- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

The competition has been fierce, but Bob Kerrey is still my least favorite member of the September 11 Commission. Mainly because of the way he badgers witnesses. But also because, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he had access to much the same information he now says, accusingly, was ignored by those with access to it.

Otherwise, Richard Ben-Veniste would surely have won the title in a walk — on grounds of general lawyerlike smarminess.

Another contender was John Lehman, the former secretary of the Navy and current irritant. The other day he was caught talking out of school, or at least out of the committee room. He was speculating about a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s private militia in the person of an Iraqi lieutenant colonel named Hikmat Shakir Ahmad.

But it’s now reported he may have confused this Hikmat Shakir with an al Qaeda figure named Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi.

Hey, they all look/sound alike, don’t they?

All of which raises the question: How do we propose to fight al Qaeda, let alone win friends and influence the Arab world, if we can’t even keep their names straight? You would think that, after all this time…

Ah, well. To quote that great political philosopher, Billy Crystal, don’t get me started — on the cultural illiteracy/blind arrogance/general ignorance of the West. The great strength of America is our belief all men are created equal and that they long for freedom. It is also our great weakness.

Some men, and ideologies, are drawn to a different vision of the future — George Orwell’s image of a “boot stamping on a human face — forever.” Across wide swaths of the planet, freedom is anathema, a frightening prospect, a threat that must be fought to the death. Sometimes we seem to have no idea of the cultures we aspire to free.

We don’t even know how much we don’t know. We haven’t an inkling. I’ll tell you why they hate us — because we can’t understand why they hate us, that’s why.

The high-decible confusion of the John Lehmans and Bob Kerreys illustrates the September 11 Commission’s big problem: Too much heat, not enough light. Why, oh why, couldn’t we have just cloned Lee Hamilton a dozen times and made him the whole commission?

The former congressman from Indiana is as responsible as he is dull, which is a lot. But you don’t need any more drama in this investigation; its subject is dramatic enough.

When it comes to finding out what happened September 11, 2001, why and, most important, how to keep it from happening again, Lee Hamilton’s simple, thoughtful Midwestern humility is the beginning of wisdom. But the quieter members of the commission tend to get lost amid all the huffing and puffing.

Let it be noted, thankfully, that some of the September 11 Commission’s staff work isn’t just good enough for government work. It’s remarkable. Its reports on the events of that dreadful day are lucid, chilling, harrowing. To read them (at www.9-11commission.gov) is to be assailed by an all-too-familiar sense of dread and sorrow, foreboding and regret. It’s the same feeling you get when you read about how woefully unprepared this country was before Pearl Harbor.

Yes, the history of various American confusions and the same old lack of preparedness is long and impressive. And it tends to repeat itself. That’s the problem with an amnesiac society; we tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, and react each time with the same shock and surprise.

These reports on September 11 offer lessons to be learned. Instead, the more blatant politicians on the commission give us high-volume outrage, angry cross-examination, fatuous lectures, partisan digs, and little games of one-upsmanship. In short, politics as usual. And the media magnify it all. We love a good story, which means a good fight.

Some days my only question about the September 11 Commission, and about the coverage of its doings, is the same one posed by a duty officer at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector at 8:38 a.m., September 11, 2001. After being told of an apparent hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11, the flight that would shortly crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center, he asked:

“Is this real world or exercise?”

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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