No, it is not too soon. It was never too soon to write good books and films about the Holocaust; the world forgets; Look at Darfur. Paul Greengrass and everyone connected to “United 93” – actors, photographers, editors – have made this first film an absorbing jumble of what was heard from passengers over their cell phones. Documentary in style, but imagined in essence, devoid of theatrical flourishes, the movie begins and ends with a sense of utter helplessness.
9/11 was a brilliant modern intelligence operation – four planes in the air simultaneously, and all but one hit their targets. The ordinary and the extreme, and the extreme always has a precise plan. Ordinary life is not based on precision. The one they missed appears to have been the Capitol, and that was saved by the final surge of heroic passengers. The terrorism of that day was an extraordinary announcement to the world that suicidal martyrdom cannot be stopped. This is one of the great contributions of “United 93.” There is no negotiating with martyrs; there is no religious tolerance; they will do what they want to do, and a free and open society cannot stop them.
The vulnerabilities of an open society are on full view here. The military, “Where are the F-16s?” “We have two, unarmed.” The F.A.A.? nowhere. The president? In Florida. The vice President? No one knew. “Who can grant permission for the F-16s to engage?” Only the president. “How do we get permission to shoot this flight down?” There was no shoot-down authority.
On the ground in the air traffic controllers’ room, the realization that they were dealing with one hi-jacking, then, two, then three, then four, was too overwhelming to be absorbed. Communication was glued in chaos. Mr. Greengrass refuses to personalize the passengers; they are a group trapped by awful circumstance – a brave collective. One thing becomes obvious: in any future hijackings, captured planes will be taken down, regardless of who is on board.
There are moments here when the big questions without solution chill us to the bone: the hi-jackers, moving their lips in silent prayer as they murder, the Americans, praying quietly to a different God. What are we talking about in this war? About religion? Oil? Tyranny? Culture? Suicidal martyrs and ordinary Americans, two colliding cultures trapped in an aluminum tube with absolutely no common ground, a microcosm of what has changed the world.
Paul Greengrass has offered not just a gracious salute to some very brave people, but also the first shot in the national debate that has been too slow in developing. He is not urging us just to remember, but to wake up to the real meaning of the conflict. This is what happened, he seems to be saying. “Talk about it, think about it, do something.” At 10:03 a.m. United 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, PA in an explosion that destroyed families and raised questions that may not be answerable in a democratic society.
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