Price of complacency

Posted: May 04, 2006 12:05 AM
“Complacency is probably the worst thing that can happen to us,” notes first-time actor Ben Sliney, the man who ordered the nationwide grounding of all planes on September 11. He plays himself in the new movie United 93, which opened Friday.

Yet complacency seems to have crept slowly into American society in the past four and a half years as the terrorist attacks fade from our collective memory. Many fear that it will take another strike on U.S. soil to jolt Americans into action.

Anyone who sees United 93, however, will be jolted.

Painstaking research by writer-director Paul Greengrass ("Bourne Supremacy") is evident on-screen, culminating in a finished product that is perhaps the best educated guess as to what actually transpired on the plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field instead of the Capitol. Mr. Greengrass and his crew interviewed members of the 9/11 Commission, government personnel who were directly involved that day, and over 100 family members of the 40 passengers and crew aboard flight 93.

Gripping, raw, and gut-wrenching are all words that have been used to describe United 93 in early reviews, and all fit. Yet as powerful and deeply affecting as the film is, it is hard to imagine any one movie making any discernible impression on the public consciousness.

The terrorist threat in 2006 is not likely lower than it was in 2001, yet many act as if the potential for suffering an attack here is as remote as most believed it was on September 10. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) last year famously bragged that the Democrats had “killed the Patriot Act.” Around the same time, Democrats and even some Republicans spewed hyperbolic rhetoric about the NSA warrantless eavesdropping of individuals with direct or indirect ties to terror.

Reasonable people can disagree on the Patriot Act or the NSA eavesdropping, but no rational person can argue—as many Democrats did—that either represented a lethal threat to our liberties. We are at war. No, we have not been asked to ration, buy war bonds, register for a draft, or make any other major collective sacrifice. That doesn’t change the reality of what we face, but it probably does make it seem a little less real.

Reminders abound of how real this struggle is. Just this week, Hamid Hayat, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, was convicted of material support for terrorism for traveling to his ancestral homeland to attend a terror training camp. This came just four months after the conviction of Abu Ali, the U.S. citizen who was the valedictorian of the Northern Virginia-based Saudi Academy, for plotting to assassinate President George W. Bush. Those are only the most recent cases.

In the past four and a half years, we’ve had terror arrests, deportations, and convictions across the country. The mainstream media has largely ignored most of these cases, meaning that those who know about them have sought out the information on the Internet or possibly talk radio. But the combination of lack of coverage about law enforcement’s success and the thankful lack of success by would-be terrorists has resulted in many Americans feeling less and less threatened. 9/11 just isn’t as salient anymore.

While almost any write-up of United 93 discusses the closing shot of the plane nose-diving into the Earth, most significant is the film’s opening scene of one of the terrorists dutifully praying. The movie, in other words, alluded to the nature of the enemy we face.

Though we are not at war with everyone who practices Islam, it is not insignificant that those who declared war on us did so in the name of Islam. We are not simply at war with those who engage in warfare that can be described as terrorism. And we are not merely at war with those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam. We are up against huge swaths of the Muslim world that want the establishment of the worldwide Islamic state and either support or tolerate terrorism as a means to do so. This latter front is particularly tricky, since it cannot be fought by the military.

What’s the solution? That’s what we as a nation must determine. But the answer isn’t simply to ignore the enormity of the problem.

Not that Hollywood hasn’t tried that tack. Tinseltown’s recent track record—TV shows and movies are still home to vastly more neo-Nazis than Islamic terrorists—indicates that the entertainment biz will not anytime soon follow its own actions during World War II, when there was no disguising of the enemy.

No one film, even one as mesmerizing as United 93, is likely to impact significantly public awareness. That’s a shame, because this movie not only memorializes the heroism of flight 93, but it serves as a potent reminder of the price of complacency.