do is choose between fully realized strategies presented to him by his staff. If anything, the book increased my conviction that our dysfunctional media is incapable of contributing to the public's understanding of complex problems because it's mired in a culture of sniping and attack, a wild card that can, without notice, trump any organization's careful planning and smear its reputation.
And yet, this book left me filled with hope, because it showed me a host of grownups at work in our public agencies -- serious, thoughtful people devoted to serving people, and solving problems, in a timely manner. And it showed how the often selfish demands of competing interests can and do contribute to more fully fleshed out solutions to public problems. As Brill said, "the special-interest, turf-jealous system that is America ended up curing itself."
The book also succeeds as pure story-telling, more engrossing and hard to put down than many a suspense novel. I cared about these people, and couldn't wait to find out how the story would end. The answer is: much better than could be expected.
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Although American freedoms and the legal system that protects its people have been tested and even changed, Americans are still fundamentally free. Although terrorism, by definition, involves those living quietly in their communities, the country did not constrict freedom athome nearly to the degree it did during World War II, when thousands of its citizens were interned in camps.
Steven Brill. After. Simon & Schuster, 2003.
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