The Witnesses
Sunday, September 8, 2002

Five new books reconstruct how we experienced the story of a lifetime in real time.
By Lorraine Adams

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rescued the news business from self-doubt. "The scale of this story -- and the many stories that have flowed from it -- has given us an opportunity to do the kind of journalism to which we aspire," writes Dan Rather in his introduction to a CBS News compilation of Sept. 11-related essays and photos. "It is a chance to perform a public service, to report news that is not only gripping but that also matters." Now, the work on which such satisfaction rests has been gathered in books. While there are fine moments of journalism in many of these, disappointing moments are more common. There is merit, however, in seeing so much journalism on one subject in one place. In reading hundreds of versions of the booms, the roar, the dust, we can learn a great deal about the news business and pick up clues as to why the public estimation of it has dropped to a pre-Sept. 11 level of distrust. Here are five books surveying a large body of writing from the widest range of news sources, from television to newspapers to the Internet to non-journalist freelancers.

The Story of Record

Out of the Blue: The Story of Sept. 11, 2001 from Jihad to Ground Zero, by Richard Bernstein and the staff of the New York Times (Times Books, $25), is an expanded version of something known in newspapers as a "clip job" -- a distillation of other reporters' news clippings (or, today, Nexis database printouts) into a single story. Bernstein chronicles the events of Sept. 11 and the history that led to them using mostly Times reporting, but also that of The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and a handful of terrorism books. His narrative is exceptional. His ability to sift through the facts and near-facts of recent terrorism history is unerring. He is a winningly modest writer, but he is not afraid of the poetic.

Most remarkably, this book about treacherous violence carries throughout its pages a sense that life is rich beyond expectation, a sense Bernstein conveys through his stories of the dead. It is difficult, when so much has been written about so many dying, to make the extinction of a life stun again. Yet Bernstein does. "Around the time that Osama bin Laden was leaving his native Saudi Arabia for the path of Jihad, a young man from Addis Ababa named Yeneneh Betru was embarking on a journey of a different kind," he writes. "Yeneneh, who was born in Ethiopia in 1966, was on a path toward the fulfillment of a promise he made to his grandmother when he was a boy. He told her way back then that he would become a doctor so he could take care of her if she fell ill. It's the sort of childhood vow that is usually forgotten. . . . He never wavered from it." A doctor to immigrants in Los Angeles, who accepted chickens as payment, Betru was also buying and fixing six used dialysis machines to open Ethiopia's first dialysis center. He had just fallen in love. He died aboard Flight 77, which flew into the Pentagon.

In Bernstein's book, one sees the choices and the details that shunt the miraculous away from the defeating so that every person, even the hijackers, is brightened with the possible promise of his or her humanity. Thus, Jeremy Glick, a salesman with a baby daughter named Emerson (after his favorite philosopher, Ralph Waldo) is compared with Ziad al-Jarrah, who murdered him:

"In very different circumstances, [Jarrah] would even have had a few things in common with Jeremy Glick. Like Glick, Jarrah was born into affluent circumstances, Glick in 1970 into a middle class family in New Jersey, Jarrah in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon in 1975. His father was a government official, his mother a schoolteacher. The two of them, Glick and Jarrah, both loved sports -- swimming and basketball in Jarrah's case. Jarrah seemed a modern boy in a country, Lebanon, that was always the most secular, the most European, the most urbane and one of the most moderate of the Arab countries, a country with a strong cosmopolitan middle class. The Jarrahs themselves were Sunni Muslims, but they believed that education was more important than religion, and they sent Ziad to a Christian school in Beirut, evidently because they wanted him to have a modern education, rather than an Islamic one." What radicalized Jarrah? Bernstein does not know -- and says so, instead of slipping in a guess and dressing it as fact.

The Wonder of Women

Another praiseworthy book is Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion, by Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba (Alpha, $22.95). It comprises 30 interviews with women rescue workers and chapters on three who died. The interviewers are a firefighter and social worker, who explain in their introduction that while firemen had received deserved media attention, female firefighters, police and paramedics had been less visible. They're right. David Halberstam's Firehouse and Richard Picciotto's Last Man Down contain few women. Stoicism and ellipsis mark those bestselling books. By contrast, these women divulge. They summon details. Listen to New York Police Lt. Terri Tobin after the South Tower fell:

"I felt this chunk of cement sticking out three or four inches from the back of my head. It was completely embedded in my skull. . . . Attached to the piece of cement that hit me were building cables -- not like thin phone lines, but thick cables -- and I was literally draped in them." Thus encumbered, Tobin dug out three people in the rubble and tried to help another man. "I pulled on him, but he came up too easily. I looked down and realized that I just had hold of a hand and an arm. No one was attached to it."

The women's capacity for wonder and doubt -- and their willingness to express it -- fills the book. Take, for example, New York Fire Department Lt. Doreen Ascatigno, a citywide dispatcher. After the first tower fell, she says, "All I could do was put my head in my hands and ask myself, What do I do now?" A supervisor told her, "There's nothing we can tell you. You've got to do what you feel is best." When it became clear that hundreds of firefighters were dead, she says, "I felt like I was the one who sent those people in there. I mean, it was under the direction of a supervisor, but I kept questioning myself. Should I have done this? Should I have done that? I guess I wondered, If there had been somebody else in that seat, would things be different?"

The Scene on the Web

The work compiled by the editors of Salon in Afterwords: Stories and Reports from 9/11 and Beyond (Washington Square; paperback, $14) -- some of it posted on the Internet and some of it commissioned for the book -- exposes Internet journalism for the wash-and-wear thinking (and casual-if-any reporting) it too often is. New York freelance writer Christopher Ketcham describes the people jumping from the World Trade Center as "heavy ants falling" and the site after the towers have fallen as "Hiroshima in miniature." He also informs readers that "within hours, cigarettes taste like burnt plaster and asbestos and sometimes, oddly, human flesh; 'real flavor,' someone joked." There are exceptions, among them Asra Q. Nomani's Pakistan pieces, Phillip Robertson's Afghanistan war reporting, Eric Boehlert's story of the firing of a Muslim professor in Florida, M.A. Muqtedar Khan's plea to American Muslims for reform, Daniel Harris on the kitschification of Sept. 11 and Salon Editor David Talbot's story of his switches from military schoolboy to Vietnam objector to terror-war supporter.
Fresh Eyes

At Ground Zero: Young Reporters Who Were There Tell Their Stories (Thunder's Mouth; paperback, $15.95), the first-person accounts of young journalists covering the New York attacks, is an embarrassing collection. Chris Bull, a Washington correspondent for the Advocate, and Sam Erman, a 2000 Harvard graduate, have showcased twentysomething journalists whose calflike work doesn't merit saving. Most of it is banal, but some of it is arrogant. One 25-year-old student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism sums up his day near the burning towers: "I cannot think of a way to say this that is not perverse but I felt an intense passion in the hours after the holocaust, an exaltation. I felt alone at the center of the world; all details became crucial and iconic. I tried to record absolutely everything. My own importance in the world was suddenly magnified, or I felt it so. I fed on the destruction around me."

Television History

In its compilation What We Saw: The Events of September 11, 2001 in Words, Pictures and Video (Simon & Schuster, $29.95 including DVD), CBS is not very adroit at camouflaging its contributors' self-aggrandizement. Dan Rather writes in his introduction that his "front-row seat on history" was such that "when the event happened, while it happened, we knew we were watching history unfold." It's no surprise that television news people think and talk in cliché. Yet here even the excerpts from Esquire, the New Yorker, Time and other publications are steeped in the same self-important pieties. In Time, Kurt Andersen wrote that New York was targeted by the terrorists "because the city, more than any other, actually does live up to the demonic Taliban caricature. We are the bin Ladenites' worst nightmare. We are rich. We swagger. We enjoy ourselves. From Wall Street to the media conglomerates of Midtown to the vast immigrant neighborhoods in all the boroughs, we embody the power and glory of globalization."

It is hard to see how the media conglomerates of Midtown bear mentioning, other than because of Andersen's location there as princeling. It is not so bad that he is self-centered. But he has projected his own traits onto New York, then made them the reason why 19 suicidal and murderous men crushed nearly 3,000 men, women and children into body parts.

Too much of the journalism about Sept. 11, which should have been the best, was mediocre. The public knows this, and 9/11 only interrupted, without ending, the declining circulations, audiences and favorable poll responses of the last decade. Work such as Out of the Blue and Women at Ground Zero exhibits what we need: intelligence, humility, details. We need to see past what we believe, or want, or hope to be true. We need to do more than witness. We need to think. o

Lorraine Adams reviews regularly for Book World.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company