Like other traumatized Americans who felt it was their moral, patriotic duty to stay informed about how and why 9/11 happened, I held a sturdy 10-foot pole between myself and the original version of The 9/11 Commission Report (officially called "The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States"). Not to take anything away from the fine men and women involved in the prodigious task of digging up the research and then assembling a narrative of the historical facts that led up to and away from that day: when it was published in July 2004, the first reviews even remarked on how "novelistic" and exciting the writing of the report was, which got me to put my pole down to peek into the first couple of chapters. But I couldn't stay with it. Whatever its virtues, any personality and style was Cloroxed clean out of the book: in the end, it's a grey bureaucratic document, and I am not a bureaucrat nor was I meant to be. There were plenty of wonks out there to read and summarize its findings, and I was content to read them.
But The 9/11 Commission Report, it turns out, has had an unusually long afterlife, not just as an international best seller that continues to take up coveted shelf space at Barnes & Noble, or as a prime source text for the waves of 9/11 books that have been written about the disaster, but as the basis for at least three major film treatments of 9/11: United 93,whose documentary-like power derives from its staying so close to commission findings; Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, whose facts (if not its sentimentality) stick close to the report; and TV's The Path to 9/11,which I didn't see and, judging from the media uproar arising from its biased deviations from the report (which was partly what set off Bill Clinton in that Fox interview a few weeks ago), I don't want to. Certainly Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the Chair and Vice Chair of the Commission, have to feel pretty good about the book's readership and exposure, if not its political influence (the Bush administration has yet to implement many of the Commission's most important recommendations).
Still, the report's factual findings obviously haven't spread nearly far or wide enough. Not only does a substantial minority of the population still cling to the notion that Iraq was behind 9/11, but consider this little morsel, courtesy of writer Sam Harris in the Sept. 18 LA Times: "A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government 'assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them, so the United States could go to war in the Middle East'; 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully fueled passenger jets smashed into them, but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode."
I shit you not. According to the Scripps survey, one-third of Americans are pathologically paranoid, and one out of six are, well, insane. For them, then—the conspiratorial and the crazed, and I suppose for the rest of us for whom bureaucratic prose gives us brain fade—maybe a comic book will help. Which is what legendary comic artists Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, with Kean and Hamilton's blessing, have provided with their "graphic adaptation" of The 9/11 Commission Report.
The panels of Jacobson's and Colon's adaptation look like those in an old fashioned comic book—the four-color drawing of the second tower's collapse, for example, is accompanied by a bright red "R-RRUMBLE . . . " scrawled across the teetering building, which wouldn't have looked out of place in a Superman comic strip of Lex Luthor wreaking havoc on a big city. What's interesting is that the drawing doesn't seem at all cheap or lacking in gravity: the comic book form—the graphic novel, whatever you call it—has thoroughly rebounded from the ironic treatment Roy Lichtenstein gave it 50 years ago and it can now easily bear the weight of representing historical tragedy. Art Spiegelman proved that with his Holocaust tale Maus as well as in his book about 9/11, In the Shadow of the Towers. Here, Jacobson and Colon prove it again.
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They certainly had their work cut out for them, though. The original report was 568 pages long, which means the authors had to be inventive as hell about presenting not just volumes of fascinating data but volumes of dull data, too. It's some kind of feat that Jacobson and Colon can make the Commission's recommendations about the re-organization of government agencies in order to better handle the terrorist threat at all interesting, but they do. There are, of course, exciting scenes of Taliban members bleeding on the battlefields of Afghanistan, of Flight 93 passengers fighting off the hijackers and of emergency workers climbing the towers to save people—all of that plays to the strengths of the comic book form. It's another thing to give us bureaucrats sitting in government offices discussing how to make the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency interface better with the National Reconnaissance Office.
The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation is one of those books, as comic book icon Stan Lee suggests on the back cover, which will likely be a source for future generations of high school kids to learn about the attacks, and it's certainly an honorable, nonpartisan addition to the growing body of stuff that's out there for adults, as well. What struck me most about the narrative, though—and this has nothing to do with the book being a graphic adaptation—was the repeated appearance of the Law of Unintended Consequences in this still unfolding, seemingly undying story. Examples are plentiful. When the U.S. supported "Afghan rebels" with secret billions of dollars of military aid against the Soviet invaders during the 1980s, we didn't intend for those rebels to morph into a Taliban so emboldened by victory over one superpower that they then turned around to try to defeat the other one, us. When Republicans impeached Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky thing, they didn't intend for the President to get so distracted (did they even care?) that he couldn't concentrate on the threat from Bin Laden. And of course there's the fact that the invasion of Iraq has become the best recruiting tool the terrorists ever dreamed of.
The mess that has followed 9/11—the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq and the plummeting of America's moral leadership in the world—is a fateful combination of errant ambitions, gross stupidity and the unforeseeable cunning of history. Before the next war starts—North Korea, Iran, wherever—it helps to keep in mind that many wars don't ever really end: they live on, especially in the hearts and minds of fanatics who bide their time until history opens a space where they can return to curse the future in exponentially dangerous ways.
THE 9/11 REPORT: A GRAPHIC ADAPTATION BY SID JACOBSON AND ERNIE COLON; HILL AND WANG. PAPERBACK, 144 PAGES, $16.95.