“We have some planes.”
—Unnamed hijacker, American Airlines Flight 11
On July 22, 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States released its final report. Published by W.W. Norton, the 567-page tome was billed as, literally, the “Authorized Edition.” The result of 20 months of intensive investigation involving every top terrorism-related official from the last two presidential administrations, testimony of 160 witnesses, and over two million pages of documents, the Commission’s findings strove to be encyclopedic and definitive. This, the Commissioners promised, is how it happened, and why. In finalizing its canonical narrative, the Commission also aimed to be “nonpartisan.” Five Democrats and five Republicans promised not just to find the facts, but—paradoxically—to deny any political consequence to those facts.
This, Benjamin DeMott argued soon after, in a Harper’s piece titled “Whitewash as Public Service,” was the Commission’s most damning flaw, though one often indistinguishable from its apparent desire to offer an emotionally cathartic work. Politically, the Report insulates the status quo by failing to confront it. As DeMott notes, the Commission consistently opts for the least challenging narrative line, both intellectually and emotionally, by implicitly praising the “sincerity” and “forth-rightness” of America’s elected officials while burying evidence of their failures (and outright falsehoods) in footnotes. The 9/11 Report reads as an emotionally anesthetized Greek tragedy, where government at the highest level lies flaccid in the hands of cruel Fate.
Serious failures of imagination, attention, and competence (“Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.”) are presented with the air of inevitability. In this narrative, events are predestined; therefore, there can be no blame—and no drive for redemption. In aiming to be “fair and balanced,” the Commission neglected its duty as judge. In refusing to place blame where necessary and appropriate, the Commission produced a toothless, irrelevant work, one so free of condemnation as to be, until recently, as near one could come to a “feel-good” narrative about the events of 9/11. In short, just the kind of story many Americans believed they wanted to hear—within days of publication, the Report had snared many admirers from both sides of the aisle.
Unfortunately, according to the publishers of The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, the original Report was too inaccessible to serve as emotional salve for the nation. The new work aims to be “The 9/11 Report for Every American,” promising to put “at every American’s fingertips the most defining event of the century.” If this sounds condescending—the implication being that Americans are incapable of (or uninterested in) digesting 567 pages on “the most defining event of the century”—such fears should be allayed by the book’s cover: in the upper left corner an iconic firefighter holds his anguished face in his hands. Below is a disturbingly beautiful rendition of the smoking World Trade Center, with lens flares glinting off the Empire State Building in the foreground. (The piece recalls British artist Damien Hirst describing the attacks as “visually stunning,” as well as German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s acknowledgment of them as “Lucifer’s greatest work of art.” The fearful symmetry of those twin pillars of flame often goes unmentioned, but here is inescapable.) Behind and below that lies silhouetted WTC rubble. A sober caption box reads, “September 11, 2001, was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States. The nation was unprepared. How did this happen? And how can we avoid such tragedy again? Ten Commissioners were given a sweeping mandate to find answers and offer recommendations. On July 22, 2004, they issued their report…” The not-so-subtle implication: this is a work of Great Import, but one which isn’t afraid to tweak your heartstrings when necessary, in the name of “national catharsis.”
Perhaps it’s still impossible to engage 9/11 without pandering to “I feel your pain” populism, but the first chapter of A Graphic Adaptation, which deals most directly with the attacks, plays to the hilt the Tom Clancy-like narrative offered by the Commission. The book opens with a full-page spread of the 19 hijackers, their faces familiar but cartoonish. Reduced to line drawings, the hijackers seem even more alien and opaque. The art of A Graphic Adaptation, stylistically similar to Mary Worth and (ironically) airline safety cards, parallels the narrative simplicity; Jacobson and Colon render the hijackings in restrained blue, gray, and sepia wash. In a disconcerting bit of onomatopoeia, the towers collapse with a comic-font, “R-RRUMBLE….” The images provoke a sense of vertigo, as comic book tropes intrude on the real world… then fail to elucidate it. There’s no “R-RRUMBLE” that can contain the almost 3,000 deaths at the World Trade Center. Yet the unreality of the panel reflects the essential unreality of the event. “R-RRUMBLE” seems as good an “explanation” as any.
The impossibility of fitting the events of 9/11 into any conventional framework of “reality” is precisely what provokes the desire to do so. That America is still, as a nation, trying to assimilate—emotionally, intellectually, politically—the events of September 11 testifies to the dfficulty to in doing so. There is no grand, national narrative that can offer “closure,” or even comprehension.
Stories offer frame works for meaning; in a sense, A Graphic Adaptation really is “The 9/11 Report for Every American,” as its publishers claim. Like its source, it promises clarity, but its real product is comfort, a storybook tale offered as the authoritative, unifying text. One can even imagine it, without too much incredulity, as a bedtime story, complete with parentally-rendered sound effects. In the same way sound bites like, “They hate us because of our freedom,” are, in fact, anti-explanations that smother thought with knee-jerk patriotism, the book is flattery and comfort packaged as knowledge: in America, the Commissioners assure us, we are strong of heart, willing to rush a cockpit when our country is threatened; our leaders are well-intentioned if occasionally bumbling (and we will judge them by their intentions, not their accomplishments); etc. Like all national myths, such beliefs are partly true and partly convenient. They serve to make us feel heroic, safe. They confirm that, while in need of minor course adjustments, we are on the right path, because our intentions are good and our national character is exceptional. In an increasingly tumultuous, uncertain world, that kind of reassurance may be exactly what many Americans want. But that doesn’t make it what we need.