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The thoughts and theories of a guy who basically should have gone to bed hours ago.

I know, I know - what's the point? But look at it this way - I stayed up late writing it, but you're reading it...

Let's call ourselves even & move on, OK?


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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Why Watch United 93?


Jason Bennion and I have been having a conversation over at Simple Tricks and Nonsense about the United 93 film. Jason asks:


I find it interesting that you feel like seeing this movie is some kind of duty. Given your proximity to the sites of the attacks, I would think you would be less inclined to want to see it. Could you explain why you feel like you have to see it? Is it to help you process something about the event, or to pay tribute to those who died, or something else?

Well, Jason, it's like this: For about six months after September 11, the nation basically grieved together as one. At some point, though, life began returning to normal, and we began discussing important questions like "What happened?" "Could it have been prevented?" "How to we keep it from happening again?" These discussions yielded some useful results, but they also came with a predictable dose of defensiveness, "gotcha" politics, and sound-bite driven media reports.

Almost immediately, the zeitgeist about what happened that day began to deviate from what actually happened. Today, only 4.5 years later, many people have misperceptions about the event. They believe that no one did anything about the attacks for seven minutes while President Bush read stories to a kindergarten class. They believe that most of the hijackers were Saudi-born. They believe that a Presidential Daily Brief from August, 2001 warned that Bin Laden was going to fly planes into the World Trade Center. They believe that our first reaction to the events was to invade Iraq. And the list goes on and on.

I have two small children. Thankfully, neither of them will remember that day (one was only 15 months old at the time, and the other wasn't born yet), but I'm 100% sure that they will learn about it in school, and that they will ask me about it when they do. Given the enormity of what happened, I feel a strong responsibility to understand the facts, and be able to tell them the truth about it when that day comes, as opposed to repeating what will, by then, have become universally accepted myths.

More selfishly, studying the details of what happened somehow helps me to deal with it personally. I'm no psychiatrist, but I think it has something to do with giving my Left (logical) Brain something to do, so my reaction is completely Right (emotional) Brain . It also helps to minimize the righteous anger that I would feel (and that many others do feel) when they hear some of the more sensationalized myths described above.

For these reasons, I've watched many of the documentary films on television, surfed countless websites, and I've read the 9/11 Commission Report from cover to cover (which, by the way, I recommend to everyone. It really is a very well-written, useful document). To me, United 93 falls into the same category. I don't want to relive the events again, but I want to know as much about what happened as I can - for my sake and for my kids' sake.


The terms I keep reading in reference to the film are "reminder" and "re-creation." But do we really need a reminder of what happened? I don't think anyone has forgotten after only four and a half years. If it's intended as a historical document, why dramatize it? Why not make an actual historical documentary about the event?

In this case, I think there's a fine line between drama and documentary. For as much as we know about the events of that day (and, thanks to the work of the 9/11 commission and other scholars, we really do know a lot), we know very little about what happened on that plane. We have cell phone calls from the passengers to their loved ones, and we have the cockpit voice recorder, from which we've been able to piece together the basic story.

A true documentary would, by definition, have to leave out large chunks of the story. This movie fills in the gaps in (what I understand to be) a very tasteful, respectful way. Reviews I've read stress that there are no heroes here, no sub-plot love interests, no back-story about the passengers to establish them as "real people." we know as much about the passengers during the film as we would had we been sitting on the plane with them that day. In this sense, I think the film supplements the historical record in an appropriate way. Fifty years from now, it will be as if Schindler's List was made in 1955, when the people who were involved were still there to participate in the storytelling. That will be useful to my children and my grandchildren.

posted by Brian at 10:21 PM


9 Comments:

  • Thanks, Brian, for a very thoughtful and informative response. Your perspective now makes a lot more sense to me now.

    I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about the movie United 93, as well as what you've said, and indeed everything that goes along with having lived through that day. I almost don't feel qualified to respond to you, since my experience of 9/11 -- living hundreds of miles away in Utah -- was so very different from what East Coasters went through. Watching it all on television, it almost was like a movie to me. Which isn't to say it wasn't traumatic -- I once visited the WTC as a tourist, so I did feel some connection to the towers -- but it was very different, and far less intense than what you surely went through.

    I still don't think I'll see the movie, but I now have a better understanding of why others want to. Thanks again...

    By Anonymous jason, at 12:42 PM, May 05, 2006  


  • I'm glad I clicked over here to read your perspective, Brian. I know my choice of ignorance over critical discussion is immature, but as I implied over on Jason's thread, my response to emotionally charged topics is not particularly rational.

    Perhaps I will see United 93 eventually, but I will have to spend a while blunting my knee-jerk reactions first.

    By Anonymous Sara, at 1:50 AM, May 06, 2006  


  • Well, the good thing about movies is that you can see them when you want to (even years from now).

    As I said in the other thread, no reaction is a wrong reaction. After I see it (assuming we can find the babysitter & the thing is still in theaters), I'll post some thoughts here, which may be helpful to others still deciding...

    By Blogger Brian, at 2:11 AM, May 06, 2006  


  • Interesting post, Brian, for two reasons:

    1) it can't help but strike me that several of the things you dismiss as sensationalistic myths are rather well-documented.

    2) I'm correlating your interest in seeing this movie with the cathartic reaction you wrote about in your 9/11/2002 essay, and which I commented on in Menschenhawks. Ironically, the last time I used the word "catharsis" was yesterday describing how surprised I was that Moussaui didn't get the death penalty. I think there are good and bad reasons for needing catharsis, and I'm a bit troubled that with this film the one might be masquerading as the other.

    By Anonymous Jeff Porten, at 5:13 PM, May 06, 2006  


  • Sigh...I can't say I didn't know that response was coming.

    Re: Point #1 - well, yeah - if they weren't well documented, then they wouldn't be sensationalistic myths, now would they...

    At the risk of turning what was supposed to be an introspective post into a political one, here are brief descriptions of what I meant:

    The 9/11 Commission Report documents, on just about a minute-by-minute basis, the hundreds of people that were responding to the attacks in those first few minutes, including FAA, Air Traffic Control, White House Staff (including, among many others, the Vice President), Andrew Card & Condi Rice (who were with the President in the Florida school), not to mention NYPD, NYFD, EMS, and city and state officials in New York. The popular sound bite "Bush did nothing for seven minutes" has rapidly morphed into "no one did anything for seven minutes."

    Many of the hijackers were born in Yemen and Afghanistan (and a few were born in Germany). Al Qaeda realized in preparing for the attacks that it was much easier to get people into the United States if they had Saudi passports, as opposed to passports from other Arab countries. Even the actual Saudi citizens were given new (falsified) passports, so they wouldn't have stamps from "suspect" countries. Their Saudi passports led to the sound bite "the hijackers were Saudi citizens," which has rapidly morphed into "all the hijackers were Saudi Arabian."

    The 8/6/01 Presidential Daily Brief is two pages long, and yet thousands of pages have been written explaining to people what it said. The entire thing is in the 9/11 report, or here for those who don't want to page through the big PDF. The World Trade Center is only mentioned once, at the very beginning, and in this context: "US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America." New York City is only mentioned twice. Once here: "A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks" and again here: "FBI information . . .indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." Note that the World Trade Center was not a federal building. New York has dozens of federal buildings (some fairly nearby the Trade Center), but none of them have been attacked before or since. This myth, as far as I can tell, was intentionally started by those with political motives.

    As for our first reaction being the invasion of Iraq, that's just silly. First of all, we invaded Afghanistan before we invaded Iraq, and even that happened almost a month after September 11 (October 7 to be exact). And calling that our first reaction would also be a bit of a stretch - our first reaction was (believe it or not) to appeal to the UN, who issued a resolution requiring the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and close all terrorist training camps immediately and unconditionally (the second such resolution asking them to do that, by the way - the first coming in December of 2000). But even if we ignore all of that, the invasion of Iraq didn't come for another eighteen months (March 20, 2003 to be exact). This myth started because President Bush asked Richard Clarke, head of the Counterterrorism Security Group (under Clinton and Bush), on the evening of September 12th to investigate Iraq's involvement in the attacks (subsequently ruling out taking action against them on September 15th, by the way - see 9/11 Report, Page 335). This request, along with the subsequent invasion of Iraq 18 months later (and a bit of political motivation, I'm sure) have led many to believe that we invaded Iraq almost immediately after the attacks.

    As to your second point about "catharsis," no - I don't think it's the same thing. The initial feelings of rage and determination have long subsided. My desire to see the movie is more about gaining understanding/knowledge than any sense of retribution toward anyone. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not sure how you come to view the movie in that light at all. Care to elaborate?

    By Blogger Brian, at 5:59 PM, May 06, 2006  


  • if they weren't well documented, then they wouldn't be sensationalistic myths

    Except, of course, that with a sufficient level of documentation, it's not really a myth anymore, is it?

    The popular sound bite "Bush did nothing for seven minutes" has rapidly morphed into "no one did anything for seven minutes."

    Interesting straw man. Are you surprised to hear that I've never heard that? All I hear is that Bush did nothing for seven minutes, which is unfortunately on tape. (Although I have heard some suggest that he was just thinking really really hard.)

    Again, at the risk of sounding pedantic, I think I'm better wired into the leftist and security communities than you are, and when you come up with a quote supposedly from my side of the fence that I've never heard before, I wonder where these are coming from. My guess is that your media sources are cherry-picking the leftist idiots who we ourselves have discredited and don't listen to. I could just as easily hold you accountable for people saying that Clinton personally murdered Vincent Foster, or that 9/11 was God's wrath on the lesbians and fornicators.

    Their Saudi passports led to the sound bite "the hijackers were Saudi citizens," which has rapidly morphed into "all the hijackers were Saudi Arabian."

    You got me there, this is something I believed on the basis of hearing that their passports were Saudi. But note most of my side thinks their nationality is irrelevant, and most discussions noting their background are just anti-Arab racism. You will most frequently hear us saying the word "Saudi" to refute the notion that the hijackers were Iraqi.

    The 8/6/01 Presidential Daily Brief is two pages long

    Yes, that's why they call it "brief". Are you making an "it's only 16 words" argument here? Do we really need to go into the data that was ignored again? Should we go over the thousands of pages of research the government had that backed up that brief, or the debate whether the Bush administration followed up on it competently?

    This myth, as far as I can tell, was intentionally started by those with political motives.

    As was the myth that this was unforeseeable and that nothing more could have been done. Which goes far beyond 9/11: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0209.marshall.html

    As for our first reaction being the invasion of Iraq, that's just silly.

    Again, a straw man argument. What's documented is that a) Cheney energy discussions, still largely under seal, were divvying up Iraq as early as March, 2001; b) Richard Clarke, formerly a respected bipartisan defense official until he took on the Bush administration, provided evidence that Iraq started moving into the crosshairs on 9/12/2001. If you've ever heard him speak, he's said that he was not asked to find evidence on Iraq, he was told to find evidence on Iraq, regardless of whether it existed.

    My desire to see the movie is more about gaining understanding/knowledge than any sense of retribution toward anyone. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not sure how you come to view the movie in that light at all. Care to elaborate?

    I don't see this catharsis as retributive; it's more of an expiation of horror. (And perhaps guilt, since we've shed a lot of foreign blood since 9/11, far more than was shed here. But few people are aware of that.) My sense is that your understanding of 9/11 is most likely to be lessened by seeing the movie, since the dramatization is likely to replace other impressions formed in your mind. No offense to your mind, of course; this is just how humans work. Cf. studies showing how inaccurate eyewitness testimony is, especially when a subsequent storyline is added to the recollection.

    I've read the reviews saying that this is a very good (and accurate) movie. That doesn't change my belief that the release gives a strong impression of commercial and nationalistic whoredom, and that the people seeing it are just having a one-night stand with death so they can go back to their daily lives justifying or ignoring what the country has done since. As you said, the rage and determination have subsided, but the after-effects of what we've done in Iraq, Afghanistan, and to our own society have certainly not. More people will see this movie than ever spend 111 minutes worrying about that.

    By Anonymous Jeff Porten, at 5:57 PM, May 07, 2006  


  • Wow, you're taking this way, way too personally. Nothing I said until I responded to your comment was political in any way, and my response was purely about the facts. I never "accused" your "side" of anything. This particular discussion isn't about sides.

    when you come up with a quote supposedly from my side of the fence that I've never heard before, I wonder where these are coming from. My guess is that your media sources are cherry-picking the leftist idiots

    I'm talking about the popular zeitgeist here, not elected officials or leftists or security community members. I heard "we did nothing for seven minutes" at the seder table this year. Turn on Bill Maher or John Stewart (moreso Maher) and you'll hear it frequently. These are the folks that establish the zeitgeist. 99% of the country doesn't read political newsletters (left or right).

    Yes, that's why they call it "brief". Are you making an "it's only 16 words" argument here? Do we really need to go into the data that was ignored again? Should we go over the thousands of pages of [blah, blah, blah]

    No, we don't need to get into any of that. For pete's sake, I'm not arguing with you about administration policy. And I don't need thousands of pages of anything to tell me what TWO pages say.

    All I said was that 9 out of 10 random people on the street believe in their heart of hearts that the PDB said "Bin Laden is going to fly planes into the World Trade Center." It didn't. It didn't even imply it. The closest it came to saying that was using the actual words "World Trade Center" and "plane" within two pages of each other. The same can be said of the Fodor's guide to New York.

    Again, a straw man argument. What's documented is [blah, blah, blah]

    Again, I'm not arguing with you about why we went into Iraq (at least not right now). I'm telling you that I've had family members and co-workers insist to me that we invaded Iraq right after 9/11. They've insisted to me that they've heard it discussed on television and that they've read it in the newspaper. People who don't know any better (or don't wish to know any better) take shortcuts, and those shortcuts will one day become truths if no one cares enough to point out the facts.

    I strongly suspect that you know the facts, but you're blowing right past discussions of them with arguments about other, tangentially related topics in order to keep your record of slamming the administration in discussions about Iraq at 100%. That's fine, but we're not discussing that right now.

    [I had a long diatribe here about Richard Clarke which I deleted, because it's irrelevant. Suffice to say that Clarke has been speaking this topic since the late 90's, and the only time he downplayed Iraq's importance was when he had a book to sell. If you want the barrage of quotes, send me an e-mail and I'll dig through the report for you again...]

    My sense is that your understanding of 9/11 is most likely to be lessened by seeing the movie, since the dramatization is likely to replace other impressions formed in your mind.

    Go read my review - written before I read your commment above. My mind had very few impressions of what went on inside the plane, precisely because we will never know for sure.

    the release gives a strong impression of commercial and nationalistic whoredom, and that the people seeing it are just having a one-night stand with death so they can go back to their daily lives justifying or ignoring what the country has done since.

    The movie is in limited release (I had to go find a theater playing it - it wasn't playing in any of the major chains). Everyone is saying this could not have been done more respectfully. If profit was the motive, this all would have been done very differently.

    And as for the "one night stand with death," that's just total crap. I WISH I could ignore what happened, or what's been happening since. At the very least, the hundreds of hours I've spent discussing it with YOU should be evidence that I'm not just checking the guilt box...

    By Blogger Brian, at 11:26 PM, May 07, 2006  


  • Nothing I said until I responded to your comment was political in any way, and my response was purely about the facts.... I'm talking about the popular zeitgeist here.

    This summarizes my point. Your zeitgeist differs from mine, as frequently do your facts. When you make statements about certain perceptions being universal, then either you're making a political argument, or I have to accept both my facts and what I perceive, to be a marginalized version of reality.

    I heard "we did nothing for seven minutes" at the seder table this year. Turn on Bill Maher or John Stewart (moreso Maher) and you'll hear it frequently.

    I watch both frequently, although not religiously. Care to find a pull-quote? Because I'd cite both as examples of frequent critics of Bush, not the entire security infrastructure. Obviously, I can't speak for what happens at your seder table -- at mine, we just got into a debate over whether playing poker professionally was ethical.

    All I said was that 9 out of 10 random people on the street believe in their heart of hearts that the PDB said "Bin Laden is going to fly planes into the World Trade Center." It didn't. It didn't even imply it.

    The PDB was titled, and here I'm quoting from memory, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the U.S." I think a debate as to whether Bush administration actions pursuant to that brief were sufficient is highly justifiable.

    But more to the point, 9 out of 10 people in the street don't know what a PDB is, and certainly 9 out of 10 people are not critical of Bush the way I am. The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy reaches very few people; suffice to say that if my point of view were anywhere near as accepted as you think it is, I'd be constantly exhausted from doing a jig around my living room.

    I'm telling you that I've had family members and co-workers insist to me that we invaded Iraq right after 9/11.

    Well, this establishes two things. 1) you have a number of misinformed friends and family members. 2) it's a good thing you don't invite me to your seders, because I'm the kind of boor who would argue with them over the charosis.

    I strongly suspect that you know the facts, but you're blowing right past discussions of them with arguments about other, tangentially related topics in order to keep your record of slamming the administration in discussions about Iraq at 100%.

    And then you wonder why I take this personally. For the record, I rarely feel like I need to stretch to keep my record for slamming Bush at 100%. The man just gives me so much good material.

    I had a long diatribe here about Richard Clarke which I deleted, because it's irrelevant.

    Oh, ye of little faith. You know damn well that if we both keep blogging, it'll come up sometime.

    And as for the "one night stand with death," that's just total crap. I WISH I could ignore what happened, or what's been happening since. At the very least, the hundreds of hours I've spent discussing it with YOU should be evidence that I'm not just checking the guilt box...

    Likewise, I thought it was sufficiently established that when I talk about "people", I'm generally not including you in the mob, since the mob is on the whole less intelligent, educated, and handsome than you are.

    But just for the sake of argument, since you say you can't ignore what's going on -- how would you feel about a movie that dramatized the deaths of civilians in Fallujah or Kandahar? Would that also be a must-see?

    By Anonymous Jeff Porten, at 7:06 PM, May 08, 2006  


  • Your zeitgeist differs from mine, as frequently do your facts. When you make statements about certain perceptions being universal, then either you're making a political argument, or I have to accept both my facts and what I perceive, to be a marginalized version of reality.

    I see this as a "least common denominator" thing, not a "right vs. wrong" thing. You're hearing what you're hearing and I'm hearing what I'm hearing. It's entirely possible (dare I say, likely) that the people you discuss this with are more knowledgeable and less swayed by the mass media than the ones I talk to, which is fine.

    My whole point from the beginning of this was to make the effort to understand the truth, and resist the urge to accept the myths. The irony is, when I made four statements that were patently false, your argument wasn't "I'm not hearing those myths," your argument was "all four of those things are well documented." The difference with you is, after some discussion, we come back around to, "OK - they're not true, but they're not really myths." I don't expect as much from the general public (or the history books, or the public schools in 10 years, for that matter).

    The PDB was titled, and here I'm quoting from memory, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the U.S."

    Good memory. But if that's the "warning" everyone's talking about, I can see Bush's point about it being non-actionable.

    I think a debate as to whether Bush administration actions pursuant to that brief were sufficient is highly justifiable.

    No argument here. It's been discussed and debated, as well it should. My only beef is those who say, "He was warned, and he chose to do nothing about it." That's a whole different kettle of fish than "he didn't do the right thing" or "he didn't do enough."

    But more to the point, 9 out of 10 people in the street don't know what a PDB is,

    Which is even worse. I know people who honestly believe he was warned that planes would hit the towers, and did nothing to stop it. They likely don't know that they can read this supposed "warning" any time they want, and see that it wasn't a warning at all...

    and certainly 9 out of 10 people are not critical of Bush the way I am.

    Actually, it's more like 7 out of 10.

    But just for the sake of argument, since you say you can't ignore what's going on -- how would you feel about a movie that dramatized the deaths of civilians in Fallujah or Kandahar? Would that also be a must-see?

    I'm sure it would, but more for the people in Afghanistan and Iraq than for me.

    I understand intellectually that all civilian deaths are equally horrible, but will not apologize for 9/11 affecting my emotions more than other events. That's just how I feel about it. It's not an appropriate justification for setting foreign policy, debating the war, or even voting, but that doesn't make it untrue.

    By Blogger Brian, at 12:38 PM, May 09, 2006  


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