Sunday, April 15, 2007

PBS: America at a Crossroads

This series "America at a Crossroads" will consist of eleven films, the first of two hours duration, the others one hour each, broadcast from Sunday April 15 through Friday April 20 2007. Robert MacNeil narrates. Here is the schedule link:

The first part was "Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda", written and directed by William Cran, with the production company Paladin Invision.

The film traces the ideology of radical Islam back to the life of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian theologian who became repulsed at Western materialism and "individualism" after World War II. He would eventually be imprisoned and die in Egypt during political changes, such as Nasser's assent. But his writings, with their focus on "virtue" (often discussed in The Weekly Standard back in 2002) would "inspire" future radical Islamic movements. The film would trace Dr. Al Zawahiri, and then Osama bin Laden himself. During the past half hour the 9/11 attacks are shown briefly, and then there is an interesting seqeunece on location in Karachi (the old capital of Pakistan, on the Indian Ocean) where a major terrorist was arrested in 2002. This is interesting inasmuch I have been told of meetings that had taken place in Karachi in 2000. The tribal areas on the Afghanistan - Pakistan border are shown.

The film notes that Osama bin Laden was criticized by his own "people" that he did not give warning to the Americans that they would be attacked on their homeland on 9/11. The film notes that there have been as many as six "warnings" since then, and that there have been threats to use weapons of mass destruction.

The film presents the war in Iraq as a development that bin Laden wants, to draw America out and force it to become overextended, and play "on the road" or be like a chess player faltering after becoming overextended when pressing a kings-side attack.

Part 2 is called Warriors, asking "what is it like to be a soldier in Iraq?", and it presents two different units on deployment in or near Baghdad in 2005. Over time, there are casualties and losses. The LTC in charge of one of the units reads Harry Potter novels for escape. He seems to have consider autonomy to negotiate with local tribal leaders and there is an impressive scene in a well-to-do Iraqi's home in the war zone.

Part 3 is called Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, and is a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts where soldiers write about their service and experience on duty. The point is made that the foot soldier has as much to say as the commander, and may have more freedom to say it without creating a conflict. Toward the end of the film there is a funeral in a small town in Wyoming. Blogging in the field by military people has been controversial because of security concerns, and it can't be too personal. There is still "don't ask don't tell."

Part 4 is called Gangs of Iraq, a Frontline series documentary that shows how sectarian violence has undone much of the progress in trying to install democracy in Iraq. The underlying assumption had been that the Iraqi army would take over security and internal combat, but many units have refused to fight against fellow "tribesmen" ever since major "pacification" of Iraq started, so American and British forces remain burdened with the fighting.

Part 5 is called The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom John Richard Perle is interviewed. Mr. Perle indicates that he has always been a Democrat, even if he sounds like a neoconservative. He indicates that major Democrats had supported intervening in Iraq until the war started to unravel some time after the quick fall of Saddam Hussein, whose evils Perle discusses. He also discusses American intervention in Bosnia and Sarajevo, where we asked for nothing in return.

Part 6 is called Europe's 9/11. Most of the documentary traced the history of the Madrid train attack (including graphic video of one of the explosions) on March 11, 2004, back to a cell from Tunisia. Some of the contacts were in remote areas in northern Spain. The later part of the program discussed the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Some Muslims deeply resent the permissive western culture.

Part 7 is called The Muslim Americans. American Muslims have long been integrated into the mainstream, compared to Europe where colonial history and ties to the colonial homelands seems to maintain a tribal mentality, as documented in Bruce Bawer's recent book "While Europe Slept". A good part of the documentary dealt with the serious issue of racial profiling.

Part 8 is called Faith Without Fear where Irshad Manji talks to one of Osama bin Laden's former bodyguards. Manji insists that Islam must accept "offense" in order to avoid discrimination and in order to grow. Her counterpart insists that she is trying to define Islam when Islam defines itself. She criticizes overly tribal consciousness, whereas other speakers reflect the idea that a common faith must not be breached because religion is the one experience that everyone has. She is shown skydiving.

Part 9 is called Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia covers the October 2002 attack on a Bali disco, but goes on to develop Sunni Islamic culture, which was established by trade, not conquest. Indonesia accepts transvestites and cross-dressers, but it also has a religious vigilante group called the "FBI" which imposes religious sharia law on everyone. There was a discussion of a prostitution sweep and of a controversy over pornography on Bali. As elsewhere, many Muslims here see democracy as antithetical to faith forming the basis of life and source of all virtue and "meaning".

Part 10 is called Security versus Liberty: The Other War. In a story about "retail" and "wholesale" (NSA) wiretapping, the film shows the bricked interior of headquarters of the Electronic Frontier Foundation on Shotwell Street in San Francisco, which I visited myself in Feburary 2002 (I was a subplaintiff against COPA as a member of EFF). EFF was involved in a class action suit against telecommunications companies including AT&T in providing communications records to the government. Then the film covers the FBI Albany "to catch a money launderer" sting against a pizza shop owner, where he was encouraged to accept money associated with fake weapons for a fictitious attack plan, because the government wanted to get at someone else who knew the shop owner. The businessman probably did not have a propensity to launder money unless tricked. The film also covers the Connecticut library fight over expanded use of National Security Letters under the Patriot Act. The film discusses the very low self-serving bar for government demands for the information, and even more serious is the "gag order", a kind of repudiation of "do ask do tell" in saying that the librarian could not reveal that the existence of the letter (even on a blog like this one). The gag order prevented the library board from being able to tell anyone about the lawsuit. Library Connection and the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2005 against the gag order and lack of judicial supervision of the NSL's. A federal judge in Connecticut overruled the gag order and the government appealed. A new NSL provision with a new Patriot Act went into effect in March 2006 (it allowed discussion with lawyers) and the librarians were able to talk about the whole case. The mysterious email and NSL were eventually withdrawn.

Frontline rebroadcast this on Nov. 27. The director was Hendrick Smith. It's interesting that Bush thinks that FISA courts apply only to long term monitoring. The scare at Las Vegas (screening records of applicants in Vegas -- are they really casino dealers?) The concept of a "driftnet" is mentioned. FISA was passed after a Nixon era Operation Shamrock.

Part 11 is called The Brotherhood and documents The Muslim Brotherhood, which purports to be more an organization of Muslim charity and promotion of "family values" than a group with political power. The film covers the brotherhood in Egypt (and the writings of Sayyid Qtub) before going on to Germany, showing Mohammed Atta's apartment building and discussing Mamoun Darkazanli. The journalists are Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff.

Two more episodes (Nov 26 2007) are documented here.

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