America at a Crossroads
In the week-long America at a Crossroads series debuting on PBS April 15, here’s what stayed with Current editors
Originally published in Current, April 9, 2007
Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda
Sunday, April 15, 9 p.m.
Essence: Fundamentalist notions that inspired the 9/11 attacks evolved over decades, largely in the minds of two men: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The United States crippled Al Qaeda when it overthrew the Taliban but gave it new life by invading Iraq, alienating much of the Muslim world.
Credits: Produced by Paladin Invision. William Cran, writer, director and producer; Clive Syddall, e.p.; Adam Lively, co-producer; Robert MacNeil, narrator.
Faces: Osama bin Laden; right-hand ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri; Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Arabic newspaper Al Quds; John Miller, former ABC newsman who interviewed bin Laden in the 1990s and now works for the FBI; Lawrence Wright, journalist and author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11; Abdallah Schleifer, journalist and professor; many others.
Subgenre: Globe-hopping two-hour news doc with lots of interviews and historical clips.
Summary: Bin Laden, privileged son of a wealthy Saudi industrialist, was a pious young Muslim who found his calling as a fundament-alist holy warrior during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union. He later found a kindred spirit in radical Egyptian intellectual Ayman al-Zawahiri, physician and former political prisoner who long advocated Islamic revolution. The film outlines the development of the two leaders’ world views.
The doc’s historical primer introduces Sayyid Qutb, an influential 20th century Egyptian ideologue who called for Islamic revolution; surveys al-Zawahiri’s time in prison; and reports on his and bin Laden’s experiences fighting and recruiting in Afghanistan and the Sudan.
Clips of bin Laden speeches trace his philosophical shift, targeting the United States instead of westernized Middle East leaders. Despite its “success” on 9/11, Al Qaeda was on the ropes following the U.S. rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But by invading Iraq, the U.S. threw Al Qaeda “a lifeline,” says one commenter, showing to many Muslims that bin Laden’s warnings about the West were right all along.
Leanings: Al Qaeda’s actions speak for themselves. There are no jingoist interviews on either side. But the doc clearly indicates that taking war to Iraq only helped Islamic terrorists.
Memorable: In February 2001, just months before 9/11, an Al Qaeda strategist told Arab journalist Ahmed Zaidan that the group wanted to drag the Americans into conflicts in three countries: Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. “They wanted to make sure Muslims perceive America as an infidel invader of Muslim lands,” he said.Warriors
Essence: U.S. Army troops going about their work look more down-to-earth than heroic, tracking insurgents and trying to keep their comrades alive.
Credits: Karl Zinsmeister and Ann Zinsmeister, producers; Ed Robbins, writer and director; Christian Galdabini, videographer/combat cameraman; Karen K.H. Sim, editor.
Faces: Soldiers include Lt. Col. Ross Brown, whose unit repeatedly comes under attack and who finds respite from the pressure by reading Harry Potter; Sgt. 1st Class Ron Corella, a son of migrant workers who says he was a “little hippie-looking kid” in his youth; Lt. Emily Nay, a former high-school soccer star with a winning smile whose type-A personality drove her to enroll at West Point.
Subgenre: No-frills on-the-scene doc.
Summary: In spring and fall 2005, troops at two bases in and around Baghdad undertake a mix of intelligence gathering, cordial diplomacy and tougher tactics as they pursue well-hidden enemies. Their approach is no-nonsense: “I’m not a warmonger ... but someone has to do it,” a captain says.
Leanings: Presents daily tribulations of war without political judgments.
Memorable: A vehicle carrying soldiers and a camera operator is hit by a roadside bomb, creating momentary chaos as the camera falters and someone yells, “Who got hit?” The Americans jump out of the vehicle; a shootout ensues.
Writing the Wartime Experience
Monday, April 16, 10 p.m.
Essence: Soldiers testify: War is surely hell.
Credits: Produced by The Documentary Group. Tom Yellin, e.p.; Richard E. Robbins, director, producer and writer; Adam Hyman and Kristin Lesko, co-producers; Gillian McCarthy, film editor.
Faces: Soldiers who wrote about their experiences in Iraq, mixed with better-known writers who served in earlier wars, including Tim O’Brien, James Salter, Tobias Wolff, Paul Fussell and Yusef Komunyakaa.
Subgenre: Soldiers’ writings illustrated in mixed impressionistic graphic styles, with interview clips.
Summary: Based on a National Endowment for the Arts project that spawned an anthology of writings by post-9/11 troops. Photos of killed soldiers accompany a moving elegy, “To the Fallen.” For comic relief, a sergeant describes desert life in “Camp Muckamungus”: “Go to your vacuum, open the canister and pour it all over you, your bed, clothing and your personal effects. Now roll in it until it’s in your eyes, nose, ears, hair and ... well, you get the picture.”
Leanings: Bluntly depicts costs of war, though without an antiwar tone. Interviewees don’t mince words. A medic says, “War is not this glorious thing that’s made in a movie or on TV. When you break it down to the human level, it’s actually quite disgusting.”
Memorable: Colby Buzzell’s chilling “Men in Black,” the first excerpt, uses animation and a point-of-view vantage to put the viewer on the wrong end of a sniper’s AK47. “I froze and then a split second later, I saw the fire from his muzzle flash leaving the end of his barrel and brass shell casings exiting the side of his AK as he was shooting directly at me.”
Gangs of Iraq
Tuesday, April 17, 9 p.m.
Essence: Strategic mistakes by Pentagon brass allowed Iraq’s inherent sectarian hostility to erupt into militia warfare. By infiltrating coalition-trained forces, sectarian fighters subvert efforts to create a unified Iraqi army that can keep order and allow U.S. withdrawal.
Credits: Produced by RAIN Media in association with Frontline. Martin Smith, producer and correspondent; Marcela Gaviria, producer, writer and director; Sherry Jones of Washington Media Associates and David Fanning of Frontline, e.p.’s.
Faces: Smith, on-camera correspondent; key figures including Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq; Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq; Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, influential Iraqi Shiite leader; Bayan Jabr, Iraq’s controversial former minister of the interior; L. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq; Dexter Filkins, former New York Times correspondent; many others.
Subgenre: Frontline report including footage with Smith, embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq, plus older footage and interviews.
Summary: Cameras follow U.S. soldiers as they respond to militia violence and find Baghdad’s Sadr City in utter chaos following car bombings. Older footage and interviews outline how Iraq reached such an explosive state.
The doc traces the rise of militant factionalism, tracking leaders including radical Shiites Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Shiite-on-Sunni violence emerges after Bayan Jabr, a former Shi’a militia leader, was named Iraq’s interior minister. Sources describe the Sunni response — the 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque, a holy Shiite site — as the spark that lit a civil war. (Many say Al Qaeda bombed the shrine.)
Meanwhile, the scene of a U.S. contractor and “self-described motivational speaker” asking Iraqi recruits to bellow “Freedom!” and pledge allegiance to the Iraqi flag signals the ineffectiveness of coalition training efforts. As the doc makes clear, many Iraqi soldiers feel more loyalty to sects than to the nation. Says a policy adviser: “My greatest fear is that we’ve been equipping Iraqis for civil war.”
Leanings: Strongly implies that coalition forces have made significant mistakes and includes few if any interviews with defenders of U.S. performance.
Memorable: Iraqi recruits — supposedly helping U.S. soldiers uncover and seize a militia’s weapons cache — are filmed surreptitiously discussing the whereabouts of an even bigger stockpile. “This is kids’ stuff,” one whispers to another, before explaining that the larger cache is “with my mullah.” (The producers didn’t translate this until months later, Smith says.)
The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom
Tuesday, April 17, 10 p.m.
Essence: The view of a leading Iraq War hawk: The United States must aggressively confront oppressive regimes wherever they arise.
Credits: Produced by Brook Lapping Productions, London. Phil Craig, e.p.; Mick Gold, producer.
Faces: Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense and a primary architect of the war in Iraq; Sir Simon Jenkins, British journalist; Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Arabic newspaper Al Quds; Pat Buchanan, conservative adviser and former presidential candidate; Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton; Haris Silajdzic, former prime minister of Bosnia.
Subgenre: Point of view, self-narrated, with extensive globe-hopping.
Summary: Perle explains his beliefs to the camera while traveling from Washington to Kabul, Dubai, Bosnia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere to chat with ideological friends and foes. He suggests evidence that assertive American policies are working: a reopened girls’ school in Kabul, the fall of the Soviet Union and peace in the formerly war-torn Balkans. Meanwhile, critics tell him the United States has destroyed Iraq and a Washington war protestor calls him a weapon of mass destruction.
Leanings: The first part of the title — The Case for War — says it all. But the doc gives ample time to pointed critics of Perle’s beliefs, ranging from arch-conservative Buchanan to Holbrooke, a Clinton appointee.
Memorable: Perle is widely seen as the quintessential neo-conservative but he is actually a registered Democrat, he said. His first political experience came as a student volunteer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
Wednesday, April 18, 9 p.m.
Essence: After Spain took sides in Iraq, jihad ignited among alienated young immigrant men in Western Europe.
Credits: Produced by Brook Lapping Productions, London. Phil Craig, e.p.; and David Alter, producer.
Faces: Suspected leaders of the Madrid terrorist cell Sarhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, (alias “The Tunisian”) and Jamal Ahmidan (“El Chino” or “Mowgli”); former Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar; Spanish intelligence and national security experts Manolo Navarette and Rafael Bardaji; Digna van Boetzelaer, Holland’s chief antiterrorism prosecutor and head of the investigation of the terrorist cell responsible for the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh; Jermaine Walters, brother of a terrorist convicted for the Van Gogh murder.
Subgenre: Part docudrama, part doc.
Summary: More mayhem than the average PBS hour. With railway bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, Spain and other Western European nations struggle to adapt to threats from “homegrown terrorists” — young, disaffected Muslims from immigrant families. Reenactments depict how young men living outwardly normal lives in Spain became radicalized and carried out a major terrorist attack in reprisal for Spain’s participation in the Iraq War. The producers follow investigators’ trail to Al Qaeda cell activities in Italy and the Netherlands.
Leanings: The focus is on tracking down the bombers and tracing their connections to other Islamic radicals. Might make you think twice about young Muslim men in study groups.
Memorable: Over grainy footage of prisoner abuse at Abu Gharaib, the narrator describes how events in Iraq provoked fury among Muslims in Europe. Jihadist websites were a ready resource for young men ready to fight.
Essence: Muslim Americans suffer discrimination since 9/11 but are recognizably quite American, even if some of the women wear head scarves.
Credits: MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. Ricki Green, former WETA production exec, producer. Susan Mills, e.p. Segments reported by MacNeil/Lehrer regulars Ray Suarez, Judy Woodruff, Spencer Michels and Fred de Sam Lazaro, with Robert MacNeil providing connective narration in a mosque.
Faces: Michels introduces the audience to young American-born Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, who has spoken out against terrorists who “hijacked” Islam. He wants his Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., to become the religion’s first U.S. seminary, remedying the lack of trained clergy, especially those who understand American life—who can, for example, play basketball with the kids.
Subgenre: Segmented, newsmag-style.
Summary: Suarez leads off with a visit to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a longtime Muslim settlement with the oldest mosque in the country. He and de Sam Lazaro report from the Midwest: After 9/11, everything changed for law-abiding Muslims here, some now terrorized by ethnic hatred and arrested repeatedly by suspicious officials, especially at airports. Woodruff visits moderate Muslim youth workers and student leaders.
Why aren’t more Muslims becoming radicalized by discrimination, as are many in Europe? One reason, given by a spokesman: “We feel we have the law on our side.”
Leanings: Not a search for Islamist cells. Correspondents’ line of questioning indicates they favor decent treatment of peaceful Muslim Americans.
Memorable: Early in the hour, Syrian-born lawyer Wafika Albani admits she has stopped going to mosque to avoid outsiders’ suspicions. Later, her daughter Sarah announces that she’ll wear a Muslim head scarf while going about her teenage American life. Her mother says: “I felt so proud of her.”
Faith Without Fear
Thursday, April 19, 9 p.m.
Essence: The view of a vocal westernized Muslim: Islamic terrorists follow a backward 7th century brand of Islam suited to tribal days, obsessed with jihad instead of “ijtihad,” the independent thinking that blossomed centuries later during Islam’s golden age.
Credits: Irshad Manji and Ian McLeod, writers. Gordon Henderson and Silva Basma-jian, e.p.’s. Produced by Henderson’s 90th Parallel Film and Television Productions Ltd. in co-production with National Film Board of Canada, CPB and Canada’s commercial Global Television network.
Faces: Manji, young, spike-haired Canadian Muslim, author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, and onetime producer/host of QueerTelevision on Toronto’s CityTV; her more traditional mother, Mumtaz Mawji; her foil, Imam Syed Soharwardy, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada; her Dutch counterpart, Somali-born author Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Subgenre: Point of view, self-narrated, with moderate globe-hopping.
Summary: Articulate as a talk-show host, Manji calmly draws out the views of a former bin Laden bodyguard and holds a kitchen debate with Imam Syed (in Manji’s kitchen). Approvingly interviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author Salman Rushdie and Mansur Escudero, president of Spain’s Islamic Commission, who issued a fatwa against Al Qaeda. Punctuated with human-interest conversations with Manji’s mother, who worries about death threats against her outspoken daughter.
Leanings: Favors individual liberty, religious tolerance.
Memorable: The mother reveals a bit of her daughter’s rage when members of her mosque chase her and the filmmakers off the grounds.
Struggle for the Soul of Islam:
Thursday, April 19, 10 p.m.
Essence: World’s largest Islamic population, larger than entire Arab world, has a traditionally tolerant majority, but transplanted Islamist militants are on the march with sticks and bombs.
Credits: Produced by New York Times Television. Ken Levis, producer, writer and director; Calvin Sims, reporter and co-producer; Ann Derry, e.p.
Faces: Among many key interviews: Islamist leader Abu Bakar Bashir, who doesn’t pretend to like democracy and wants to establish a worldwide Muslim caliphate unimpeded by elections. “In Islam, Allah holds the ultimate power,” he says. “He does not require the people’s consent.” On the other side, long-haired pop star Ahmad Dhani sings to make freedom cool.
Subgenre: Issue documentary, pitting peaceful majority against Islamist militants.
Summary: Opening scene: a tourist’s video camera captures the bombing of a restaurant in 2005, one of several such attacks in recent years.
Long ago, Islam came to Indonesia through trade instead of conquest and it retains a distinct tolerance and cultural flavor. With the fall of Suharto’s 35-year dictatorship in 1998, both political freedoms and militant Muslims came to Indonesia. Officials give assurances that most Indonesians reject theocracy, but the fundamentalists are on the move.
Stick-waving Islamic Defenders Front mobs go after a billiards parlor as well as a transvestite beauty pageant. The public rejects a supposed “antipornography” bill that would have banned public kissing and imposed a dress code for women, but some provincial politicians accept radicals’ demand for restrictive Islamic laws.
Leanings: Both sides are heard from but the producers give few if any positive points to Islamists, who nearly endorse bombings and openly aim to rule the world.
Memorable: With a laugh, an Islamist leader denies getting support from Al Qaeda. “The truth is, we fund them—they don’t fund us.”
Security Versus Liberty: The Other War
Friday, April 20, 9 p.m.
Essence: Some argue that the Bush administration’s efforts to fight terrorists have kept Americans safe, but others charge that excessive spy work violated citizens’ freedom.
Credits: Produced by ABC News Productions. Executive producers: Jennifer Lawson, WHUT, Washington, and Lisa Zeff, ABC. Producer: Edward Gray, ABC.
Faces: Connecticut librarians who resisted an FBI order to turn over records; Muslims in Albany, N.Y., arrested in a sting operation targeting Americans in cahoots with terrorists.
Subgenre: Straightforward documentary.
Summary: FBI officials, civil libertarians, scholars and others weigh in on three topics: the FBI’s use of National Security Letters, the National Security Agency’s secret wiretapping program and the Albany sting.
Leanings: Takes care to balance perspectives, playing off one side against the other in each segment.
Memorable: The final segment, about the money-laundering sting, presents the targets as somewhat sympathetic guys trapped by an investigation that could have gone after more dangerous individuals.
Friday, April 20, 10 p.m.
Essence: The Muslim Brotherhood, a sprawling Cairo-born multinational organization that seeks to spread Islamic fundamentalism and create a worldwide Islamic state, has come under increasing scrutiny since 9/11. Investigators have linked some prominent members to terrorism.
Credits: Produced by Big Pictures Ltd. Veteran British TV producers Steve Hewlett, e.p. for Tiger Aspect Productions; and Tony Stark, producer.
Faces: Newsweek investigative reporters Mark Rosenball and Michael Isikoff; Brotherhood activists and leaders Mamoun Darkazanli, Youssef Nada and Abdulrahman Alamoudi; terrorism experts Victor Comras, Guido Steinberg, Christopher Hamilton, Peter Mandaville; and Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to President Bush for U.S. homeland security and counterterrorism.
Subgenre: Investigative doc presented as an informal colloquy between two reporters who know all the players and travel to Western Europe to question them.
Summary: Rosenball and Isikoff discuss the evidence against three members of the Brotherhood who assimilated into Western societies and, according to government officials, helped organize or finance terrorist activities. The reporters also apply scrutiny to the U.S. government’s failure to identify the Brotherhood as a potential front for terrorism prior to 9/11, its use of secret evidence against suspected Brotherhood leaders, and its refusal to talk with its leaders.
Leanings: Rosenball and Isikoff play it straight in reporting their story, but conclude it’s untenable for the Bush administration to refuse to deal with the Brotherhood until it unequivocally renounces terrorism.
Memorable: The two faces of the Brotherhood are on full display during an interview with group leader Youssef Nada, a suave Egyptian and master of word play who describes the Brotherhood as a promoter of Islamic morality — and faces the reporters’ questions about evidence that he helped finance Al Qaeda and Hamas.
Web page posted April 11, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee