Asheesh Siddique: <i>United 93</i>‘s Unfair Question

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At the end of every spring semester, Princeton University (where I will be a senior in the fall) has a ten-day period in mid-May of no classes to give students time to write our final term papers. Three days before all my work was due, I desperately needed a study break to recharge my mental batteries. Taking a brief hiatus from the papers (on David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and English constitutional history), I went to a free showing of Paul Greengrass’ film United 93 at the local movie theater.
This film has been blogged and written about extensively; yet most commentators have missed United 93‘s message. The plot is well-known to everyone who lived through the events it depicts; the film faithfully follows the 9/11 Commission Report of what happened on September 11, 2001.
Partly, media discussion has focused on the question of whether it was even artistically responsible to make and release such a film five years after the horrifically tragic events portrayed. But that debate is fairly naive: capitalism’s ‘cultural logic’ holds that every issue is a ‘legitimate subject’ for artistic usage (some might prefer the term ‘exploitation’) so long as the producer can make a buck out of it; of course tragedy can appear — and has appeared — on the screen if people will buy tickets to see it. It is far more interesting to consider how United 93 renders the real, lived tragedy on screen.
I have been thinking about the film for several weeks now, and I now feel that United 93 is disturbing and problematic — and that it ultimately does a disservice to the event it portrays and to the victims it purports to honor.


The question United 93 poses in the context of our post-9/11 cultural milieu is essentially a mimetic one: what is the appropriate way of representing reality when the real has effectively become what was once the horrifically absurd — that evil terrorists would hijack 747s and crash them into large buildings full of civilians? What I want to suggest is that United 93 is essentially ‘wrong’ ideologically, or more precisely, that its real message about the nature of tragedy, terrorism, and the status of the victim is highly provocative and unconventional, to the point of bordering on the obscene.
Before giving my reading of United 93, let me make absolutely clear that I have not the slightest intention of denigrating the victims of that horrific day or trivializing the true tragic nature of the event. Indeed, I see the film as flawed precisely because it fails to do justice to the awfulness of what transpired on 9/11. I have some strong personal feelings about the attacks — I was a junior in high school in Washington, DC, and I remember distinctly and vividly the horror of being in the city when the Pentagon was attacked. Admittedly, those feelings color my understanding of the film — I saw the tragedy unfold before me, and while I respect both artistic license and free speech (which includes the right to be offended), I want to see the memory of every victim honored and represented fairly. Art, including films such as Greengrass’, needs to be thought about and interrogated, not simply put on a pedestal as if it were a divine rather than a human creation. I write in that spirit.
United 93‘s power lies in both the film’s inability to place the events of 9/11 in a broader historical context, and the fact that the lack of context does not matter: everyone watching the film already knows the background story — the end of the Cold War, the formation of Al Qaeda, the rise of other militant groups like Hezbollah, US intervention in the Arab and Islamic world, Afghanistan and the Taliban, the evolution of US foreign policy interests in the Middle East after World War II, etc. (arguably, what really hovers over the film is not this history, but instead the broader encounter between global capitalism and Islamism). We all know that what unfolds on the screen is one battle in a broader struggle, and in this sense, not exceptional in the abstract — before September 11, 2001, violent attacks by Al Qaeda or its affiliates had already occurred at Khobar Towers (1996), the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi (1998), and the USS Cole (2000); though certainly exceptional in its specifics — the focus upon civilian lives, the location of the attack (on American soil), the number of people killed, the extent of the violent destruction, and the psychological and cultural aftermath. Because this history is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, we don’t need to be reminded about it — we go into the film with it in the back of our mind. United 93 portrays one event occurring within a meta-structure of the struggle between global capitalism and the Islamist reaction against it, but the context is latent and assumed- never referred to directly.
The film is thus about an anomaly — a rebellion against a rebellion. The passengers fight back against the terrorists, who are at the same time revolting against American policies and culture. We in the audience identify deeply and profoundly with those who take control of the crisis — but this is in a sense misleading. Consider: what if this movie had been about any of the other flights- the ones that actually hit their targets? The hijackers would not look any better; but the audience would have no point of identification with the passengers. Herein is the power of United 93: it is a film about a success, not a failure. Of course, we know that the rebelling passengers did not stop the plane from crashing; but they succeeded because they prevented the terrorists from hitting the intended target (which the film implies is the Capitol building). Their heroic act is in saving others under circumstances where they cannot save themselves — this is why the movie is ‘feel-good,’ not purely tragic. If one were to make a movie about any of the other flights, it would be a true horror story, because there isn’t anything an audience could take hope from.
This is my concern about United 93: its focus on the exceptional treats the consensus understanding of what occurred — that the passengers on the other planes were true passive victims of terrorism who could not do anything to prevent their flights from crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon — as if it were a lie. The whole message of the film is that even when people are reduced to the most extreme state of victimhood, they still have agency to constrain the negative effects of their suffering on others. It is here that United 93 implicitly asks what strike me as offensive questions: why didn’t the passengers on the other planes rebel? The passengers on the flight clearly demonstrated that it was possible to do fight back against the box-cutter-armed terrorists, so why didn’t those on the other flights do so? These are extremely uncomfortable things to consider; yet they form the perverse core message of the film.
Therefore, United 93 mocks my understanding of 9/11 — that all the passengers were passive victims. The film attacks that understanding by arguing that the passengers weren’t passive victims: they had agency and the ability to prevent planes from crashing into their intended targets. Those who went to their deaths in a field in Pennsylvania thwarted the hijackers’ objective — in the most profoundly selfless act imaginable the passengers of flight 93 successfully saved the lives of others. Prior to thinking about the film, I like most Americans firmly believed the opposite: that the passengers did not have any agency in the course of history. But as you can see, the film’s move of giving agency to the passengers on United 93 has disturbing implications for how we think about those passengers traveling on the other flights who did not fight back. This film forces us to question what we want to believe transpired on those other three flights- not because it promotes any vile conspiracy theories about what happened (because United 93 doesn’t), but instead in terms of how all of us who survived the attacks imagine the unimaginable, what it meant to be on one of those planes. It promotes deeply disturbing thoughts about the passengers on those other flights- the movie does the truly unthinkable by putting their moral status into question. I find that dishonorable, and that’s why United 93 is a problematic film, in spite of its clearly noble intentions.
Asheesh Kapur Siddique, a member of Princeton University’s Class of 2007, writes a featured blog for CampusProgress.org.

Comments

17 comments on “Asheesh Siddique: <i>United 93</i>‘s Unfair Question

  1. utterly amazed says:

    It seems prudent to do just a MINIMUM of research before calling people nutjobs,whackos or conspiracy theorists.There is a very very large proportion of the world population that has seen evidence that our own government is covering up the truths of that day.Please use the internet to this advanage.I know you refuse to do so,but you could at least drop in and look at one site. loosechange911.com has done quite a bit of research and seeks to see some of these questions investigated.I personally bought the whole commissions report,without ever even reading it.Believe me,I will read it now.In an effort to become informed about the levels at which we are deceived.
    Does any of you even know that there WAS NO PLANE crashed in that field in Pennsylvania??? No plane AT ALL.Which makes the film a total lying fabrication.I will admit that I didn’t know it either! Our media has lied to us.Our government has lied to us.And we are to blame,because we don’t even WANT TO KNOW!!!
    So go ahead.Don’t look.It will probably just go away.Be a good lap dog,and go buy something.

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  2. juan campos says:

    So tiring, to read certain things. Wether people like it or not, these terrorists believe themselves to be inspired by the islamic faith. True, there are certainly many others who abhorr these crimes while believing themselves true moslems. However, there is a homogeinity of terrorists who claim islam as the central inspiraction of their ACTIONS, and this is no invention of the movie, nor of some nebulous propaganda machine, but a fact. I wish it were not!

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  3. NHDem says:

    What a staggeringly witless, ignorant and sophomoric posting.
    Logorrhea, an Ivy League return address and a devout belief in one’s genius do not an essayist make, or a fool conceal.

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  4. Pissed Off American says:

    Ever notice that these asses that want to brand people as “conspiracy theorists” completely AVOID actually debating or mentioning the MULTITUDE of irrefutable inconsistencies, lies, and unanswered questions that comprise the “official explanation” of what occurred on 9/11????

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  5. Nathan says:

    I enjoyed your thoughtful essay. Although I have not seen the movie, I nonetheless have followed the discussion. I agree with John Fund, don’t listen to the nuts.
    I would add though that the majority of Americans do not understand how the tragedy of 9/11 was blowback.

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  6. Mythbuster says:

    Almost as many nutcases as those who write for the Wall Street Journal Editorial pages…

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  7. John Fund says:

    Yes, Asheesh, I’m sorry that you’re very good and thoughful posting has been attacked by both the uncritical and the conspiracy theorists. I’m not sure it’s really worth trying to provoke a thoughtful discussion- which you clearly and rightfully want- of art and tragedy, because it only attracts nutcases on both sides.

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  8. ManagedChaos says:

    So, you’re basically saying that you don’t like the film because it is propaganda that seeks to stir up the emotions of viewers by portraying those on board as heroes. An inevitable consequence of this propaganda will obviously be an attack on the other passengers. But clearly the propaganda value, ie the reinforcment of the official lie, is well worth the cost of this sickening implication you claim exists.
    “I accept wholeheartedly the 9/11 Commission’s rendering of what happened.”
    Oh really…Do you even know who Philip Zelikow is? Ever heard of David Ray Griffin? I suggest you do some serious research into the facts of that day if you’re so interested in the psychological implications of some movie made about it. I won’t sit back and be called “some conspiracy theorist” while I sit here in New York City ready to risk my life everyday getting on a subway to go to work. My life literally depends on the policies of this administration and if those policies are hinged upon a lie, ie 9/11, you can bet I will use my free time to expose these traitors and lies. Maybe your time would be better served by doing some hardcore research beyong reading the 9/11 whitewash report.

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  9. Asheesh Siddique says:

    Let me clarify a few things to clear up some misunderstandings. My overall intention here is to provide a meditation on what this film implies about philosophical issues related to representing the Real on screen. My writing makes absolutely no suggestion that “The official story behind 9/11 is pure unadulterated bullshit”; I accept wholeheartedly the 9/11 Commission’s rendering of what happened. My writing here is on the aesthetic problem of mimesis vis-a-vis the real. It takes absolutely no issue with the ‘facts’ of what happened. I’m sorry that some conspiracy theorists have used what I wrote as a linchpin for airing their disgusting viewpoints- if they think that my writing would support them, then they deliberately misread my post, which takes no issue with the truth about 9/11 as rendered in the Kean Commission’s report.
    Keith Ellis’ attack on me is quite unfair and, similar to the conspiracy theorists who have posted in these comments, a deliberate misreading of my point- which was precisely that the movie “United 93” raises an unfair philosophical question about the nature of resistance in the face of true evil. He gives a philosophically problematic and facile rendering of the issue at hand: namely, that if you give the passengers of United 93 heroic status BECAUSE OF the fact they resisted, you make resistence the defining criteria of heroism. Consider the sickening implication of that: that those who would not resist in a similar situation were somehow of less moral worth than those who did resist, which clearly is an attack on the other passengers. I think that is a disgusting, abhorrent idea- all the passengers who died were equally innocent victims. My point is that ALL the passengers were passive victims; but that the film argues precisely the opposite. This is why the film is bad, and why it ultimately denigrates the passengers on all the other flights. I would agree that “only a damaged and arrogant personality condemns ordinary people for failing to be heroes”- this is precisely my point because that’s what the filmmaker does implicitly. This is precisely my problem with the film. I think the suggestion by Larry Birnbaum that “being a victim doesn’t make you good, or right” may be true, but is irrelevant in this case because ALL the victims of the flights (excluding the terrorists) were absolutely innocent- my point is that by introducing this question of resistence into the equation, the filmmaker complicates this moral calculus and raises the question of heroism- which in his film involves making distinctions. I think that that is wrong, and that’s why I don’t like the film.

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  10. ManagedChaos says:

    Even if the passengers on Flight 93 fought back, does that mean that the plane was not shot down by the US government? Would anyone like to explain why debris from the plane was found up to 8 miles away? Why would the government lie to us? They never lie to us. Forget about all those witnesses on the ground who saw a white jet in the vicinity of Flight 93. All we need to know is that “let’s roll” is marketing genius. Take any part of the offical story of 9/11 and I will tear it a new asshole with pleasure.

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  11. larry birnbaum says:

    Keith I believe is correct about the fact that the passengers on United 93 had a warning of what was to happen that the others didn’t, and this does undercut the factual basis of Asheesh’s posting.
    I find much to agree with in his assessment as well although the tone’s maybe harsher than I’m comfortable with.
    At the risk of throwing gasoline, I want to make one other observation.
    Asheesh, it’s hard to understand your overall intention in this piece. I see two themes: the notion of “rebellion against rebellion,” which kind of sneaks in the idea that Al Qaeda et al. are genuine revolutionaries as opposed to acting out social and psychological problems (which may be real, but that still doesn’t justify acting out). And the attempt to defend passive victimhood as a noble state.
    So here’s the gasoline: The Jews discovered in the Holocaust that victimhood doesn’t carry with it any special moral status. A victim isn’t good by virtue of being a victim. (This was one of the things I hated about the movie “Dances with Wolves” — to me it seemed to embody the message the the Native Americans had special virtue simply because they were victims of white people.)
    In other words, being a victim doesn’t make you good, or right. Most of all, while it may explain acting out, and make it understandable, it doesn’t justify it.

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  12. Keith Ellis says:

    What a facile and tortured analysis.
    “…the consensus understanding of what occurred — that the passengers on the other planes were true passive victims of terrorism who could not do anything to prevent their flights from crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon — as if it were a lie.”
    That is not the consensus understanding of what occurred. The consensus understanding of what occurred is that the passengers on the other three flights did not know they were going to be victims who died in deliberate crashes. The question of their agency and courage is inappropriate because the context did not put them to the test. The passengers of United 93, on the other hand, were well aware of what the hijackers intended.
    Furthermore, stories of such extraordinary courage and will are fascinating precisely because they are extraordinary. Only a damaged and arrogant personality condemns ordinary people for failing to be heroes; and only the same damaged and arrogant personality considers itself enlightened when it patronizes ordinary people by pseudo-sympathetically claiming that they would otherwise have been heroes had they not been restrained and helpless.

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  13. ashampoo says:

    “The official story behind 9/11 is pure unadulterated bullshit.”
    I think, that covers it.

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  14. fiat lux says:

    As Keith noted, people have been hijacking airplanes for political reasons for decades and generally speaking, the passengers were used as bargaining chips. So of course those passengers assumed that theirs was not a final journey.
    The only way to brand the other 9/11 passengers as somehow morally lacking is to 1) ignore history and 2) assume that those passengers were in possession of information they could not have had access to.
    In short, I disagree with your assessment.

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  15. milano803 says:

    Exactly right Keith. I would hope that faced with the horrible fate the people on United 93 were faced with, that I would have the courage to do what they did, take the plane down, even at the cost of their own lives.

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  16. Keith Porter says:

    Up until 9/11, most frequent airline passengers knew (in the back of their minds) that the best way to react in a hijacking situation is to cooperate. Why? Because hijackers mostly just wanted to “go somewhere”…..they were trying to escape national jurisdiction or get somewhere “closed” like Cuba. Or get media attention so they could make a political statement.
    In most cases, staying alive was vital for the hijacker….so it behooved the passengers to go along.
    Of course, all this changed on 9/11. The passengers in the first planes to hit their targets were tragically operating under the old rules. But the passengers on United 93 had the advantage of learning that their hijacking was part of an awful plot. With this knowledge, they threw out the old rules and took action.

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  17. Pissed Off American says:

    The official story behind 9/11 is pure unadulterated bullshit. Like Chertoff’s nephew’s piece in Popular Mechanics, this movie is nothing but propaganda, released to feed and butress one of the biggest LIES that has ever been fed a civilized populace. You want to do a relevant and eye-opening movie about the events of 9/11??? Tell Sybil Edmond’s story, or do a movie about William Rodriquez.

    Reply

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