DON'T feel guilty if you, like most Americans, have not run or even walked to see "United 93." The movie that has been almost unanimously acclaimed as a rite of patriotism second only to singing the national anthem in English is clinical to the point of absurdity: it reduces the doomed and brave Americans on board to nameless stick figures with less personality than the passengers in "Airport." Rather than deepening our knowledge of them or their heroism, the movie caps an hour of air-controller nail-biting with a tasteful re-enactment of the grisly end.
But it's not a total waste. The debate that preceded the film's arrival actually does tell us something about the war on terror. The two irrelevant questions that were asked over and over — Does "United 93" exploit the tragedy? Was it made too soon? — reveal just how adrift we are from reality as we head toward the fifth anniversary of the attacks.
The answer to the first question is yes, of course "United 93" exploits 9/11. It's a Hollywood entertainment marketed to make a profit, with a smoking World Trade Center on its poster as a gratuitous selling tool and a trailer cunningly deployed to drum up pre-premiere controversy (a k a publicity) by ambushing Manhattan audiences. The project's unappetizing commercialism is not mitigated by Universal Pictures' donation of 10 percent of the opening weekend's so-so proceeds to a memorial at the site of the crash in Shanksville, Pa. Roughly 50 times that sum is needed to build the memorial (and its cost is peanuts next to the planned $1 billion extravaganza in New York).
Still, a movie that exploits 9/11 is business as usual. This is America, for heaven's sake. "United 93" is merely the latest in a long line of such products and relatively restrained at that. This film doesn't use documentary images of shrouded remains being borne from ground zero, as the Bush-Cheney campaign ads did two years ago. And it isn't cheesy like the first fictional 9/11 movie, Showtime's "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," in 2003. That dog, produced with White House cooperation and larded with twin-tower money shots, starred Timothy Bottoms as a derring-do President Bush given to pronouncements like "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come get me!" It's amazing that it hasn't found an honored place beside "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as a campy midnight perennial.
As for the second question in the "United 93" debate, it's disturbing that it was asked at all. Is this movie too soon? Hardly: it's already been preceded by two TV movies about the same flight. The question we should be asking instead is if its message comes too late.
Whatever the movie's other failings, that message is clear and essential: the identity of the enemy. The film opens with the four hijackers praying to Allah and, in keeping with the cockpit voice recording played at the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, portrays them as prayerful right until they murder 40 innocent people. Such are the Islamic radicals who struck us on 9/11 and whose brethren have only multiplied since.
Yet how fleeting has been their fame. Thanks to the administration's deliberate post-9/11 decision to make the enemy who attacked us interchangeable with the secular fascists of Iraq who did not, the original war on terrorism has been diluted in its execution and robbed of its support from the American public. Brian Williams seemed to be hinting as much when, in effusively editorializing about "United 93" on NBC (a sister company of Universal), he suggested that "it just may be a badly needed reminder for some that we are a nation at war because of what happened in New York and Washington and in this case in a field in Pennsylvania." But he stopped short of specifying exactly what war he meant, and that's symptomatic of our confusion. When Americans think about war now, they don't think about the war prompted by what happened on 9/11 so much as the war in Iraq, and when they think about Iraq, they don't say, "Let's roll!," they say, "Let's leave!"
The administration's blurring of the distinction between Al Qaeda and Saddam threatens to throw out the baby that must survive, the war against Islamic terrorists, with the Iraqi quagmire. Last fall a Pew Research Center survey found that Iraq had driven isolationist sentiment in the United States to its post-Vietnam 1970's high. In a CBS News poll released last week, the percentage of Americans who name terrorism as the nation's "most important problem" fell to three. Every day we spend in Iraq erodes the war against those who attacked us on 9/11.
Just how much so was dramatized by an annual report on terrorism issued by the State Department on the same day that "United 93" opened nationwide. The number of terrorist attacks was up by a factor of nearly four in 2005. While Al Qaeda is scattered, it has been replaced by what Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar, describes as "a many-headed hydra that is just as deadly and far harder to slay." Osama bin Laden, no longer an operational leader, retains, in the State Department's language, "the capability to influence events, and inspire actual and potential terrorists."
We remain unprepared should they once again strike here. Like Hurricane Katrina before it, the Dubai Ports tsunami proved yet another indictment of our inept homeland security. While the country hyperventilated about the prospect of turning over our ports to a rare Arab ally, every expert on the subject, the former 9/11 commissioners included, was condemning our inability to check cargo at any point of entry, whether by sea or land, even if the Sopranos ran the show. Congress's Government Accountability Office reported that in a test conducted last year, undercover investigators smuggled enough radioactive material past our border inspectors to fuel two dirty bombs.
To add insult to this potential nuclear Armageddon, Afghanistan is falling back into the hands of religious fanatics; not even the country's American-backed president, Hamid Karzai, dared to publicly intervene in the trial of a man facing execution for converting from Islam to Christianity. "The Taliban and Al Qaeda are everywhere" is how a shopkeeper described the situation to the American commander in Afghanistan, The Times reported last week. These were the conditions that spawned the hijackers of "United 93" — all four of them trained in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. At this rate, we are in danger of marking the next anniversary of 9/11 with a reboot of the Afghanistan war we were supposed to have won more than four years ago.
Our level of denial about these setbacks is embedded not just in the White House, which blithely keeps telling us "we're winning" the war on terror, but also in the culture. The decision of most major networks and newspapers (including this one) to avoid showing the inflammatory Danish Muhammad cartoons attests less to our heightened religious sensitivities (we've all run reproductions of art Christians and Jews find blasphemous) than to our deep-seated fear of the terrorists' unimpeded power to strike back. The cheers that greet the long-awaited start of construction at ground zero are all the louder to drown out the unsettling truth that no major private tenant has bet on the Freedom Tower's security by signing a lease.
We also practice denial by manufacturing vicarious and symbolic victories at home to compensate for those we are not winning abroad. Two major liberties taken with the known facts in "United 93" — sequences suggesting that passengers thrashed and possibly killed two of the hijackers and succeeded in entering the cockpit — are highly cathartic but unsupported by the evidence. In its way, the Moussaoui prosecution conducted its own Hollywood rewrite by exaggerating the stature of the only person to go to trial for the crimes of 9/11. The larger this marginal creep loomed, the better the proxy he'd be for those we let get away (starting with bin Laden). Perhaps we might even be tempted to forget that F.B.I. incompetence had kept us from squeezing Moussaoui (or his computer) for information that might have saved lives during the weeks he languished in jail before 9/11.
Two of the F.B.I. bosses who repeatedly squelched Moussaoui search warrants in August 2001 remained at the F.B.I. as he went to trial. The genuinely significant 9/11 figures in American custody, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, cannot be prosecuted because their firsthand accounts of our "interrogation techniques" at Guantánamo and our "black sites" are bound to incite more terrorists. Meanwhile, the American leaders who devote every waking moment to defending their indefensible decisions in Iraq have squandered the energy, the armed forces and the international good will needed to fight the war that began on 9/11 and that, in our own State Department's words, is "still in the first phase."
That's the scenario before us now. Next to it, "United 93" may in time look as escapist as the Robin Williams vehicle that outgrossed it last weekend, "RV."