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United 93: Polite Propaganda

What we know: United 93 was one of the four planes that were hijacked on September 11, 2001. The plane probably missed its intended target and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania leaving no survivors.
Now, United 93 is the film made by Paul Greengrass that tries to capture what might have happened on the flight and restructures the scenes at the various air control centres across the United States as they discovered one hijack after another.
The film has an immediate emotional impact as the viewer feels the fear and helplessness of the passengers on the flight. The moment when the door to the aircraft closes is given enough cinematic time for the audience to understand the relevance and finality of the action. After that the aircraft becomes a sealed space, and since the camera only captures the insider perspective, the viewer becomes a virtual passenger who shares that impenetrable space. Once we become a part of the victim group, the interplay between the real and the supposed begins.

However, there is an attempt to pass off the film as reality, even though, (as Greengrass says himself in an interview) most of what happened on the plane is purely speculative[1]: The poster of the film fixes it in real life (“September 11, 2001. Four Planes Were Hijacked…”) people like Ben Sliney and Shawna Fox etc play themselves, real conversations have been used and the film is in real time. Many have tried to string together the content of the various phone calls that were made from the flight to understand the situation. But that is all we have and it can, at best, help to construct a part of the reality. And in this constructed reality, the portrayal of the terrorist is what is most poorly done. Its poor as in simplistic or poor as in reactionary.

The film opens with one of the terrorists chanting from The Quran. While he is still chanting, there is a change on screen and the camera captures a long shot, top view of Boston at its serene best. The desired effect of the calm before the storm is easily achieved. Film Critic Roger Ebert praises the film saying, “We know what they (the passengers) know when they know it, and nothing else. Nothing about Al Qaeda, nothing about Osama bin Laden, nothing about Afghanistan or Iraq, only events as they unfold.”[2] This however is not true. We might share the fears of those on that flight, but we know more than they, we do know about Al Qaeda, we do know about Osama and most importantly, we know about 9/11. We know the fate of the passengers before they do. That is why the effect of the omniscient chanting appears ominous to us. A small detail that adds to this feeling of impending doom is when the terrorists are on their way to the airport, and apart from the calm surroundings, we see a container with the text, “God Bless America”. There is a contrast that sets in at this point, between the two references to God. And it is this contrast that flows through the entire film. Later in the film it is done directly with some of the passengers saying The Lord’s Prayer that seems countered by the terrorists whispering verses from The Quran.
The primary problem is that it shows us the hijackers not as members of specific terrorist groups, but more as Muslims in general. They don’t really speak much through the film, but are seen muttering religious verses to themselves (or shouting it out) for atleast 95% of their screen time. And since most of the American audience will not know what language they spoke in, it will once again be seen as ‘Muslimness’.[3] A significant line Ben Sliney says in the film captures the essence of the thought the film projects, “Anything is suspicious now.” The first signs of trouble on American Airline Flight 11 came about when some one heard a transmission that he didn’t understand. What he says is, “It was not American, it was foreign”, and the opposing binaries are well set.
The only identifiable thing one hears from the hijackers, are phrases like “Allahu Akbar” and “Ya Allah”. In fact the attack on the flight starts with a sudden shout of “Allahu Akbar” and the hijacker brutally stabs a passenger with repeated cries of the same phrase. Even if you ignore the fact that it is a childish stereotype the objection here is obvious; these are the most usual, everyday phrases used by Muslims all over the world, and Greengrass fixes them in the context of 9/11. This, in any case, is not all, the two hijackers in the cockpit repeatedly ask for Allah’s blessings for their heinous crimes, saying things like, “To you I submit myself”. Now what can that possibly mean, that Islam, or more stupidly, the ‘Islamic God’ asks his followers to kill innocent people? A lot of what the hijackers say is in fact left untranslated therefore it is the continuous random religious shouting that becomes the language of the brutal killers. There is so much wrong with this representation; it links Islam with violence of the most heartless kind, and in a more contemporary context, it links it with terrorism. Not Al Qaeda, not Osama, but Islam.

In the film’s diatribe of show and tell, it is difficult to think beyond what the filmmaker wants you to and therefore easy to forget that it is largely a hypothesis. All the phone calls that the passengers or crew members made, were at the risk of being stabbed by the angry militants, and therefore (as shown in the film as well) chances are that no one wasted time in trying to identify the terrorists or their cultural background. So, what evidence can there be that without doubt points towards the identity of these terrorists. The actors playing the terrorists, are of Iraqi, Egyptian and British extraction[4] giving the crime a pan-Muslim image.
It seems as if the film looks back at The Holy Crusades, in one way re-enacting it and in another re-writing it. In this context, the word, ‘United’, in the title of the film can acquire several meanings. From the United States of America, to the united people of the west (primarily American) fighting for the ‘holy land’, which ironically, translates into America! This is manifested in the coming together of all the hostages to fight the terrorists. The survival instinct of a helpless group of victims is used to glorify America.

We, in our spirit of understanding, forgive this depiction, because after all America did suffer from the greatest injustice. So what if this film comes from a country where hate crimes against regular Muslims are steadily rising[5]; from a country that attacked Sikhs because they thought they were Arabs[6]; from a country where we have people (Republican Congressman Peter King among others[7]) demanding racial profiling; from a country where a WMAL-AM[8] host stated on air that: 1. “Islam is a terrorist organization.” 2. “The problem is not extremism. The problem is Islam.” and 3. “We are at war with a terrorist organization named Islam.”[9]
If you are still wondering about the film’s connection to this list, here is the icing on the cake: In Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 29, 2006, three young Muslim women wearing head-covers were verbally attacked by a middle-aged couple who indicated to them that they had watched the movie. After asking the young women if they were Muslim, the couple told them “Take off your fucking burqas and get the fuck out of this country. We don’t want you in this country. Go home.”[10]
I rest my case.

[1] From an interview with Gavin Smith, Film Comment, May-June 2006.“It’s catharsis, it’s a reliving, it’s a reconstruction. It’s a hypothesis.” Greengrass also said, “The critical thing was to say, What might have happened? Here’s what we know, and here’s what seems to be reasonable supposition – now let’s take those two elements… and try to ‘play’ in such a way that we can unlock a believable truth.”
[2] From: http://www.rogerebert.com. April 28, 2006
[3] While I couldn’t decipher the language and accents of the terrorists, a few viewers have said that they spoke in varying accents and dialects:
“Hollywood doesn’t differentiate between Iraqi dialect and other Arabic dialects. So he (Greengrass) went with the Iraqi dialect.”
From, http://www.fayrouz.blogspot.com April 29, 2006
[4] “Iraqi born actor Lewis Alsamari was denied a visa by the US immigration authorities when he applied to visit New York for the premier of the film. The reason given was that he had once been a conscripted member of the Iraqi army.”
From, http://www.answers.com/topic/united-93
[5] From, www.cair.com/pdf/2006-CAIR-Civil-Rights-Report.pdf
[6] From, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11,_2001_attacks#Public_response

[7] Republican Congressman Peter King said, “I think it is time to end political correctness. To me, if a person is of Middle Eastern descent it is legitimate for the screener to ask more questions.” Quoted in the article, ‘Increased Calls for Racial Profiling At Airports In Wake of Foiled British Plot’ by, Bill Rogers in Washington D.C, August 2006. In http://www.voanews.com/english/2006-08-23-voa45.cfm

[8] WMAL-AM is a Radio New Station based in Washington D.C
[9] From, www.cair.com/pdf/2006-CAIR-Civil-Rights-Report.pdf, page 29

[10] From http://www.answers.com/topic/united-93 .
Another instance of how films like this one can work as propaganda lies in the predecessor film, Flight 93, Jerry Mazza said, “Flight 93’s patriotic spin landed before the sentencing of Zaccharias Moussaoui, who has been thrust in the role of scapegoat for the entire 9/11 debacle, even though he was in jail at the time. So we have a little multi-media propaganda to stir up the jury and America’s misguided rage.”
From, http://www.onlinejournal.com/artman/publish/printer_752.shtml

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