After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era, by Steven Brill. Simon & Schuster, 723 pages, $29.95.
“You lawyers are my angels,” proclaims one of the key figures midway through Steven Brill’s After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era . Sal Iacono, the man who makes the statement, is thanking his pro bono attorney for securing him an insurance check worth nearly $16,000 to help him rebuild his ailing shoe-repair shop, which was nearly destroyed by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. But the speaker might as well be the author. Mr. Brill (who, among other things, founded The American Lawyer magazine and Court TV) intends his book, at least in part, to be a mash note to the members of the legal profession for their important and patriotic work on behalf of the many victims of 9/11. To be fair, lawyers aren’t the only maligned professionals that come in for hagiographic treatment in After . Profit-seeking businessmen, press-hungry politicians and special-interest lobbyists get their due as well, all in support of what is basically a junior-high civics lesson: The American system is based on the idea that the larger public interest is served when self-interested parties pursue their own narrow, selfish interests.
Luckily, the parts of After make up for a less-than-satisfying whole. When Mr. Brill isn’t lecturing about his less-than-novel thesis, his book is a meticulously reported and impeccably sourced chronicle of the actions of a few individuals (20 “main characters” and 28 “other key figures”) in the year that followed Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Brill structures the book chronologically, relaying bite-sized vignettes from the lives of a handful of characters each day. There’s a decent cross-section of figures, from a Border Patrol agent to the C.E.O. of a company that makes luggage-screening equipment to a United States Senator, but by far the most compelling portions of the book concern Eileen Simon, the widow of a Cantor Fitzgerald energy trader. Mr. Brill turns up detail after heartrending detail about her efforts to piece her life together after her husband’s death. Her 5-year-old son, Tyler, meets with a therapist and draws pictures of airplanes colliding with buildings. Later, they take a plane trip to Florida, and Tyler asks if he is “higher than Daddy was when he fell.” It’s not until April 7, 2002, that Eileen can bring herself to replace Michael’s voice on the family answering machine. But there are lump-in-the-throat moments in the rest of the book, too. An insurance examiner calls a widow who accepts an insurance payment on her husband’s life but promises to return it soon, when “John comes walking through this door.”
Unfortunately, when After isn’t moving, it’s often tedious. Mr. Brill juggles too many characters: He has to check in on some of them now and again even when they’re not really doing anything, just to remind you that they still exist. For example, Mr. Brill drops in on Tom Ridge while the newly minted Homeland Security Advisor spends two days reading “two thick black looseleaf volumes.” We also get a minute-by-minute account of a day at the White House: “At 8:45, the President briefed his Homeland Security Council, using talking points and PowerPoint slides …. ” When Mr. Brill relates that President Bush himself decided that the color-coded terrorism-alert system should use green for its lowest threat level, you’re impressed by the reportorial detail, but you’re also struggling to stay awake.
Despite the impossibly comprehensive promise of the subtitle, the book’s scope is surprisingly narrow, consisting mostly of lawyering (whether it’s from John Walker Lindh’s defense attorney or plaintiffs’ lawyers who specialize in airline disasters), squabbling over insurance payments, and the federal government’s work to establish a comprehensive program for homeland security. Rudy Giuliani is virtually absent, as is the anthrax scare. And now that we’ve just completed the second war of the “September 12 era,” Mr. Brill’s unexplained decision to completely overlook the response by the defense and foreign-policy establishments in the federal government is puzzling. Readers looking for details on how America confronted Al Qaeda, Osama, the Taliban and Saddam will have to look elsewhere.
Instead, the villains of After (to the extent that there are any) are the Red Cross, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and John Ashcroft. Mr. Brill portrays the Red Cross as an incompetent bureaucracy that’s more interested in good press clippings than in aiding the victims of 9/11. It can’t get money to families quickly, and when it does, it overcompensates by giving too much money to people who neither need nor deserve it. The I.N.S. is similarly inept (“hapless” is Mr. Brill’s adjective of choice). One devastating anecdote illustrates how the agency was more concerned with protecting itself than protecting the country: On Sept. 11, the I.N.S.’s Border Patrol agents in Washington “didn’t go out to safeguard Washington’s various landmarks and trophy targets. Instead, they fanned out in front of headquarters to prevent an attack on themselves.” As for Mr. Ashcroft, the Attorney General comes across as a self-promoting, turf-conscious Beltway insider, sincere in his desire to protect Americans from terrorism but unfamiliar with the fine points of constitutional law, either because of “lack of interest or lack of intellectual firepower.” Even F.B.I. agents are “quietly appalled” at Mr. Ashcroft’s overreaching and his willingness to trample on civil rights.
But even the villains play a constructive role in Mr. Brill’s Panglossian universe. The interplay between law-and-order types like Mr. Ashcroft and civil-liberties ideologues like Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, turns the Sept. 12 era into a Goldilocks story, where nothing is ever too hot or too cold but always just right. Mr. Brill selects Senator Charles Schumer as the personification of the moderate ideal-the 9/12 realization that the balance between freedom and security must be “recalibrated.” In the end, Mr. Brill concludes that the Sept. 12 era has a happy ending: Because of this recalibration, the country is safer and more secure than it has ever been.
Mr. Brill concedes that another terrorist attack is nonetheless inevitable. But he asserts that the challenge isn’t to stop the next attack. Rather, “the real challenge is to create a set of systems for protection,” systems that strike the new Goldilocks balance. In Mr. Brill’s view, new government agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security are doing just that. And the self-interested lobbying of everyone from the ACLU to the airlines to homeland-security profiteers will ensure that the nation lives happily ever after. Unfortunately, we really won’t know if Mr. Brill is right until the next attack comes. And by then it may be too late.
Chris Suellentrop is the deputy Washington bureau chief for Slate .