History as memory gets short shrift in the new millennium. CBS will screen a documentary Sunday night reprising Sept. 11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center. It's certainly not designed for those who were traveling on Pluto, but for those who remember, who need to think again about the victim and the valiant.
The victims' families are nervous that their loved ones will be portrayed in images grotesque and sensational. The producers assure us otherwise.
The documentary focuses on several brave firemen that cameramen were filming for a documentary when they answered a routine call of smoke at what soon after became Ground Zero.
The timing of this documentary is fortuitous. Although most of us want to get back to our normal lives, it's important to be constantly reminded of the viciousness of the terrorists and those who shelter them, and to sharpen resolve to do something about it.
In these tolerant and once-over-easy times, it's difficult to sustain animosity toward an enemy. Arguments over "root causes" dilute perceptions that turn eyes away from the essence of evil as conducted by the suicide assassins in their slaughter of innocents. We have to be fired up by the sight of documented evidence that testifies to their heinous crimes.
The CBS documentary follows by a week the HBO "documentary" of Monica Lewinsky in its "America Undercover" series. "Monica in Black and White," a clever title, shows the president's mistress holding forth for an hour and a half, giving her side of the sex scandal.
This is documentary as artsy-craftsy kitsch. Monica's face is illuminated with dramatic eyeliner, mascara and long and glamorously disheveled silky hair, suitable for a melodramatic actress in the daytime soaps. The inserted news clips of President Clinton being defended by friend and attacked by foe dramatize in living color the vulgar reality of the whole sordid story now fading mercifully into memory.
The subject matter of these two documentaries, shown a week apart, frame historical periods that seem as distinct from each other as a Roman emperor's fiddling while Rome burns and a nation galvanized by Pearl Harbor.
After the sex scandal that capped the bill of scandalous particulars that led finally to impeachment, young people in this country reacted cynically and turned against government service. After 9/11, they sought jobs with the FBI and the CIA, inspired by men who put their lives on the line for the rest of us.
Bill Clinton joined Richard Nixon in the pantheon of ugly historical moments of perverse times. One president insisted he was "not a crook;" the other quibbled over the definition of sexual relations. As markers of presidential history, they stand out in strong contrast to the images of Lincoln preserving the union, FDR leading a nation in World War II, Harry Truman preserving the victory in that war and initiating the Marshall Plan, John F. Kennedy confronting the Soviet Union over the missiles in Cuba, and Lyndon Johnson driving Congress to enact civil rights legislation.
Not that these earlier presidents didn't have - and deserve - their share of criticism, but they were men of a different character and a different stature. Even when they were less than discriminating in their judgments, we trusted their ability to put the job first.
A strong suspicion grows that Bill Clinton dithered over doing anything about terrorism. In a remarkable statement this week while visiting in Australia, Tony Blair cited the urgency of action against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He told an Australian television interviewer that the West - i.e., Britain and America - cannot afford to repeat the "dithering" as he and Bill Clinton had done over Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
"Delays in taking action then, despite the clear warning of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, in which 231 people died," he said, "allowed al-Qaida to prosper and plot the Sept. 11 attacks." The destruction of the World Trade Center was less a wakeup call than a shakeup call, to look again at what we should have been clear-eyed about after the first bombing at the World Trade Center a decade earlier and the murder of 17 sailors when the U.S.S. Cole was attacked in Yemen.
Except for long delays at airports and blocked off streets in the nation's capital, 9/11 is mostly a snapshot of history for many Americans. The day was supposed to have changed America's focus from what one woman calls "Starbucks and yoga" to something more profound. It's not clear that all that much changed. In New York, some psychologists report a second wave of depression and despair.
Maybe a documentary about the Twin Towers will remind us of what heroic men in blue and hard hats did on Sept. 11, and what remains for the rest of us to do.