On the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we all immediately thought of the thousands of victims and their survivors, and in the months that followed, journalists did reams of stories about the struggles of those people most directly affected by the tragedy.
But uncountable lives were altered in more indirect ways in the attack's ripple effect. Take the guy who is president of a Silicon Valley company that manufactures baggage screening equipment. Or a U.S. Border Patrol agent guarding the crossing from Canada near Detroit. Journalist Steve Brill thought about these people and others, and he started tracking them. The result is After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era, a solidly reported book about how the U.S. rose or, in some cases, failed to rise to the challenge after the attack. Brill, a long-time news industry entrepreneur who is now a Newsweek columnist and NBC consultant, employs the well-established technique of telling a big story by following the day-by-day lives of the ordinary people caught up in that story. His cast is vast, with some 20 main characters and scores of peripheral figures. It includes a few of the immediate victims, but more interesting are the less well-known tales of folks ranging from the obscure an aging Italian immigrant shoe repairman to the famous, including Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
While Brill is relentlessly fair about presenting all sides, the book does have heroes (Ridge, for one) and villains. Brill is particularly effective at describing the battles in the legal and political arenas over insurance, survivor benefits and the creation of the new Homeland Security Department clashes that show not that America is in decline, but that it thrives on open debate. Progress was ragged after 9/11, Brill tells us, but it did occur. The country is safer, if not yet safe enough. That first year, he writes, "became a modern, vivid test of a country that has flourished not only on patriotism and strength of spirit, but also because it allows, even encourages, its people and institutions to seek to advance their own interests.''He believes America met that test. Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.