Maybe We Can Talk About It

Thursday, September 14, 2006

  • Harvey Keitel is also looking for Osama in ABC's The Path to 9/11

    Harvey Keitel is also looking for Osama in ABC's The Path to 9/11

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

It has been five years and a bit since 9/11. I say a bit because in that bit (from Sunday night, prime-time, until the end of the week) we have been subjected to a barrage of documentaries, docu-dramas, and random fictionalization of the events of 9/11. Now, for anyone who lost loved ones, or maybe for any sensitive person, period, reliving those moments can be unbearable. But perhaps this is not such a bad thing, and I will explain why.

I’ll start with a warning, though: some of the material produced for this sombre anniversary is somewhat dubious. Take, for example, Disney-ABC’s The Path to 9/11. Fraught with factual errors and omissions, the dramatic mini-series tries to offer some insight into the build-up to the events of that day, with Harvey Keitel as its main star. Its most celebrated conclusion, however, is that Bill Clinton is to blame for not having the guts to kill Bin Laden when he had the chance – and the film makes it look like it would’ve been easy as pie if only the political will of an administration drowning in Monicagate had been present.

I have two problems with this approach. First of all, if it were true, kudos to Clinton for actually finding Bin Laden. Unfortunately, it seems like the closest the US ever came to killing Bin Laden was an operation to storm his compound, an operation which wouldn’t have been exactly easy and the outcome of which was far from certain. The second problem, which underlies the first, is that it basically says “if only we had killed Bin Laden, then everything would have been alright.” If 9/11 was a day that changed the world as we know it, then surely there must have been more to it than one man in a turban. Plus one would hope that the most immediate lesson from 9/11 is that bombing/shooting/beating the hell out of the perceived source of a problem does not solve the problem itself, but apparently we don’t learn that fast.

That’s why, from all the media barrage, “real” documentaries come out the better. Take CBC’s The Secret History of 9/11. It follows the twists and turns in the lives of the 9/11 masterminds and terrorists for almost 10 years, since the 1993 original World Trade Center bombings. The Secret History of 9/11 is not easy to watch. The general impression is that no one in the US cared very much about these people: they were allowed to enter the country with incomplete visas or invalid passports, they were allowed to remain after their visas expired, and they were kept on a very loose leash even though some of them had been unequivocally identified as Al-Qaeda members. 9/11 emerges as a huge failure of the system to protect its own people. You actually see footage of Richard Clark, Director of Counterterrorism in the Clinton and W. Bush administrations, apologizing in the 9/11 Commission to the families of the victims.

But if what you want is heart-wrenching, emotionally draining piece on 9/11, look no further than BBC’s 9/11: The Twin Towers. A mixture of dramatization with plenty of CGI and of interviews with survivors and victims’ families, this docu-drama focuses on nothing but the events of the day in the World Trade Center in New York. There are amazing testimonies, such as one man who hid under his desk when one of the planes crashed into his office… and survived to tell it all on camera. There are also segments that will make you squirm on your seat, like people that will admit to cowardice or to maybe not having stopped to help others.

Whether you are talking about any of these documentaries and dramatizations, or about this year’s theatrical releases on 9/11 – the unassuming United 93 or the at times over-pretentious World Trade Center - a common thread seems to emerge: after these 5 years, maybe we are at the stage where we can start talking about it in more than bumper sticker slogans and absolute statements.

Being able to talk about 9/11 freely is just the first step towards both coming to terms with the tragedy and explaining it with any degree of complexity. I won’t say that TV and movies have powerful cathartic properties that will make everyone wake up and think for themselves (it’s often quite the opposite), but all three documentaries that I have cited have been made without much concern for profit (BBC and CBC are public institutions, and ABC did not air commercials during theirs and is distributing it freely over the internet), and, each in their way, try to lift taboos and put things into context.

Already the attitudes to 9/11 have changed hugely in the last 5 years, as people are emerging from grief and trying to piece things together and frame them in a comprehensive picture. Anything that contributes to this cannot possibly be pernicious, independently of whatever conclusions may be reached about what happened that day. And, although it is sometimes hard to watch, the TV material that has been produced in this fifth anniversary may just be a step in the right direction.

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