The Fictional Path to 9/11
Perhaps the entertainment industry will come up with a few lasting lessons from the outcry over ABC’s “dramatization” of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. One suggestion: when attempting to recreate real events on screen, you do not show real people doing things they never did.
The film, a fictionalized portrayal of the nation’s failure to head off the attack on the World Trade Center, was shown Sunday and Monday. The second episode was wrapped around a live speech by President Bush, so it was especially unfortunate that the most questionable scenes all seemed to make the Clinton administration look worse, and Mr. Bush look better, than the record indicates.
Some of the most controversial scenes were cut at the last minute. But the first episode, for instance, showed C.I.A. agents and the charismatic leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance perched outside a bin Laden camp, ready to swoop in and capture him if only Washington approved. The authorization is not granted, and the Afghan leader rails, “Are there no men in Washington, or are they all cowards?” Yet neither C.I.A. operatives nor the Northern Alliance leader ever laid eyes on Osama bin Laden, terrorism experts say. The film may be referring to a proposed raid by other Afghan tribesmen that was vetoed by the C.I.A. because it had a low probability of success and was apt to harm civilians.
The “docudrama” format can be useful in allowing viewers to see recent history through the eyes of fictional characters inserted in the action. But it carries the inherent risk that scriptwriters will take the opportunity to improve on history. ABC should certainly have been aware this was a danger with such a politically charged topic. If that thought never occurred to the folks in charge, they might have heard warning bells when Rush Limbaugh went on the air promoting the film and bragging that the writer was a friend of his.
It was especially disturbing that Tom Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, was willing to lend his prestige to this ill-considered project. Mr. Kean served as a senior consultant to the miniseries and has repeatedly defended it in public, even as several Democratic members of the commission criticized its distortions. Mr. Kean has said he will give his payment to charity, but that does not undo the damage done to the aura of bipartisanship that has surrounded the commission’s work. And it has not defused concerns that Mr. Kean did it in part to help his son, who is the Republican candidate for Senate in a close race in New Jersey.
Maybe Mr. Kean wasn’t entirely kidding when he quipped that he had not apologized to President Bill Clinton for any inaccuracies because “he was out campaigning against my son yesterday, so I didn’t reach out to him at all.” Whatever his motives, he has tarnished his carefully nurtured image of a statesman above the political fray.
President Bush’s Reality
Last night, President Bush once again urged Americans to take terrorism seriously — a warning that hardly seems necessary. One aspect of that terrible day five years ago that seems immune to politicization or trivialization is the dread of another attack. When Mr. Bush warns that Al Qaeda means what it says, that there are Islamist fanatics around the world who wish us harm and that the next assault could be even worse than the last, he does not need to press the argument.
After that, paths diverge. Mr. Bush has been marking the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 with a series of speeches about terrorism that culminated with his televised address last night. He has described a world where Iraq is a young but hopeful democracy with a “unity government” that represents its diverse population. Al Qaeda-trained terrorists who are terrified by “the sight of an old man pulling the election lever” are trying to stop the march of progress. The United States and its friends are holding firm in a battle that will decide whether freedom or terror will rule the 21st century.
If that were actual reality, the president’s call to “put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us” would be inspiring, instead of frustrating and depressing.
Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terror until the Bush administration decided to invade it. The president now admits that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for 9/11 (although he claimed last night that the invasion was necessary because Iraq posed a “risk”). But he has failed to offer the country a new, realistic reason for being there.
Establishing democracy at the heart of the Middle East no longer qualifies, desirable as that would be. Where Mr. Bush sees an infant secular Iraqi government, most of the world sees a collection of ethnic and religious factional leaders, armed with private militias, presiding over growing strife between Shiites and Sunnis. Warning that American withdrawal would “embolden” the enemy is far from an argument as long as there is constant evidence that American presence is creating a fearful backlash throughout the Muslim world that empowers the fanatics far more than it frightens them.
Fending off the chaos that would almost certainly come with civil war would be a reason to stay the course, although it does not inspire the full-throated rhetoric about freedom that Mr. Bush offered last night. But the nation needs to hear a workable plan to stabilize a fractured, disintegrating country and end the violence. If such a strategy exists, it seems unlikely that Mr. Bush could see it through the filter of his fantasies.
It’s hard to figure out how to build consensus when the men in charge embrace a series of myths. Vice President Dick Cheney suggested last weekend that the White House is even more delusional than Mr. Bush’s rhetoric suggests. The vice president volunteered to NBC’s Tim Russert that not only was the Iraq invasion the right thing to do, “if we had it to do over again, we’d do exactly the same thing.”
It is a breathtaking thought. If we could return to Sept. 12, 2001, knowing all we have seen since, Mr. Cheney and the president would march right out and “do exactly the same thing” all over again. It will be hard to hear the phrase “lessons of Sept. 11” again without contemplating that statement.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
The breeze at dawn
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.