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D uring war time you need enemies, heroes, and justification—in that order. I was reminded of this triple imperative as I watched the film United 93 , which supplies these ingredients, more or less in this same order.
United 93 , the first of several major media releases to deal with the events of September 11, 2001, has been the cause of much debate, most centered over whether we as a nation are ready to be re-traumatized. Thus far the debate has not been over whether to, or why to, but when to mine the day’s events for the big screen. I would like to present some different questions about the intent and effect of this movie.
I had my doubts before the movie even started. My doubts were reinforced by the movie’s opening scenes—a blank screen with a voiceover of Koranic verses, followed by an image of the Koran. The effect was not lost on the theater audience—as hisses leapt through the audience. They redoubled when the Koran came into view. Here was the first imperative—enemies. Even before the audience meets the hijackers, they meet the enemy, Islam.
Throughout the movie Islam plays the role of demonic authority. The movie’s audience gets to hear about Allah only after throats are cut, pilots are stabbed, or the towers are hit. Each of these acts is either preceded or followed by cries of “Allahu Akbar” (“God I have submitted myself to you,” or “In the name of Allah”).
The movie’s creators went to great lengths to recreate the events of the day with the greatest accuracy possible. They hired non-actors (officers at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, air traffic controllers, etc.) to play themselves and consulted with families of the deceased. So it is important to note that in the few details that were left solely to the film’s writers and director—creating the characters of the hijackers—the movie held true to established Orientalist themes and simplistic propaganda. How could the movie’s creators have possibly known that the hijackers prayed with bloody palms facing skyward or that Allah was credited when a flight attendant had her throat slit? Why is it that in every instance open to interpretation this movie plays like a post-Beirut action flick?
The portrayal of the passengers is also telling. Except for the hijackers, there is not a dour face on the entire flight—astonishing to this writer, a native New Yorker, because the early bird from Newark is not normally associated with bright eyes and pleasant smiles. To a person, the passengers are portrayed as well-balanced, emotionally stable, loving, energetic, dare I say, heroic people. Maybe this can’t be helped (the movie was vetted by relatives of United 93 victims), but our need to deify the casualties of the day leads us into our next imperative—the need for heroes, people we can relate to and whose demise deserves vengeance.
There was a study done by psychologist Roxanne Cohen Silver on varying levels of distress associated with the events of September 11. The conclusion was that “degree of exposure to—not degree of loss— predicts level of distress.” The single greatest success of United 93 is in manufacturing the most vivid exposure possible to the day’s events.
Throughout the movie, the camera is hand-held, a huge number of shots are close ups, and we hear snippets of conversations that are true to life: tearful goodbyes, dying wishes, and the combination to a safe where a will could be found. By the end of the movie it is as if we were there. It should be asked though, do we need this level of exposure? Does it serve a cathartic purpose? Or a political one?
Our national need for deified protagonists and demonic aggressors has been well cared for by Hollywood for a long time now. We thrive on that sort of binary-logic in which the U.S. is cast as the beset-upon bulwark of civilization—so I didn’t expect any more. But I left the theater wondering: if we insist in evoking the dead for justification, don’t we owe them more than bit parts in a propaganda film?
Colin Asher is a San Francisco-based writer currently working on a book about the relationship between the radical left and organized labor.
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
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