“America After 9/11,” the latest film from PBS’ Frontline team, is a must-see deconstruction of the War on Terror that lays out the United States’ foreign policy failures with details both enraging and illuminating. It’s also one of 19 films that director Michael Kirk, a longtime documentary filmmaker for Frontline, has created on the War on Terror over the last two decades, previously covering U.S. torture programs, the rise of ISIS, and more. Kirk and his colleagues interviewed over 30 sources for their new film, ranging from civil rights activists and attorneys to former CIA officers, as well as a a wide variety of journalists and former White House staffers. Together, they paint a portrait of the United States that, through its own actions over the last 20 years, eroded much of the country’s goodwill at home and abroad in a misguided series of wars that killed scores of innocent people.
Kirk discussed his intentions for creating the film, the news media and government’s roles in influencing public perception of the War on Terror, and the domestic impacts of America’s foreign policy in a recent interview with IndieWire.
“When we decided to make this film, we stepped back and looked across the 20 years and asked what the key moments were and connected those dots,” Kirk said. “The throughline is the increasing polarization and distrust of the government. It was almost like every single thing that failed — and many of them did — led to [further] diminished trust and belief in the truth as articulated by the government. Every time we stopped at one of those markers — weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, Colin Powell, torture — we tried to resend the signal out, ‘Here’s another piece of the edifice of what America said is crumbling at that time.'”
The erosion of the American public’s trust in public institutions is central to “America After 9/11.” The Capitol attack on January 6 is prominently featured in the film’s early and ending segments and several of its sources argue that the incident was fueled by sentiments of mistrust and paranoia that have spread through much of America in the years since the World Trade Center attacks.
Conspiracy theories existed before 9/11, but it’s no coincidence there’s been a sharp uptick in paranoid arguments and those who believe them in the last 20 years, according to Kirk.
“You can see why conspiracy theories are rising. One of the places they started to rise was the truthers around 9/11 itself. And then when things the government said to the American people were lies, what you discover is people believe conspiracies when they don’t have a simple or believable answer for what’s happening,” Kirk said. “‘Why is America torturing people? That’s the opposite of what they said they were going to be doing. There were no weapons of mass destruction. I no longer believe Colin Powell. I no longer believe Dick Cheney, he turns out to be a dark side kind of a guy. God, what else are they doing?'”
Conspiracies about 9/11 persist to this day and continue to be promoted by high-profile individuals — the recent controversy about Spike Lee’s “NYC Epicenters” documentary, which was re-edited to remove references to a debunked theory that the World Trade Centers were brought down by controlled demolition, is but one of many examples. Birtherism. Pizzagate. QAnon. Donald Trump’s “stolen election.” Endless COVID-19 misinformation. The number of conspiracy theories that have gained prominence throughout the War on Terror is staggering. Kirk is concerned that reversing course will not be easy.
“Conspiracists make their living [promoting] extremely outrageous scenarios that are just as plausible to people who don’t understand why the American government isn’t telling them the truth. I think a lot of that is an outgrowth of what happened during the last 20 years. […] What can be done about that? The government should tell the truth, even if it hurts. But they aren’t going to, they haven’t in a long, long time, and maybe they never had,” Kirk said. “The trick is to get people not to believe the conspiracy, but one of the most important things Donald Trump and his administration did that harmed America was to pick up on these conspiracy theories and believe them themselves. Trump has always been a conspiracy theorist and would articulate conspiracies as if they were true. That has harmed the truth in America. Remember fake news? Where’s that coming from? That’s why conspiracy theories exist — because there’s no belief in the truth from the press, other politicians, science, or the big institutions from the government, even if they’re all telling the truth.”
“Truth from the press” is something that is brought up several times in “America After 9/11.” Journalism’s role in the War on Terror cannot simply be described as positive or negative; as the film notes, leading American newspapers gave credence to politicians’ pro-war lies via op-eds or shoddy reporting, while television news outlets fearmongered about potential terrorism threats for ratings. On the other hand, news organizations helped expose the United States’ prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, among the country’s other abuses of human rights over the last two decades, and news outlets that have invested in international reporting have served as invaluable sources of information.
There have been clear examples of journalism’s importance in the days during and since the United States’ controversial exit from Afghanistan. The American government stated it launched a drone strike that killed two ISIS planners behind a bombing near the Kabul airport that killed nearly 200 people; if it weren’t for multiple news organizations, it’s unclear if the American public would’ve ever known that drone strike also allegedly killed 10 civilians, including seven children. More recently, the reporting of the Los Angeles Times’ Nabih Bulos and Marcus Yam, two of a dwindling number of Western journalists still operating in Afghanistan, have shone a light on how the Taliban has already broken its pledges to respect human rights and create an inclusive government.
But is there a large audience in America for that kind of journalism? American media publications specializing in foreign affairs exist and though Afghanistan is currently a major topic in the news due to the recency of the United States’ departure from the country, the quantity of the American mainstream media’s reporting on the region — or at least the promotion of that reporting — over the years has been dubious at best. Kirk cited Trump’s negotiation with the Taliban in 2020 and the group’s apparently unexpected takeover of the country as an example of the lack of visible reporting on the region.
“Trump wanted to make his own way in Afghanistan and he negotiated with the Taliban — you don’t really hear about it. The all-stars of journalism aren’t working there. Who is sourced there? All the things we need to be really good are the same things that Afghans, the military, and the president needed,” Kirk said. “The big idea that happened in Afghanistan is that nobody was paying attention. Nobody knew about the Taliban. Nobody spent time thinking about it. How many stories did you read about the Taliban? Nothing. Was it a surprise? Sure. Should it have been a surprise? Probably not. We have a very big media mechanism in the United States, but we weren’t working there.”
Part of that reason may be due to the American public’s fatigue for the War on Terror and international issues more generally, according to Kirk. He noted that Americans became more concerned with domestic issues following Trump’s election, a trend that was further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“By the time you get around to Trump, you’ve got a view of America in the world that most Americans don’t even like America in the world, let alone the rest of the world,” Kirk said. “Our allies walked us back. Trump isn’t playing with NATO. Big international stories and America’s role in them start to wane and Trump intentionally brings the war home. So, suddenly domestic terror is the way he talks about it and the way that a lot of Americans worry about it. January 6 and the Capitol attack certainly puts that on the agenda. I think it’s safe to assert, certainly from the people we interviewed for this film, [they] felt very strongly that America had squandered its view of the world and Americans were through with that. We were the policemen of the world, exporting democracy, and were the beacon of freedom; well, everybody found out in a lot of our actions that that wasn’t true about us and I think a lot of Americans are embarrassed about that and not happy about that.”
What could be the consequences of an American public that’s ignorant to the ramifications of its government’s foreign policies? The moral implications should be apparent, but Rasha Al Aqeedi, head of the Non-State Actors Program at the Newlines Institute, laid out a tragic case for some of the practical outcomes in her interview with Frontline for the film.
“Seeing one of the large Stryker army tanks, they came into Mosul I believe it was sometime in 2004. I think the Stryker was just in a hurry and it crossed a red light and just ran directly into a civilian car, killing everyone in it, and it just didn’t stop,” Al Aqeedi said in a portion of the Frontline interview that was not featured in “America After 9/11.” “It was not considered a hit-and-run. I don’t believe there was an investigation. There was just an ambulance that came up later, picked up the bodies. I have no information whether that family was compensated or not, but these incidents happened a lot and I don’t believe Americans heard about them in the news. Imagine this repeating at a scale, not just in Mosul, but all over Iraq and then wondering why there’s an insurgency. And then wondering why Iraqis are so angry. There was a lack of respect of human life and that happened even before the invasion; up until this day, Iraq is looked at almost like a geographic space. The population is rarely mentioned.”
Al Qeedi’s full interview is one of several that Frontline published to coincide with the premiere of “America After 9/11.” The supplementary video interviews, as well as the written transcripts that are available as part of Frontline’s Transparency Project, give clarity to any lingering questions that viewers may have about the film’s sources. A diverse array of sources are featured in the film but some viewers may be surprised to see that a noticeable number of them are former government officials, including but not limited to Colin Powell and John Bolton, who lied about the government’s handling of the War on Terror, among other things, during their careers.
“I’ve watched the trajectory of these people over the last 20 years, especially as they participated in government,” Kirk said. “There was a kind of groupthink and sometimes you had to say things you didn’t really believe but you had to support. So, you were at least in those meetings — that’s what they always tell you: ‘At least I was in the meetings and could offer my perspective.’ […] Sometimes people come to this moment 20 years out and they feel like telling the truth.”
Regardless, “America After 9/11” never feels like it’s providing a platform for misinformation or sanitizing the past mistakes of politicos, nor does it waste time by asking the interviewees meaningless “gotcha” questions. It’s a smart, urgent analysis of the United States’ War on Terror, told by many of the key individuals uniquely situated to discuss its myriad failures.
Kirk hopes viewers will use the film as an opportunity to understand and reflect upon the United States’ foreign policy decisions and comprehend how they have impacted the rest of the world.
“It’s important to connect all the dots and see how this rush to judgment from the very beginning, this ‘good versus evil’ choice that Bush cast, to become realistic about what America is and isn’t,” Kirk said. “Let’s get inside the National Archives and find out who said what to whom and build that record. It’s going to take decades still, but maybe along the way, Americans, even when they saw the bumpy and horrible ending of Afghanistan, can say, ‘God, we really don’t know what we’re doing over there when we do these things,’ [and] maybe take out of it that there were bad intentions. Maybe there were, maybe there weren’t. But the result was bad, and that’s what really counts.
“America After 9/11” can be streamed for free via YouTube and the PBS Video App.