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9/11 documentary asks troubling questions about religion

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2002

For those deeply disturbed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, watching Frontline's latest documentary brilliance for PBS, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, may be a tough task.

For those deeply disturbed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, watching Frontline's latest documentary brilliance for PBS, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, may be a tough task.

That's due, in part, to the program's inclusion of graphic footage, including several replays of the airplanes striking the World Trade Center and close up images -- both on videotape and in still photographs -- of people jumping from the windows of the twin towers to certain death.

But the real unease may come in considering the documentary's unsettling questions about religion, faith and God in the wake of a tragedy that claimed more than 3,000 lives.

"After Sept. 11, the face of God was a blank slate for me," said Father Joseph Griesedieck, an Episcopal priest who volunteered at the ground zero site. "God seemed absent. And I was left with nothing but that thing we call faith -- but faith in what? I wasn't so sure."

Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero is among the first and best documentaries to herald the coming deluge of commemorative reports about last year's terrorist attacks.

Like so many other programs in the next week or so, Faith and Doubt features interviews with survivors of those killed in the World Trade Center disaster and plenty of video footage: the gleaming, preattack twin towers, bystanders running for their lives from the crumbling buildings, clips of those killed, in happier moments of life.

But this documentary takes a step further, considering the impact of such carnage on the religious faith of survivors, emergency workers, artists and average citizens. Divided into five acts, the program features an array of interview subjects discoursing on everything from the likelihood that God may have preordained the attack to the existence of pure evil.

"I am sure there are many religious people asking themselves questions ... "Did they hear a voice? Did they hear a calling?"' said photographer Luca Babini, an agnostic, on those who jumped from the twin towers before their collapse. "Something special must have been going on, because a lot of them jumped."

For many of those interviewed here, God was a benevolent, all-knowing presence to be thanked for good fortune before Sept. 11. Afterward, they had trouble remaining faithful to a deity who could allow such a tragedy to occur -- though one Muslim scholar outlines the concept of free will, and the idea that God allows people to make their own choices, even if that choice involves taking a life.

One drawback: Though the documentary quotes a survivor of the Holocaust on the nature of evil, little other effort is made to place the World Trade Center attacks in perspective with other atrocities, such as massacres in Bosnia, mass killings in Somalia, the Oklahoma City bombing or suicide bombings in the Middle East.

History, after all, is replete with instances of people killing masses of innocents. This documentary's failure to connect the current tragedy with so many that have come before feeds a focus on American suffering that weakens the material.

Most effective is the documentary's final quarter, when talk turns to the nature of evil and the way in which religion can inspire such murderous acts.

"From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11 ... I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion," Monsignor Lorenzo Alabacete said. "I knew that force could take you to do great things. But I (also) knew there was no greater or more destructive force on Earth than the religious passion."

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, recalling his days living in Hebron and fighting Palestinians, urged others not to deny the dark side of their respective religions in an attempt to cope.

"The worst thing we can do is make some kind of compact where none of us admit the blood on our hands ... (because) we've all been bloodied by these (religious) traditions," Hirschfield said. "It's amazing how good religion is at mobilizing people to do awful, murderous things. Anyone who loves religious experience ... better begin to own that there is a serious shadow side to this thing."

In the end, Faith and Doubt doesn't make conclusions or present definitive answers. Instead, it outlines the sharp questions and soul-searching inspired by the World Trade Center attacks -- provoking the kind of analysis and remembrance that seems appropriate for this tragically one-of-a-kind anniversary.

At a glance

The Frontline documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, airs at 9 tonight on WEDU-Ch. 3. Grade: A.

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