June 27, 2004
The Best Goebbels of All?
HANKS to the 9/11 commission, we now know that the movie got the story right. The administration was repeatedly warned in advance that disaster could strike America. The planning for that contingency was nonexistent. Once hell broke loose, there was only chaos at the top. As New York collapsed into terror, the amiable but overmatched president turned in desperation to his older, arrogant vice president and asked, "What do you think we should do?"
The movie I describe is not "Fahrenheit 9/11" but a Hollywood special-effects extravaganza that beat it to the theaters by a month: Roland Emmerich's "The Day After Tomorrow." Justly ridiculed by critics for its lame characters and junk-science plot (global warming instantaneously triggers a new Ice Age), it nonetheless piled up many more box-office dollars than Michael Moore's documentary is likely to. The movie was ludicrous in most of its details, and yet it held a packed Manhattan multiplex audience of all ages in deathly silence the afternoon I attended. Crabby middle-aged couples settled down; packs of teenagers turned off their cellphones. We were watching a (barely) encoded re-enactment of 9/11, and we knew it. Lower Manhattan was being obliterated again, and once again the powerful government of the most powerful nation in the world was unable to stop it.
The fear tapped by that movie is the elephant in the room for the entire country, elephants and donkeys alike, and perhaps for New Yorkers most of all. What if the government fails to prevent another domestic terrorist attack? The unknowable answer always lurks at or just beneath the surface of our culture and our politics, often jostling both in tandem during this election year. It was just before "The Day After Tomorrow" sidled into some 3,400 theaters on Memorial Day weekend that John Ashcroft staged one of his elaborate doomsday performances, declaring that terrorists would "hit the United States hard" either on the Fourth of July or during the political conventions or on Election Day or whenever.
Two days after that grim warning came the stellar opening weekend of "The Day After Tomorrow." Jim Gianopulos, the chairman of the studio releasing it, Fox, told Entertainment Weekly that audiences would not "make that connection" to 9/11. Who was he kidding? The film's most fevered scenes of panic take place downtown and a Dick Cheney look-alike was cast as vice president. (The movie's hero, played by Dennis Quaid, is a Richard Clarke-like alarmist whom the White House ignores to its own peril.) The studio's agenda was transparent enough: it didn't want any escapist holiday ticket buyers to be chased away by intimations of reality. But in this case, such worry was misplaced. The fear on screen was synergistic with the fear at loose in the country, as it often is. The broad outlines of "The Day After Tomorrow," including its use of an arctic meltdown to unleash the plot, were uncannily reminiscent of "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," a surprise low-budget sci-fi hit of 1953. That movie, too, preyed on its audience's collective terror (of the bomb) by acting out what it called "the worst disaster in New York's history" (180 dead, 1,500 wounded) with scenes of crushed buildings and fleeing office workers in lower Manhattan.
"The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" was the first movie to be adapted from a Ray Bradbury story. This month Mr. Bradbury, now 83, complained that Michael Moore had appropriated the title of "Fahrenheit 451," his classic novel about book-burning totalitarianism, without permission. Mr. Moore hijacked the title because he knows it elicits fear, and his right-wing radio critics liken him to Goebbels because of his willingness to manipulate facts to whip up an audience accordingly. Sometimes they have a case. Mr. Moore is not aspiring to journalistic objectivity when he stirs Prince Bandar, various bin Ladens, the Carlyle Group and the Bush family into a malevolent conspiracy of grassy-knoll dimensions.
Yet Goebbels is in fashion everywhere these days. As Mr. Moore implies that the Bush administration is in cahoots with the native country of 15 of the 9/11 hijackers, so the Bush administration has itself used a sustained campaign of insinuation to float the false claim that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with those hijackers, too. As Mr. Moore seeks to shape the story of what happened on 9/11, so the White House,
In this fierce propaganda battle over the war on terrorism, the administration has been battling longer and harder than Michael Moore. And in John Ashcroft it has an even bigger camera hog in the starring role — no mean feat. While his on-screen persona needs work — he tries to come off like Robert Stack in "The Untouchables" but more often conjures up W. C. Fields in "The Bank Dick" — the attorney general's resources as a showman are considerable. He has a bigger budget than most filmmakers and can command far more free TV time for promoting his wares. His press conferences, whether to showcase his latest, implicitly single-handed victory in the war on terror or to predict the apocalypse he wants to make certain we won't blame him for, are now as ubiquitous as spinoffs of "C.S.I." and "Law & Order." While F.D.R. once told Americans that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, Mr. Ashcroft is delighted to play the part of Fear Itself, an assignment in which he lets his imagination run riot.
His creative gifts were in particular evidence in that televised pre-Memorial Day warning that al Qaeda would hit us hard by the year's end. Flanked by the F.B.I. director and photos of seven wanted terrorists, he enlisted us all as junior G-men — "be aware of your surroundings, remain vigilant" — even as he sowed the seeds of hopelessness that would bind us to him with fear. "Unfortunately, we currently do not know what form the threat may take," he said. "And that is why it is so important that we locate the seven individuals."
Mr. Ashcroft's show looked plausible enough when it led the evening newscasts. Only on further examination did it prove to have more slanted evidence than "Fahrenheit 9/11." The seven individuals he had asked us to help track down are not believed to be in the United States, other officials soon told The New York Times. Six of the seven culprits, in fact, were recycled from previous warnings, one of them dating back to a similar Ashcroft press conference of 28 months earlier. Maybe C-Span 3 could be turned into a Justice Department TV Land to rerun the old Ashcroft episodes.
Another fictional flourish was the attorney general's claim that a Qaeda "spokesman" had "announced" in March that preparations for the attack were 90 percent complete. The announcement was not from al Qaeda at all, Lisa Myers of NBC News reported two days later, but from a Web site run by a group that "has no known operational capability and may be no more than one man with a fax machine." (The same "group" had also taken credit for last year's Northeast power blackout.)
This may explain why Tom Ridge did not appear with Mr. Ashcroft and did not raise the color-coded threat level. Instead the secretary of homeland security went on CNN that morning to propose that we "enjoy living in this great country and go out and have some fun." The fun many of us turned out for, as it happened, was "The Day After Tomorrow."
Whether Mr. Ashcroft's alarming presentation led to the thwarting of a single terrorist remains unknown. What it did do was take our minds off Abu Ghraib and the rest of the metastasizing bad news from Iraq. Like a master Hollywood showman plotting the release schedule of a movie, Mr. Ashcroft always times his productions exquisitely. Two years ago he held off the announcement of the arrest of the supposed "dirty bomber," Jose Padilla, by a month, at which point that press conference fortuitously drowned out the stir created by Coleen Rowley, the F.B.I. agent who blew the whistle on the incompetence on Mr. Ashcroft's watch before 9/11. This month he changed the subject from Justice Department memos justifying torture by announcing that he had foiled a terrorist plot targeting a shopping mall in "the American heartland" (Ohio, coincidentally the Republicans' most crucial swing state ).
It will take more creativity than this for the administration to distract us from the 9/11 commission, which is refuting Mr. Ashcroft and company's absurd claims to pre-9/11 battle-readiness as firmly as it shot down Mr. Moore's account of the post-9/11 airlifting of bin Laden relatives. A lot is at stake in a re-election campaign. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that in just two months Mr. Bush has lost his entire 21-point advantage as the most-trusted leader in fighting terrorism; capturing Saddam can't give America a bye forever for failing to nab Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and the anthrax perpetrators. Mr. Ashcroft's well-worn shtick also has its limits; his cases against presumed terrorists keep evaporating in and out of court. Meanwhile, just a week before the 9/11 commission staff reports were surfacing, the Capitol had to be evacuated when the Federal Aviation Agency failed to notify Washington air defense of a plane's approach in restricted air space during the heightened alert of the Reagan funeral.
If Hollywood had concocted that hapless scene — or imagined that more federal homeland security money would be lavished on protecting the citizens of Wyoming than those of New York — it would be a Will Ferrell vehicle. But as the 9/11 commission also reminds us, there's another, more inspiring movie to be drawn from 9/11: the story of the only people who actually fought the terrorists that day, those on United Flight 93. These passengers used in-flight phone calls to their families to figure out the big picture (including the World Trade Center) with no help from either the clueless White House or anyone else in government. They and the crew saved countless lives by preventing their hijacked plane from reaching its likely target of the Capitol or the White House.
Remember Todd Beamer and "Let's roll"? Don't expect the Bush administration to bring that up now. The real heroism under fire on United 93 only calls attention to the emptiness of the heroic poses Mr. Ashcroft strikes while celebrating his own terror-fighting prowess on TV. Those who find Michael Moore's propaganda hard to take can luxuriate in the knowledge that the only office he's likely ever to run for is Best Director. The idea that Mr. Ashcroft might be the guy standing between us and Armageddon, on the other hand, is already a reality and scarier than anything in "The Day After Tomorrow."