9/11 Report As Literature
Ben Yagoda at Slate
has a column on something I've heard a lot of people say: Apparently, the 9/11 Commission Report is not just readable, it's downright literary. On a recent Daily Show, Jon Stewart even asked Bob Kerrey if they used ghost writers. I've been putting off reading it myself--it seems rather dark to actually view it as potential entertainment--so I can't judge his contentions:
Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton told the New York Times, "Democrats pushed for adjectives to support President Clinton while Republicans pushed for adjectives to support President Bush. It was such a minefield that we finally cut out all adjectives and ended up with a sparse, narrative style." One imagines that the very multiplicity of chefs preparing the stew—attorneys, investigators, politicians, and historians (including the staff executive director and presiding editorial sensibility, Philip Zelikow)—was helpful, each group canceling out the others' infelicities.
The core of the book backs up from the events of 9/11 and describes two parallel stories: the resolve and plans of Islamic fundamentalists to attack the United States, and the U.S. government's well-intentioned but disorganized and ultimately doomed attempts to assess and cope with the threat. Specific, sometimes microscopic, detail is used here, too, in a kind of a cinematic structure cutting back and forth between the two narratives.
Mostly Yagoda talks about the complete lack of unobserved dialog in direct quotes, along with the simple use of words like "apparently" to signal that which the commission has credibly inferred but does not actually know. He claims this makes the narrative more compelling.
I was most interested in the idea of multipe-chef-soup turning out better. It's so counterintuitive. I'm wondering if the the built-in division of the team helps. In my experience, team projects get murky and diluted partially because group harmony becomes more important than the final project's quality, and everyone lets the others slip in a few of their "darlings" in order to save their own. Nobody wants to be seen as the person hacking at everyone else's work, and nobody wants to be ganged up on by the rest of the group. But by naturally dividing the group into two equally sized teams, everyone has allies, and no one can be seen as the sole attacker or the sole defender.