Special Report

The 9/11 Hearings Jump the Shark

The New York episodes of a sitcom past its prime.

By 5.20.04

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NEW YORK -- The 9/11 Commission hearings reached a terminal level of absurdity in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday. Commissioners spent their time attacking the officials responsible for preventing a much greater loss of life, thereby giving the venerable Western tradition of self-criticism another black eye. Meanwhile, spectators and survivors continued to play the card of victimhood, interrupting testimony and carrying on with all the dignity of antiwar protesters at a rally in Union Square.

In television, they call such wretched excess jumping the shark, meaning the point of silliness beyond which a program is no longer viable. The term comes from an episode of Happy Days when Fonzie, wearing his ubiquitous leather jacket, jumped over a shark on water skis. Unfortunately, while the 9/11 Commission is about as substantive as a sitcom, it is not nearly as funny.

A measure of how far we've come from the unity and resolve that resulted from the 9/11 attacks was the venom some audience members directed at former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani. Here was a local official in charge of no intelligence organizations and with no military at his command. That he and his police and fire commissioners have become targets is proof that the purpose of these hearings is both to fix blame and to provide another venue for the victims' families grief and rage.

The first purpose serves the vanity and career aspirations of the commissioners as well as the political goals of those who would like to turn our eyes from the real enemy. The second serves our culture's directive that victims be empowered with elevated moral standing, though it plays itself out like nothing so much as an exercise in mass sadism. How much more of this, you wonder, can the 9/11 families take?

Blaming George Bush or Bill Clinton at least has some logic. Blaming Rudy Giuliani has none.

EVER SINCE THE FIRST World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Giuliani had warned about and planned for a sequel. New York newspapers had a field day with his "paranoia" when he created the Office of Emergency Management to handle terrorist attacks. For nearly eight years, his administration learned and war-gamed various scenarios, taking plenty of flak for being overzealous in their preparation.

When the dreaded follow-up came, it came by unexpected means and created a host of logistical issues that the emergency planning had not addressed. None of which should be very surprising.

The commission has pointed out some of these issues in its preliminary report -- lack of coordination between the police and fire departments, a disconnect between the city's 911 emergency calling service and the fire chiefs at the scene that day, problems with radio communications. It is certain that more lives could have been saved -- as Giuliani said on Wednesday, "terrible mistakes" were made that day. Most of them were documented in New York Times reports during the first year afterwards.

In one extensive report in May 2002, "102 minutes," the Times found that of the 2,823 people who died at the World Trade Center, at least 1,946, or 69 percent, died on the top 19 floors of the North Tower and the top 33 of the South. Those were the floors at or above the impact zones of the airplanes, from where escape was nearly impossible.

Barely 30 percent of the victims were below those floors. Roughly 25,000 people were evacuated. Giuliani, in his testimony Wednesday, speculated that "maybe 8,000 more, maybe 9,000 more than anyone could rightfully expect" had been saved.

If someone told me on that day that 25,000 people were going to make it out alive, I would never have believed it.

For a long time afterwards the dominant attitude in New York was gratitude to the fire and police departments, a gratitude owing not only to their sacrifice but also to their professionalism. Most people I know shared my amazement that so many had escaped the inferno. As for Giuliani, even the liberals were grateful for his steady hand.

BUT TIME, AND THE IRREMEDIABLE emptiness of loss, has soured these feelings for some. It's difficult to argue with those who grieve; therein lies the political appeal of converting genuine mourning into the more permanent identity of victimhood.

One woman, Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son died at the World Trade Center, shouted at Giuliani on Wednesday, "My son was murdered because of your incompetence!" and held up a sign reading "Fiction" during his testimony. Another held a sign that said the victims "deserved the privilege of a warning." The absence of such privilege is usually what constitutes a surprise attack. The ever-present Monica Gabrielle opined that Giuliani's testimony was "a lost opportunity," to do what, she did not say. Others in the audience shouted "Talk about the radios!" in reference to the fire department transmission failures. When told by Commissioner Kean they were wasting time, they shouted back, "You're wasting time!"

Not all the agitators were victims' families. One man identified by the AP as "a longtime city gadfly" was escorted out of the committee room after shouting "Three thousand people murdered does not mean leadership!" No -- it means terrorism.

If the crowd behavior wasn't bad enough, there was commissioner John Lehman's description of the mishaps among emergency responders as "not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city." It was a good line, but it wasn't true. The emergency people did a fabulous job that day, mistakes and all.

We are, quite simply, using hindsight to find fault with the performance of those charged with protecting us on a day when the inconceivable occurred. We weren't ready psychologically, and nothing short of cataclysm could have prepared us. Things could have been done better, but on the whole they were done well. Nothing can bring back the dead. There is no restitution in this world, only the next.

Through all the rage and the posturing, there was Giuliani, speaking simple truths that we seem to be forgetting, much as he did that fateful day. "The blame," he said Wednesday, "should be put on one source alone, the terrorists who killed our loved ones." What a shame that on Wednesday, this qualified as a political statement.

Meanwhile, the enemy lies in wait, nurturing a victimhood that long ago became deadly.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.