FRONTLINE’s Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero Asks, “Where Was God on 9/11?”
The FRONTLINE (PBS) documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero is a gripping report on 9/11 and the epitome of broadcast journalism’s ability to transmit experience. Esteemed filmmaker Helen Whitney produced this two-hour investigation to mark the first anniversary of 9/11. The documentary fulfills our traditional taxonomy of news values but makes impact, relevance, and conflict most palpable, as Whitney respectfully invites the audience to empathize with lives taken and unraveled by tragedy.
This elegant documentary immerses the viewer in survivors’ grief, hellish flames, the suffocating dust that enveloped dissolving buildings, losses of companionship, sympathy for people leaping from the towers, and soul-searching about one’s faith, including clerics questioning how God could abide such a horrendous act and scorning the perpetrators’ thirst for violence.
Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero comprises five acts: September 11, The Face of God, The Face of Evil, The Face of Religion, and Ground Zero, plus an Epilogue. In a work of criticism, I would analyze the skillful blending of actuality/news footage, photojournalism, sound and music, and juxtaposition. The program is sad, beautiful, and compelling, like Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” Night and Fog, or Shoah. But we focus here on 9/11 journalism, which in this essay involves the 9-1-1 calls, a journalist’s shocking recollection, testimony from tormented clerics, and eyewitness experiences.
Primary Documents of Emotion
Nine-one-one calls are standard evidence in coverage of tragic events. In Act Two, though, Rabbi Irwin Kula sings the call-texts. “They’re so pure about the expression of love between husband and wife, between mother and child,” says Kula.[i] “They seem to me to be incredible texts because they were at the moment of confronting life or death
Kula chants them every morning as a reminder: “(singing) Hey, Jules. It’s Brian. I’m on the plane and it’s hijacked, and it doesn’t look good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you and hope to see you again.”
The invocations sound incongruous until they register as primary documents of emotion: “Mommy, the building is on fire. There’s smoke coming through the walls. I can’t breathe. I love you, Mommy. Goodbye.”[ii]
“We Are As Dust to Them”
Margot Adler offers a journalist’s take on “evil” as she recalls Vladimir Putin’s interview at National Public Radio: “[T]he one thing that he said that I haven’t forgotten—and it was never quoted anywhere, it was in no news story—but when I heard it, literally, the hair on the back of my wrists just stood up straight. He was asked, . . . ‘what do you think when [President] Reagan said, ‘the evil empire?’ . . . And he said, ‘Well, I thought it was—you know, it was sort of a way of speaking. It was an exaggeration.’ And then the interviewer said to him, . . . ‘when George Bush talks about . . . ‘Usama bin Laden as evil,’ you know, ‘do you think it’s also a turn of phrase?’ And Putin said, ‘No. I think that is really mild language. I have many words for [the terrorists], but I couldn’t say them on the air.’”
Adler then reflects on the gravity of that moment: “And then he said, ‘We are as dust to them.’ That was the line that got me, ‘We are as dust to them.’” A seasoned journalist, Adler grappled with a most unjournalistic consideration, the existence of “evil,” and pulled the discussion back to a reporter’s assessment of human conduct: “[W]hen you believe in something so utterly that you lose your sense that a human being is a human being, when you feel that you can go into a building and kill 3,000 people and it doesn’t matter because you are so focused on what you think is perfection and good, maybe that is a definition of evil. . . . It’s an estrangement from your connection that these other human beings, the ones that are jumping out the window to the bottom, are just like you. . . . And that’s clearly what was lost.”[iii]
Faith, God, and Evil
Journalistic coverage of terror-related events before and since 9/11 has considered religion, especially Islam, comparisons to Christianity and Judaism, and their influences on global politics. Journalists have long covered religion—“godless” communism, papal decrees, regarding abortion and gay rights, fallen evangelicals, abusive priests, and presidential contenders. Here, Whitney commands documentary to probe epistemologies of faith, God, and evil and reveals glaring realities overlooked by daily coverage of 9/11.
Reverend David Benke was vilified for participating in the multi-denominational memorial on September 23, 2001. The day after delivering a prayer amidst his fellow clerics, his Lutheran followers sent “messages that nailed me to the floor, frankly, emotionally,” Benke recalled. “They just said, ‘You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith.’ One man said genuine terrorism was me. He said, ‘Planes crash and people die. Nothing big about that.’ Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer.” Benke’s anguish contributes an essential layer to 9/11 reporting: “I have not gotten over that and I can’t get through that because I lived through the real terrorists driving the planes into the real buildings and I’ve talked to people whose loved ones were murdered. And for me to be put in that same category is just not tolerable to me. I can’t take it.”[iv]
Professor of Islamic Law Khaled El-Fadl agonized about whether he had done enough to forestall the hatred and reported a litany of transgressions committed in the name of Allah: “[T]here was the destroying of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan, there were the oppression of women, there were the decision to have Christians and Jews wear distinctive marks in Afghanistan. . . . There is no question that the extremists and puritans want to be the only representatives of Islam who can tell you what God wants and what Islam is.”[v]
Professor Kanan Makiya, an expert on Middle Eastern Studies, pushed the envelope in a documentary about faith. “September 11th is harder for an atheist like myself than for a believer,” Makiya said, “because it shook my belief in the one last foundation of everything, in the human race. That human beings could do this to other human beings . . . it confirms my atheism. And then that does leave you very, very isolated.”[vi] Makiya had long studied the Middle East and was accustomed to despair. “[W]hat was new here,” he countered, “was the rapturous embrace of violence, [on] a scale that every effort to overcome it, which is what the purpose and the meaning of my work is, whether it be in the shape of an Arab-Israeli peace treaty or be in the shape of a different regime in Iraq . . . All of that paled into insignificance in contrast with this rapturous celebration of death that September 11th represented.”[vii]
Even as a documentary that is more ethereal than typical news fare, Faith and Doubt hews the journalistic line in documenting humanity, including deeply personal issues that also reflect national news. Renée Fleming poignantly expressed her eyewitness testimony from the memorial service at Ground Zero: “I didn’t expect it to be so enormous. And then I turned around and I saw the faces of the 9,000 people who had crowded into this extremely narrow space. . . . trying to find a spot, trying to connect in some way to the site.”[viii] Over footage of the famed soprano singing “Amazing Grace,” Fleming filed her report: “Normally, I—it’s my job and it’s my joy to connect to the audience. I had to look up. I just—I couldn’t do that. I had to look above the audience because I just knew I wouldn’t be able to go on. There were so many people. And of course, most of whom I could see were the people directly in front of me. And it was the children.” Struggling hopelessly to restrain her emotions, Fleming concluded nearly sobbing, “I think the hardest thing for me . . . was the sense of knowing, in many cases, that the people they lost were behind us.”[ix]
From the memories of a retired Black police officer breathing the same air at the memorial to her daughter, or the photographer recalling strangers joining hands before jumping, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero reflects the highest power of journalism’s transmission of experience, despair, and hope. It is peerless 9/11 journalism.
Featured image: “Tribute in Light” memorial honoring citizens who lost their lives in the World Trade Center attacks taken from Liberty State Park, NJ, September 11, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo/Denise Gould)
About the author: Tom Mascaro is a documentary journalism historian, author, and professor emeritus from Bowling Green State University.
[i] Rabbi Irwin Kula, qtd. in Helen Whitney and Ron Rosenbaum, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero transcript, Act Two, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/faith/etc/script.html accessed June 23, 2021.
[iii] Margo Adler, ibid., Act Three.
[iv] Rev. David Benke, ibid., Act Four.
[v] Khaled El-Fadl, ibid., Act Four.
[vi] Kanan Makiya, ibid., Act Two.
[viii] Renée Fleming, ibid., Act Five, Epilogue.