The buildings and the wreckage of four downed airliners were still smoking as journalists and politicians reached for comparisons to what they had just seen. “Oh my God, this is Pearl Harbor,” thought Shelley Ross, the executive producer of GMA, as she watched the horror unfold on a wall of TV screens. Senator John Warner of Virginia called it “our second Pearl Harbor,” while another declared it was “the Pearl Harbor of American terrorism.” At a Pearl Harbor Day observation later that year, President Bush predicted that “another date will forever stand alongside December 7: September 11, 2001.”
But if the 9/11 attacks were our generation’s Pearl Harbor, how should the U.S. have responded? Japan bombed those Navy ships, so war was declared on that sovereign nation. By contrast, the 9/11 attacks were carried out by a small army of nihilists under the command of a Saudi hiding out in Afghanistan, a failed state whose leaders wanted nothing to do with the United States. Who or what was the enemy after 9/11, and what would a war on them (or it) look like?
The sobering and infuriating takeaway of the new Netflix docuseries, Turning Point: 9/11 And the War on Terror, is that we never answered these crucial questions. With no national consensus other than “do something,” American leadership directed the military, law enforcement and the bureaucracy to undertake a thousand diffuse missions. Thus did a “war on terrorism” became a “war on terror,” a trillion-dollar campaign to rub out a feeling.
The story of the 9/11 attacks has been told so often, from so many points of view, that it seems hardly possible to see it with fresh eyes. And yet that’s exactly how I felt while bingeing this outstanding series from veteran docmakers Brian Knappenberger and Eve Marson and journalist Lowell Bergman. Under Knappenberger’s sure direction, the feelings come back all over again: the shock of the first breaking-news bulletins, the realization that these were no accidents, the wonder that 20 jihadists could orchestrate such a crime under the noses of law enforcement, the awe at the acts of individual valor at the attack sites, the sense of unity as we watched live news for days on end … and above all, the deep sadness that lingered long after the last pieces of the World Trade Center were hauled away.
But it’s a different kind of sadness now, sadness that’s accrued layers of grief from all the losses over the decades: the loss of more than 4,700 service personnel and 100,000 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, the loss of veterans who came back but took their own lives, the loss of treasure squandered in two wars and a nation-building experiment and, equally tragic, the loss of national unity and resolve after 9/11.
The Netflix documentary template, like much television storytelling these days, discourages linear narratives, so the viewer of Turning Point is flung up and down the timeline, from 2001 back to 1998, forward to 2006 and so on. On the whole, this is a good thing because the overlap between the 9/11 attacks and the ill-fated response to them is important. Conservatives like to say that ideas have consequences, but feelings can have consequences too. As author Garrett Graff says, “The biggest thing 9/11 did was it made America afraid.” Free-floating fear, the kind of fear FDR warned us about, is the only thing that could have kept something as nebulous as a forever war against poorly-defined enemies going.
At first, the fear was of more terrorist attacks, like anthrax in the mail or a copycat like the shoe bomber. But within a year of 9/11, fear had metastasized into a crusade to depose Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the new Department of Homeland Security was sending local police forces billions of dollars of weaponry, tactical gear and armored vehicles, creating paramilitary units in thousands of American communities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Minneapolis. The FBI and CIA, whose intra-agency feuding had caused vital intel on Osama bin Laden to go unacted upon, now zealously monitored the phone calls and data messages of American citizens, bypassing judicial oversight.
And at a U.S. military base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — a place that, as one observer in Turning Point notes, is “the legal equivalent of outer space” — habeus corpus was eliminated, torture was authorized and a message was effectively broadcast to jihadists across the globe: From this point on, boys, anything goes.
The tragic nature of these choices by our government was evident even as they were being made, at least to some people. But looking back at them now — and I mean right now, as Americans are scrambling to flee the chaos of Afghanistan — is to see the scope and depth of the tragedy in a way that wasn’t possible on previous anniversaries of 9/11.
It would be so easy for the makers of Turning Point to go Michael Moore at this moment, to mock the Bush Administration hawks who dusted off their old world-domination playbook while the president told the rest of us to go shopping. But as news coverage in recent days has chillingly reminded us, the consequences of our actions are so dire they resist the easy catharsis of satire or finger-pointing. And anyway, as Matt Taibbi correctly notes, “Afghanistan is as pure a bipartisan fiasco as we’ve had in recent times.” Yes, it took a special talent like Dick Cheney to look an interviewer in the eye and declare, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” but few with the power to foil his plans offered resistance. Fewer still were willing to throw themselves in front of the military machine once it got rolling.
Turning Point is exactly the kind of serious, searing recapitulation that this moment demands. Its five expertly compressed episodes move briskly yet with care, choosing the moments and memories that have maximum impact. Knappenberger and an Afghan crew conducted 88 interviews with survivors, journalists, experts and insiders. Many of these people, like Andy Card — he’s the aide seen whispering into the president’s era at the schoolroom in Florida — have told their tales so many times I expect they have the scripts committed to memory. Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills, whose heroism in the Pentagon attack resulted in a Purple Heart, has already been the subject of a History documentary and is also scheduled to appear in a Robin Roberts special on ABC.
And yet even these well-worn stories seem different in light of current events and the long-postponed reckoning that President Biden decided will happen on his watch. Unlike most 9/11 docs, Turning Point juxtaposes these emotional and inspirational stories with the policies that were drummed up in the wake of feelings that these stories stirred up.
More impressive are the voices in Turning Point of major players in the events before, during and after 9/11: a leading Afghan warlord and Afghan politicians, U.S. military and civilian strategists and key insiders like Alberto Gonzales, the Bush White House counsel and later attorney general. Gonzales appears extensively in Turning Point, amiably defending waterboarding, Gitmo, the Iraq invasion and all the other decisions of that era.
Another insider points out, fairly, that Afghanistan has been greatly improved in the 20 years since we threw the Taliban out. Child mortality rates are way down, women make up nearly half the school population, etc. Listening to him, I couldn't help but think of Condi Rice’s argument that Afghanistan could have been our next South Korea, a success story whose final chapter might have been written had we not abruptly closed the book. But then I think, these are the kinds of objectives that are best stated at the start of the mission, and where was NSA director Rice’s voice back then?
At any rate, by the end of Turning Point you’re left convinced of the point made early on by Bruce Hoffman, the counterterrorism expert who worked on both the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group. The 9/11 attacks, Hoffman asserts, were “the most consequential terror attacks in the history of mankind.” That’s no hyperbole. Compared to 9/11, Pearl Harbor was small potatoes.
All five episodes of Turning Point: 9/11 And the War on Terror drop Sept. 1 on Netflix.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.