The path to 9/11

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Last night I attended a screening of the first half of The Path to 9/11 a film that will be broadcast by ABC in two three-hour segments on September 10 and 11. Two and one-half hours is a long time to sit still watching a film, but this one was gripping and tension-filled and visually dazzling.

It starts off with actors portraying the September 11 hijackers boarding the planes that morning, interlaced with actual footage from security cameras, and then flips back to the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Much of the focus is on John O'Neill, the legendary CIA agent who later retired and was killed in the WTC on September 11. We see the arrest of the '93 bomber Ramzi Youssef in the Philippines and then his arrest in Pakistan; the Northern Alliance fighter Massoud and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan; the arrest of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in Brooklyn; and the apprehension by customs agent Diana Dean of the would-be LAX millennium bomber in Port Angeles, Wash. The terrorists are each presented as clearly defined individuals, evil in intention and deed. One gripping scene shows Massoud's forces--and CIA agents surrounding bin Laden's encampments and then being called back when National Security Adviser Sandy Berger refuses to give a go-ahead for the operation. That scene, according to 9/11 commission Chairman Thomas Kean, an adviser to the film, is a conflation of a number of events; during the question period, commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, perhaps the most partisan member of the commission, said that it misrepresented what actually happened. But, as Kean pointed out, the Clinton administration did decline a number of opportunities to get bin Laden.

The film was shot with 16-millimeter cameras and is edited in an edgy style suggesting hand-held cameras. The fascinating footage of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan was actually shot in Morocco; most of the rest of the film was shot in Toronto, with some scenes shot in Washington and New York. Here's an interview with the writer of the script, Cyrus Nowrasteh.

I have no idea how large an audience this film will attract next month. But it's interesting that ABC was willing to spend something like $40 million on this project, and it's interesting too that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, is a story of heroism, not a conspiracy theory, and seems to be a commercial success. And earlier this year United 93, despite its harrowing content, did pretty well at the box office. Stone's film was released August 9, a day before the news reached America of the arrest of the suspected London airline bomb plotters.

Those arrests reminded Americans that, yes, there really are evil people out there who want to kill as many of us as they can and to inflict as much damage on our society as possible. The Path to 9/11, World Trade Center, and United 93 send the same message. Will it have some political effect? I think it already has. If the question is: Has the struggle in Iraq gone on too long? the answers tend to hurt George W. Bush and the Republicans. If the question is: Who will protect us from those who want to destroy us? the answers tend to help Bush and the Republicans. The London bomb plot and these three films help to shift the focus from the first question to the second.