By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007
"America at a Crossroads" answers the question "Is there still a purpose for public television?" And the 11-part PBS series replies in the affirmative, because it's hard to imagine another national network that would attempt a project this ambitious, this challenging and this relatively esoteric.
Starting tonight with two hours of "Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al-Qaeda" and concluding Friday with "Security vs. Liberty: The Other War" and "The Brotherhood," this magnum opus tackles some of the toughest subjects of our time. "Crossroads" asks plenty of salient, crucial questions -- and works slavishly to find sane, satisfying answers.
Even the format and length of the special series are on the gutsy side: 12 hours over six consecutive nights of prime time. Several decades ago, CBS News aired a landmark report on "The Defense of the United States" -- five hours over five nights, although not all in prime time -- but the focus of "Crossroads" is more specific, and that gives it added urgency. When you're at a crossroads, you have to do something; you can't just watch the world go by and hope there aren't collisions.
"Crossroads" puts the dominant issues in the cross hairs, its goal occasionally just to make sense of Islamic radicals and what they envision as their global "cause." The series's more ambitious purpose is to hold a seemingly insoluble conflict up to the light and study it from as many angles as possible.
The approach is bound to strike some viewers are flagrantly one-sided. There doesn't seem to be any attempt by the other side to "understand" us -- only to obliterate us. If communists were won over, or undone, by the allure of American pop culture -- by tight jeans, catchy ditties and such inspirations as a bug-eyed talking sponge who works at an underwater diner -- such magnetic entities are viewed as poison by, for lack of a better term, The Enemy.
When Muhammad bin Laden -- father of 54 children, one them Osama -- studied American culture, he came away "appalled" at suburban America's obsession with lawns, of all things -- the meticulous and fastidious care and feeding thereof. Perhaps taking spectators literally, he reportedly shrank in horror at cries of "Kill him!" during a professional boxing match, and he generally considered Americans to be corrupted by the sorts of things the rest of the world envies.
Viewers who've oohed and aahed over the scenic and natural wonders captured in high-def for Discovery Channel HD Theater's eye-boggling "Planet Earth" will find the visual approach of "Crossroads" to be naturally austere by comparison. But although various producers and different creative teams worked on the various "Crossroads" segments, there are striking consistencies -- chief among them a way to zoom out from one spot on the globe and then zoom in, way in, on another. At their most basic level, these zooms, from a vantage point in space, give you a welcome perspective on just where things are in relation to one another. It's also a gee-whiz effect for its own sake.
"Gangs of Iraq," the segment airing Tuesday night, was co-produced by the "Crossroads" team and the producers of "Frontline," one of the last of the current-events topical series on public TV. "Gangs" looks at the massive U.S.-sponsored training effort to get Iraqis to stand up for themselves in the defense of their country and its moderate, or at least non-radical, citizens. According to the report, the coalition-trained forces have themselves been infiltrated by extremists -- thus increasing the challenge facing additional U.S. troops on their way to Baghdad.
Also on Tuesday, "The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom" is largely a profile of former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, a one-man campaign on behalf of the U.S. effort in Iraq and the mission as he sees it -- sharply contrasted with the views of Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
"Security vs. Liberty: The Other War," one of the two concluding hour-long segments airing Friday night, was co-produced by ABC News, another sign of the magnitude of the production. Written, produced and directed by Edward Gray, "Security vs. Liberty" asks whether Americans have been "far too willing to sacrifice our basic liberties" in the name of "homeland" safety. Those basic liberties were in peril within hours after the airplanes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and this part of the report gives the impression that only the ACLU is doing much to prevent the further erosion of rights.
The hour includes case studies of Americans whose profiles, as compiled in FBI computers, seemed to indicate possible terrorist ties -- among them a Muslim pizza shop owner suspected of peddling missiles as well as pizza pies. Brave and indignant librarians in Connecticut stood up and protested when they received so-called "national security letters" that requested patrons records.
The FBI not only makes its accusations in secret, but also often imposes a "gag order" on those charged so that they can't seek the legal protections that are supposedly the right of every U.S. citizen.
So many issues and conundrums arise during these reports on the war and its effects that the question of "what the title should be" keeps rising from the complexities and confusion. What's the plural of "crossroads"? The so-called war on terror has stranded us not at one crossroads but at many -- interlinked, entwined, perplexed.
Six nights of examining the intricate issues and maddening dilemmas of the conflict might not "solve" anything, but we ought to at least come away with a clarified sense of how confused it has all become.
America at a Crossroads begins tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.