Ash Tuesday (***UPFRONT EDITORIAL***)
Where were you on September 11, 2001?
American children will someday ask that question, as their great-great-grandparents once asked after their contemporaries’ whereabouts on December 7, 1941; their great-grandparents, November 22, 1963; their grandparents, December 8, 1980. The world may or may not have changed on 9/11, but countless individual lives did. So, too, did the way many Americans view themselves and the larger world.
Steven Brill, the founder of Court TV and the late, lamented Brill’s Content, considers that transformation in a book that is extraordinary in its breadth and scope, especially given how recent the events under discussion are. In After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era (Simon & Schuster; April 7, 2003; $29.95; 732 pp.; 0-7432-3709-9), he assembles a cast of 50 in order to examine a political and social landscape dusted with the ashes of New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Many are ordinary folk: the owner of a shoe-repair shop two blocks from Ground Zero, the widow of a firefighter lost in the collapse of the Twin Towers, a defense-industry executive who watched as the Pentagon burned. Others are the generals and soldiers of the security state that arose after 9/11, from homeland-defense czar Tom Ridge to the frontline Customs and Border Patrol agents charged with sealing a nation through whose portals, on the day before the terrorist attacks, 760,000 citizens and 900,000 foreigners had entered.
Then there are the lawyers, gathered to fight in the name of an array of special interests: lawyers for and against the underwriters of airlines and office buildings; lawyers for and against bereaved families; lawyers for and against John Lindh, the American Taliban.
In the deep background of Brill’s narrative stand a population whose attention had previously been fixed on Gary Condit and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, seemingly unaware that a larger world existed at all, and a president “for whom gravitas seemed to be more a challenging vocabulary word than a defining trait.”
In this immense dramatis personae, their actions tracked day by day, Brill locates angels, those who rose above self-interest to serve the common good. He points to ways in which, thanks to their efforts, things have changed for the better—airport security, for instance, a system that hitherto “wasn't a system at all.”
But he finds devils as well, busily seeking financial and political gain in the misery of others. Angel and devil wear the same clothes and speak the same language, and the reader must decide which is which throughout this long narrative.
“We need to remember where we were on that morning,” Brill writes in closing. So we do, and he’ll help fix our memory, our disgust, and our resolve.