- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

The first wave of books inspired by the stunning events of September 11 has arrived. Many more undoubtedly are in the pipeline, all of them reaching for the adjectives we have heard time and again in an effort to define that sunny day when the sky turned black: "terrifying, unreal, ungodly, evil." But ask anyone who was there and it becomes clear that the calamity itself finally outstrips any writer's capacity to recreate exactly what took place. Some do come close to the horror.
These early offerings generally fall into two categories: searing accounts of eyewitnesses who lived to tell the tale; and the academic and social scientists who strive mightily to find "root causes" so that we may "understand" the enemy. There are winners and losers in both columns.
For a dramatic account that seems to herald the made-for TV movies sure to come, the editors and reporters of the German magazine Der Spiegel have reconstructed the misery of those hours with Inside 9-ll: What Really Happened (St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 321 pages). This is a compelling investigative diary of the "German connection," detailing the activities of Mohamed Atta and his bloody gang at their base of operations in Hamburg, and later in the United States, right up to the moment they hijacked four airplanes to steer into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and, missing their target, a field in Pennsylvania.
For those who condemned the Central Intelligence Agency for its intelligence failures in tracking terrorists, the reported lax attitude of German law enforcement prior to the assault is hardly a study in Teutonic precision. But the details of the human toll are heart stopping. Of a rescuer who, like so many, had to dodge jumpers raining from the upper floors of the burning towers, we read: "He did not want to look, but he had to in order not to be killed. They were falling at a crazy speed; the ties of the men seemed to stand straight up in the air."
Documents including the terrorists' timetable and even Atta's will are included in the appendix, but it would have been helpful to include an index too.

Several authors in the books discussed here include the unforgettable story of Richard Picciotto, a New York City Fire Department battalion commander who was among the few to emerge from the blazing rubble of the North Tower. But there is no substitute for hearing him tell his story in his own voice, as related to Daniel Paisner, in Last Man Down (Berkley Books, $24.95, 243 pages).
Chief Picciotto, who gave the evacuation order from the 35th floor, grabs the reader by the collar as the north tower collapses, running down the stairs and riding the wreckage from a seventh floor stairwell to a silent black void that would be his tomb for four hours. So gut wrenching is the telling, one is tempted to hope that the rumble of American B-52s over Afghanistan sounds as terrifying to the enemy as the "sick, black noise" that enveloped Chief Picciotto and his men that day. While the chief's carping about department brass can be a little distracting, this is a stirring tribute to the men we now know deservedly as "heroes."

A less compelling work, Dennis Smith's Report from Ground Zero (Viking, $24.95, 366 pages, illus.) is redeemed by the author's 18-years experience as a firefighter. Mr. Smith progressed from riding engines in the Bronx to writing the 1972 bestselling "Report From Engine Co. 82." After treading the New York City literary scene these last years, he rejoined his fellow firemen on September 11, only to offer up a self-serving account that rings more of Irish sentimentality and studied Manhattan name dropping than gritty reportage: "I go to my desk, an old piece of furniture with a leather top that came from the Geneva home of Francois Marie Arouet [de] Voltaire…"

Among newly published works devoted to foreign policy, Two Hours That Shook the World by Fred Halliday (Saqi Books, $24, 260 pages) reviews the historical problems of the Muslim world and the rise of fundamentalism. Mr. Halliday denies that a clash between East and West is inevitable; the September 11th attacks, he writes, were aimed at the corrupt regimes and "hypocrite" leaders of the Arab states, not America itself. In his Chapter 1, written after the twins towers attack, he says, "The organizers and the leadership of al-Qaeda came in large measure from a country, Saudi Arabia, that had for three decades profited, with no second thoughts, from squeezing the economies of developing countries by overpricing oil."
All too true perhaps, but the author, a Middle East specialist educated at Oxford, further argues that although there may be some "links" among terrorists, "the idea of a unitary or coordinated 'international terrorism' is, however, a myth." Such a misguided conclusion might have been avoided if, by the author's own admission, his Chapters 2 through 11 had not been written before September 11.
In a glossary, we learn that the "grief gap" is a term used to denote the distance between the United states and other Western countries in their reactions to the attacks. Moreover, "folks" is West Texas "Bushspeak" for terrorists. The attempt at humor seems oddly misplaced. There is, however, some redemption here. Mr. Halliday notes that the United States has fought three wars in the 1990s Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo in response to aggression against Muslims.
Finally, a chilling statement by Osama Bin Laden, published abroad one month after the attack, appears in the last of six appendices: "The Americans must know that the storm of airplanes will not stop. God willing, and there are thousands of young people who are as keen about death as Americans are about life."

Unholy War (Oxford, $25, 208 pages) by John L. Esposito is typical of the gooey academic liberal response to attacks on America: basically, that we must find out why this happened, and furthermore, it is probably we who are at fault. Mr. Esposito, founder of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, numbingly celebrates "diversity" at every opportunity as he promotes his thesis that the Middle East, growing child that it is, simply hasn't had enough time to catch up with the world, i.e. democratic principles. One may surmise that includes not ramming skyscrapers.

For sheer enjoyment of clear thinking and solid writing, William J. Bennett's latest book towers over the pack. In Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and The War on Terrorism (Doubleday, $29.95, 170 pages) Mr. Bennett takes on the hate-America crowd, that small but poisonous chorus of hand wringers who lost their nerve after 9/11 and called for soul searching instead of hunting down the murderers. Is it any wonder that old-fashioned anger has lost out to "conflict resolution" on campuses and in boardrooms. Fortunately, the incineration of more than 3,000 innocents did arouse bedrock patriotism that has eclipsed the anti-military cult, with its usual partners of multiculturalism and moral relativism at least for now, writes Mr. Bennett.
Unafraid to rap the "deeply problematical aspects" of traditional Islam, the writer is at his best dissecting its myths. For example, he argues that classical Islam may preach tolerance toward Christians and Jews, "but in practice the attitude toward them is "condescending at best, ranging from the contemptuous to the murderously hostile."
Mr. Bennett offers an eloquent and unpatronizing defense of Israel, a stern condemnation of anti-Semitism and a warning to those who believe that "Israeli aggression" brought down the twin towers. 9/ll was a moment of "moral clarity," concludes Mr. Bennett, in which our character will be tested. "The temptation will be great to call it a day while we are still in night … We cannot allow this … to forget why it is that we fight: why we must fight."
Read it.

Liz Trotta is New York bureau chief for The Washington Times.



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