The Path to Hysteria
My sin was to write a screenplay accurately depicting Bill Clinton’s record on terrorism.
by CYRUS NOWRASTEH
Monday, September 18, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
I am neither an activist, politician or partisan, nor an ideologue of any stripe. What I am is a writer who takes his job very seriously, as do most of my colleagues: Also, one who recently took on the most distressing and important story it will ever fall to me to tell. I considered it a privilege when asked to write the script for “The Path to 9/11.” I felt duty-bound from the outset to focus on a single goal–to represent our recent pre-9/11 history as the evidence revealed it to be. The American people deserve to know that history: They have paid for it in blood. Like all Americans, I wish it were not so. I wish there were no terrorists. I wish there had been no 9/11. I wish we could squabble among ourselves in assured security. But wishes avail nothing.
My Iranian parents fled tyranny and oppression. I know and appreciate deeply the sanctuary America has offered. Only in this country could a person such as I have had the life, liberty and opportunity that I have had. No one needs to remind me of this–I know it every single day. I know, too, as does everyone involved in the production, that we kept uppermost in our minds the need for due diligence in the delivery of this history. Fact-checkers and lawyers scrutinized every detail, every line, every scene. There were hundreds of pages of annotations. We were informed by multiple advisers and interviews with people involved in the events–and books, including in a most important way the 9/11 Commission Report.
It would have been good to be able to report due diligence on the part of those who judged the film, the ones who held forth on it before watching a moment of it. Instead, in the rush to judgment, and the effort to portray the series as the work of a right-wing zealot, much was made of my “friendship” with Rush Limbaugh (a connection limited to two social encounters), but nothing of any acquaintance with well-known names on the other side of the political spectrum. No reference to Abby Mann, for instance, with whom I worked on “10,000 Black Men Named George” (whose hero is an African-American communist) or Oliver Stone, producer of “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” a film I wrote and directed. Clearly, those enraged that a film would criticize the Clinton administration’s antiterrorism policies–though critical of its successor as well–were willing to embrace only one scenario: The writer was a conservative hatchetman.
In July a reporter asked if I had ever been ethnically profiled. I happily replied, “No.” I can no longer say that. The L.A. Times, for one, characterized me by race, religion, ethnicity, country-of-origin and political leanings–wrongly on four of five counts. To them I was an Iranian-American politically conservative Muslim. It is perhaps irrelevant in our brave new world of journalism that I was born in Boulder, Colo. I am not a Muslim or practitioner of any religion, nor am I a political conservative. What am I? I am, most devoutly, an American. I asked the reporter if this kind of labeling was a new policy for the paper. He had no response. The hysteria engendered by the series found more than one target. In addition to the death threats and hate mail directed at me, and my grotesque portrayal as a maddened right-winger, there developed an impassioned search for incriminating evidence on everyone else connected to the film. And in director David Cunningham, the searchers found paydirt! His father had founded a Christian youth outreach mission. The whiff of the younger Mr. Cunningham’s possible connection to this enterprise was enough to set the hounds of suspicion baying. A religious mission! A New York Times reporter wrote, without irony or explanation, that an issue that raised questions about the director was his involvement in his father’s outreach work. In the era of McCarthyism, the merest hint of a connection to communism sufficed to inspire dark accusations, the certainty that the accused was part of a malign conspiracy. Today, apparently, you can get something of that effect by charging a connection with a Christian mission.
“The Path to 9/11” was intended to remind us of the common enemy we face. Like the 9/11 Report itself, it is meant to enable us to better defend ourselves from a future attack. Past is prologue, and 9/11 is merely another step in an escalating Islamic fundamentalist reign of terror. By dramatizing the step-by-step increase in attacks on America–all of which, in fact, occurred–we are better able to see the pattern and anticipate the future. That was the point of the series, its only intention. Call it the canary in the coal mine. Call it John O’Neill in the FBI.
Despite intense political pressure to pull the film right up until airtime, Disney/ABC stood tall and refused to give in. For this–for not buckling to threats from Democratic senators threatening to revoke ABC station licenses–Disney CEO Rober Iger and ABC executives deserve every commendation. Hence the 28 million viewers over two nights, and the ratings victory Monday night (little reported by the media), are gratifying indeed.
“The Path to 9/11” was set in the time before the event, and in a world in which no party had the political will to act. The principals did not know then what we know now. It is also indisputable that Bill Clinton entered office a month before the first attack on the World Trade Center. Eight years then went by, replete with terrorist assaults on Americans and American interests overseas. George W. Bush was in office eight months before 9/11. Those who actually watched the entire miniseries know that he was given no special treatment.
It’s good to have come to something approaching the end of this saga, whose lessons are worth remembering. It gave us, for one thing, a heartening glimpse (these things don’t come along every day) of corporate backbone in the face of phenomenal pressure–and an infinitely more chilling one testifying to the power and reach of politically driven hysteria. A ripe subject for a miniseries, if ever there was one.Mr. Nowrasteh wrote the screenplay for “The Path to 9/11.”