'Unbelievable' 9/11 film underscores our failures

Unbelievable all over again. If there was something I did not expect when I went to see the docudrama, "United 93," it was a spasm of disbelief, much like my reaction on Sept. 11, 2001, when the actual suicide hijackings occurred. Watching the movie's portrayal of the events of that fateful September morning progress from ordinary to utterly improbable and horrifying was shocking, even now.

My reaction surprised me. Like most Americans, I've seen picture after picture of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, the towers burning, the towers falling, the Pentagon smoldering, and the Pennsylvania field blackened and cratered. Those scenes are seared into our personal and collective memories. (How can we be shocked again when we know it all by heart?) Terribly tragic, to be sure; nevertheless, the events happened almost five years ago. We've moved on.

Or have we?

Accompanying the visceral jolt of the film was the uncomfortable sense that very little about 9/11 has been resolved. National grief and pain have been displaced but not dispelled. Intentionally or unintentionally, the filmmakers leave us with that dispiriting realization. As one reviewer said, for moviegoers there is no "catharsis" in "United 93," no real relief from the tension, no movement from one emotional place to another. Maybe that is the point.

In an April 29 Knight-Ridder article by Amy Worden, Patrick White, vice president of the group of Families of Flight 93, who lost his cousin, Louis Nacke, in the crash was quoted as saying, "It (the movie) is intended as a tribute on one level, and a platform for discussion about how and why it happened and how it should never happen again." That's where Americans are hung up. While we've been dedicated to paying tribute to those killed on 9/11, we remain confused about how it happened and wary of our government's ability to respond should something like it happen again. (Consider, we still don't know who sent the anthrax after 9/11, the global war on terrorism morphed into a bloody mess in Iraq, the government response to Hurricane Katrina was pathetic, and the possibility of bird flu looms.)


By chronicling 9/11 from the perspective of the air traffic control system, both civilian and military, director Paul Greengrass puts forward a fresh view, a clear picture devoid of political spin or conspiracy theories. In the film, some characters played themselves, and several were military officers from the Northeast Air Defense Sector. Nothing was more telling about America's lack of readiness than their inability to communicate up the chain of command for rules of engagement. Most frustrating, the order to shoot down a hijacked plane had to come from the president, and they couldn't reach him. In fact, much of what they knew about the hijackings came from watching CNN. With no orders, the military could not direct the FAA, either, leaving the FAA to act on its own.

That's not the story we heard after 9/11. As John Farmer, a former attorney general of New Jersey and a senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, made clear in an op-ed piece last week, officials, including the vice president, appeared on news shows long after 9/11 saying that Flight 93 was tracked by the military and the order was given to shoot it down. It took subpoenaed records from the FAA and the Defense Department to establish the truth, which was that the military did not even know about Flight 93 until four minutes after it had crashed and the closest fighter jets were more than 100 miles away.

Given our national complacency before 9/11 and the enormity of the tragedy, chaos and confusion - even in the military - that can be forgiven. What cannot be forgiven is rewriting history rather than fixing problems. When Americans know the truth, we can deal with it. In fact, as 9/11 proved, ordinary Americans are capable of extraordinary things.

Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail

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