The Australian
September 07, 2006
Greg Sheridan

A review involving heroes and villains, football and sadness, and many, many lives saved

IF you could see only one film concerning the war on terror, that film should be United 93, which is screening in cinemas. Monday is the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks on September 11 in New York, on the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

The film is a magnificent re-creation of the events on United Flight 93, the only one of the four hijacked planes that did not hit the terrorists' target. The actions of the passengers, who overpowered the terrorists but were unable to prevent the plane crashing, were the first successful counterattack by the West in the war on terror. There is a simple lesson from this remarkably powerful film, and that is that in the face of terror, civilised people, civilised nations, must fight back.

There is some guesswork in the film but much of the story is reconstructed by reference to the agonisingly beautiful phone calls the passengers made to their families during the flight's final minutes.

The universal humanity and decency of these phone calls is overwhelming: tell my wife I love her, we're going to fight back, say a prayer with me.

The passengers' reactions offer a reassuring glimpse into the civic heart of a Western democracy. This is not a plane load of trained soldiers, just ordinary folks, about their ordinary business. At first there is sheer shock at the startling violence of the hijackers, who rip their box cutters through the throats of several passengers and flight attendants to establish control.

Then the passengers are inclined to sit tight and hope the hijackers have negotiable demands. But the flight has taken off late so there is time for them to hear by phone that other hijackers have crashed planes into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon.

A brief debate ensues among the passengers. One, predictably, calls for negotiations. There is a sentiment to do nothing, hope for the best. But luckily one of the passengers is a rugby player. This film may well be the finest advertisement made for rugby. One of the men calls for all the "big guys" to come together at the back of the plane.

They tense themselves.

And then they move: "Let's roll."

They have responded exactly as good citizens, as good human beings, should. They absorbed their own shock, they sought out information and found they had no peaceful options. Where they could, they reassured their families and sent messages of love to spouses and children and parents.

They never lost self-control. They said their prayers and then, though their chances of victory were poor, they went into battle.

They saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in the Washington building - probably the White House or the Capitol - the terrorists were aiming to hit.

There is much to reflect on in this film. For a start, ask yourself this: if al-Qa'ida came for you, would you rather be sitting next to a Melbourne civil liberties lawyer or a rugby player? The broader question is whether our societies will have the strength and ingenuity to defend themselves, and whether in the end we, or the enemy, will prevail.

United 93 is successful partly because it makes no explicit attempt to answer these questions. It benefits from the un-American artistic virtue of restraint. Its documentary style makes it all the more powerful. I found it even more moving than the also excellent Flight 93, a made-for-television movie that depicts the same events.

But both films, by their sheer rarity value, display the absolute failure of Hollywood to come to grips with the war on terror. Virtually all the other Hollywood efforts dealing with terrorism take a "root causes" approach, so that somehow it is actually the fault of the US that the murderous ideology of radical Islamist terror has taken root in the hearts of enough men to be a mortal threat.

We have the same types here, provincial imitators of The New York Times, down under versions of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, who speak with infinite fatuousness as though terrorists do not have a coherent ideology but are mere organic responses to Western treachery.

We see it in the demonstrators who brand George W. Bush a terrorist because he brought to an end a regime of medieval cruelty in Afghanistan and toppled the most bloodthirsty dictator in the second half of the 20th century in Iraq. Bush, and John Howard too for that matter, has made mistakes, but to equate them with the genuine evil of Islamist terrorism is dishonest, foolish, morally absurd and demonstrates a lack of connection to reality.

Yet we see this all the time in our own Left. We see it in the perverse growth of conspiracy theories about who was really behind the 9/11 attacks, theories to be found simultaneously on the far Left and in extreme Islamist circles.

Of course, extreme Islamism and the Left critique of our society have a great deal in common, and that is a contempt for bourgeois Western society and a hatred for traditional Western values, which are close enough to universal values. An Australian academic journal some time ago devoted an entire learned article to establishing that the column I write was in the habit of using terms such as good and evil, as though the mere thought that good and evil are meaningful categories was shockingly out of date.

Yet it is the very power of United 93 that it demonstrates the pure evil of the terrorists' actions and the goodness of the passengers' actions. By avoiding any editorialising, United 93 lets the facts speak for themselves. It is an absurd postmodern conceit that there is no moral difference between the actions of terrorists and the actions of those who fight terrorism.

The reason many, many more people in the West have not been killed by terrorists these past five years is that intelligence, law enforcement and military arms of our nations have kept the terrorists on the run.

Watch United 93 and ask what it is that would prevent the hijackers from using nuclear weapons if they could. And if they did so once, what would prevent them from doing so again?

But there are those in our societies who don't believe it's a war and don't even believe it's terrorism. Especially those who lead the most genteel and privileged of lives are inclined to construe terrorism as a kind of vulgarity uttered by Bush and Howard to suppress civil liberties, persecute the Third World and garner undeserved electoral victory.

The artistic class has produced very little of worth out of the age of terror because it does not understand the terrorists or its own society. Five years into the war on terror, this simple film is the most powerful explanatory artefact I have seen. Its question is still an open one: can we defend ourselves, can we prevail? I would be more comfortable if more of us played rugby.

**End of article