by Joe Shea
American Reporter Book Review Editor
March 31, 2008
A 9/11 NOVEL OF A DIFFERENT KIND
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Down here on South Fla.'s Gulf Coast, the American Reporter is headquartered just 15 minutes from Booker Elementary, the school in Sarasota where President George W. Bush was reading to children on Sept. 11, 2001, when an aide whispered to him that a hijacked airliner had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.
There are lots of witnesses who can recount the electricity in the air as the President's motorcade blared a night before into St. Armand's Circle on Longboat Key, where he was staying at The Colony resort, and when it roared north on 9/11 from Booker Elementary on US 41 to the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport just five minutes away to take off in Air Force One. It's just another half-hour down the Tamiami Trail to Venice, Fla., where one of the hijackers famously studied flying - but not landing.
Around here, 9/11 hit home - even the managing director of the Cantor Fitzgerald office on the top floor of the first tower shared my full name - Joseph Patrick Shea - and I'd followed his career through Internet searches for years. On Aug. 11, a month before the attacks, I had a dream about its aftermath - a scene of firemen scrambling to find survivors amid a vast sea of rubble framed by the skeletal ruins of the building - that threw me into a deep depression for weeks. During that time I even learned the name of lead attacker, Mohammad Atta, when I asked whatever sent that dream to let me know who was responsible. An incredible claim like that is likely to get you hospitalized in some places, but that was the way I experienced it - what else can I say?
What author Steve Alten proposes in his first political thriller, The Shell Game, is that another 9/11 is on the way and that like the first one - according to those who believe as he does - the U.S. government at the highest level is behind it. But while it is true that at least three wars since 1900 were initiated on false pretenses, few are ready to believe that elected officials had a hand in events as horrific as those of Sept. 11, 2001.
In Denver, where the so-called "9/11 Truth" movement has a substantial following of street activists who demonstrate whenever the Democratic National Convention or presidential candidates - especially Rudy Giuliani - are making news there, the American Reporter's Ted Manna covered one of their protests and a meeting. He came away wondering about some of the facts they presented, as did many who followed the story of the Army intelligence unit known as Able Danger, but unconvinced that any American leader delibertely betrayed us.
For most of us, the plain truth is largely as Osama bin Laden stated it, i.e., that U.S. backing for Israel against the Palestinians was the catalyst for the attacks. Nothing has disproved that. But one looks at the open record of errors, missteps, failures and oversights that led to our lack of readiness for the attack, and the vast political benefits initially gained by them among Republicans, and wonder whether those who sensed a major attack was coming - they may have expected a car bomb, or something less devastating - simply sat on their hands, playing the power cards to place themselves on the winning side if one did occur. That is a conclusion I find believable, and one the sorry record supports.
In Alten's book, not a lot of the 2001 attack is dissected again, although there are many striking references to it. Some purport to be direct quotes from newspapers and individuals, but often slightly altered, and some are probably pure inventions. Alten provides a substantial bibliography and some footnotes (unfortunately, the occasional asterisk in the copy is not linked to footnotes at the bottom of the page but to the chapter notes at the end of the book, and they are unnumbered; of course, it's a novel, after all).
In the book, the hero is a late middle-aged petroleum geologist named Ace Futrell who is asked by the CIA director to return to Saudi Arabia to conduct a covert test of its oil reserves in order to prove or disprove assertions that the world is running out of oil (it isn't, he finds). It's 2011, and in the U.S. Senate Hillary Clinton is still fighting against the Iraq War backed by the "McKuin Administration" (our next President, Sen. Barack Obama, is not mentioned).
Ace is married to Kelly, a national security assistant who claims she was part of the first 9/11, but only reveals this to Ace as she is about to die from cancer. She passes on to him an account she has written of the coming attack and the reasoning behind it, and Alten has folded this presentation into the narrative in a different, larger type font and it runs throughout the book. Shortly after handing it over, however, she is assassinated by a Russian-American CIA hit man, and Ace finds himself on the run trying to prevent the coming calamity: the destruction of a major U.S. city by detonation of an atomic weapon that is made in the U.S. and is to explode with the complicity of senior officials in the government.
The narrative is compelling despite a number of obstacles, including misspellings, the intermittent use of lower case for Democrats, Democratic and Republicans - there are words of different meaning for the lower-case version - and word choices that reveal Alten's apparent ignorance of the government he would indict, such as when he refers to "Senior House Representatives" to indicate senior Members of Congress.
But, that said, this book does attempt quite successfully to demonstrate the kinds of reasoning that might have occurred prior to 9/11, both overtly and in the bureaucratic manipulation of FBI investigations, for instance, and that are intended to permit the new disaster. The scenes in which Ace Futrell has become the captive of a Saudi torturer, and the back story of a financial worm that spreads through the world's computers and steals back ill-gotten gains from them, Americans, Israelis and others, is a novel advance on the real-life story of such a worm that circulated in the mid-'90s and was covered in The American Reporter.
There are some hideous twists and turns that will leave a reader feeling awful, but a character we think is based on Sen. Joe Biden also emerges as the country's new leader. He at least starts the process of freeing the world from its oil habit and freeing Congress and our government from the special interests that seem to have inherited it from officials of recent Administrations. Anyone who wonders how this complex political juggernaut we call an election campaign will resolve itself will at least get Steve Alten's insight, even if it is wrong.
Joe Shea is Editor of the American Reporter Book Review and an unabashed supporter of Sen. Barack Obama.