By DAN K. THOMASSON
When my youngest son was barely a teenager, he engaged me in a debate over the Kennedy assassination, announcing authoritatively the existence of a huge conspiracy that reached to the highest levels of government. It was clear that his opinions had been formed through the magic of Hollywood and the fertile imagination of Oliver Stone, whose docudrama about that tragedy was mainly fiction verging on propaganda.
All my entreaties about the lack of substantive proof — in fact, the overwhelming evidence to the contrary — failed to sway him that day. Thankfully, as he matured, he began to understand that there is no end to the distortion of history for commercial purposes by those who put entertainment first and fact second. Feeding the public need to place blame as a balm to national trauma can be hugely rewarding financially.
The recent ABC television spectacular purporting to map the path to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is just another in a long line of efforts to accomplish that. Ostensibly based on the report of the 9/11 Commission, its factual flaws were embarrassingly obvious and caused a firestorm of protest from Democrats, who saw it as just another attempt to influence the upcoming elections by dumping much of the failure to thwart the terrorists on the back of President Bill Clinton.
Well, welcome to the world of Michael Moore.
If memory serves, Moore’s attempts to portray George W. Bush as a bewildered, blubbering incompetent in a 2004 presidential election year "documentary" about the first hours and days after the attacks brought about the same response from the Republicans, as it should have. The difference between the two films is that Moore eschewed professional actors, making his twists more credible, but none the less distortions. In fact, Moore has become the propagandist of choice for the left.
At least ABC tried to clean up its presentation. Moore never did.
The truth is, there probably is enough blame to go around for failing to head off the incredibly improbable 9/11, just as there was 65 years ago in the apparent refusal to heed the signs of an impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For years after, conspiracy theorists — including leading Republicans — accused President Franklin D. Roosevelt of doing nothing to stop the assault he knew was coming as a way of dragging the nation into World War II. Their charges were grounded in circumstantial evidence that included sloppy handling of decoded Japanese messages clearly indicating that something was afoot in the hours immediately preceding the air strike. As it was, the commanding officers of both Navy and Army forces in Hawaii became scapegoats unfairly.
During the years preceding 9/11, any number of mistakes can be cited that might have prevented that event. A litany of the intelligence failures alone dating to Jimmy Carter would fill volumes. Crucial among them was the decision to downgrade the CIA’s covert operations. It is certainly clear now that during much of the decade before the attack no American agency regarded Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as a serious threat to the U.S. mainland. In the months just before 9/11, the documented lapses of the FBI and CIA are monumental.
Let’s be fair. Neither Clinton nor Bush should be held personally accountable for that hideous morning five years ago. Bush had been in office only eight months, after all. Both, like the rest of us, were the victims of the incompetent intelligence. One could blame the fact that Clinton’s abominable personal behavior in the White House, leading to ill-advised impeachment proceedings, was a distraction that furthered the terrorists’ cause. For months, the president’s attention was elsewhere. Or a case probably could be made that Bush didn’t listen to holdover expert advisers like Richard Clarke, who had expressed concerns about potential strikes on American soil.
But in the long run, the arguments about who did or didn’t do what along the path to 9/11 are only useful if they provide a plan aimed at preventing a recurrence and there is a willingness to follow it. No purpose is really served by films that purport to be an accurate depiction of such findings and are really something else altogether.
Unfortunately, those distortions often become indelibly imbedded in the minds of young people and those prone to believe anything bad about government. The 9/11 Commission provided a solid, comprehensive, historic report, outlining the deficiencies and recommending the path to follow to minimize the possibility of another horrible incident. Its work deserved better than an inaccurate film.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)