When it comes to the events of September 11, everyone is an expert and no one is. Everyone, because the attacks and their consequences had the rare character of a universal event. Few in the world have been left untouched by them, from New York City schoolchildren to Kabul shopkeepers. No one, because, as Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda put it in their introduction to The Age of Terror, "this was something new under the sun."
Or was it? Did we lose our innocence on September 11? Were the attacks a turning point in human history, like the smashing of the atom or the fall of the Berlin wall? Will we never be the same again?
These are the kinds of large questions that have been kicking around since September 11, and it's easy to understand, given the suddenness of the attacks, the scale of the horror and the intensity of the response, why they have been posed. My own view, reinforced by a look at five collections of essays written after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is that it is too soon to tell. Some of the initial analysis is already looking dated or much too optimistic about the changed landscape. And in any event, it's important to be careful about the "we" packed into these questions, and alert to signs that September 11 is being used more often to reinforce entrenched views across the political spectrum than to challenge settled assumptions.
In time, books about what happened on September 11 and its aftermath will no doubt constitute a virtual cottage industry, perhaps occupying their own section at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble. For now, though, the first out of the box are compilations of essays and articles. It must be said at the outset that any book conceived and written in the span of a few months is at best an album of snapshots of a moment, and that while each of the books reflects a particular political orientation and sensibility, none of them constitute a sustained argument or a monolithic point of view.
Two of the books emerge from institutions of the establishment center: How Did This Happen?, edited by James F. Hoge and Gideon Rose, the editor and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations; and The Age of Terror, edited by former Deputy Secretary of State Talbott (director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, soon-to-be president of the Brookings Institution) and Chanda, the center's publications director.
Despite the fact that no military or national security authority anticipated the stunningly simple way unspeakable damage was wrought on September 11, these two books want to reassure us with "experts." How Did This Happen? promises readers it will answer that question "in all its critical aspects" by bringing together "experts whose insights make the events of that terrible day more understandable, even as we steel ourselves for the conflicts ahead." The Age of Terror promises that an "agenda-setting team of experts" will begin to tell us "what happened here and why," and "examine the considerations and objectives of policy decisions in post-September 11 America."