American Experience Documentaries

Documentary Review: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero – Beyond the Falling Towers

Written by Helen Whitney
Directed by Helen Whitney

As we approach the twenty-first anniversary of what had to be one of the pivotal moments in the history of these United States, we are likely to be inundated by various documentaries about September 11th.  I’ve watched a number of them through the years and there are some better than others.  Many of them cover the same material over and over.  One of the better documentaries I’ve seen recently was Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.

On this DVD, the PBS show Frontline looks at the spiritual aftershocks of September 11th and the effects that day had on people’s faith.  It does that across the spectrum of believers and non-believers as well as across different faiths.  People are interviewed who were not deeply spiritual before the day all the way up to those who were priests, rabbis, pastors, and other leaders of faiths.

The DVD is divided into five acts separating the events of the day from the various places its after-effects were felt spiritually.  It actually begins by highlighting many of the questions people had, wondering where God was on that day.  Was God with the people who were trapped in those buildings?

First Act: September 11th

How beautiful that day was. Yes, I still remember it too.  People talk about their reactions that day, from relatives who watched in horror at their loved ones being murdered to survivors talking about their experiences.  They are across the spectrum in both race and belief.

For the first time, I saw a video of the people jumping out of the buildings.  This seems to raise a lot of questions in people about why they jumped – were they seeing something we didn’t and were going toward something rather than away from it?  Or was it just taking control of their own destinies one final time?  It was something I never thought of, and that was one of the strongest parts of Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero as it put different faces on things that happened which some of us have quite vivid memories about.

Act 2: The Face of God

Where was God on September 11th?

I was one who saw God there on September 11th.  I saw God in the fact that those buildings stayed up as long as they did and allowed so many people to get out of those buildings.

Others didn’t see it the same way I did, especially the families of firefighters who were killed.  One woman who is a writer talks of having conversations with God for years, and at the time of this documentary was finding that she couldn’t speak to Him anymore because she felt abandoned.  This sentiment runs deep through the questions and searching some people experienced in light of the events of that day.  However, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero doesn’t leave us entirely feeling lost and in despair this section as it brings out how people came together and stood together to support one another, even if you didn’t know that person before or hadn’t talked to them in years.

Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero brings up something a lot of people didn’t understand outside of the New York metropolitan area.  When I talked about the number of funerals/memorials I went to, I was accused of lying.  But a woman on here who lost her husband talks of going to 14 funerals/memorials.  You attended the services of people in your community, even if you didn’t know them personally.  It was a way of standing together and supporting the families.  One man talks of knowing 30 people who died that day, between the firefighters he knew and the sons of friends of his.

Act 3: The Face of Evil

People of faith, Pastors, Rabbis, and other religious leaders discuss evil.  At the same time, lay people who don’t hold the same belief talk about their concept of evil.  Some people might be upset at hearing the events of that day talked about in the context of history.  It’s not really minimizing it, but just trying to get it in the proper context.  For those who still feel the wounds are a bit raw, it might be hard to listen to what happened on September 11th against the backdrop of other historical events such as the Holocaust.  By bringing in the Holocaust, it shows that evil is present and has been historically.  Evil didn’t suddenly just pop up on those planes on September 11th.

One commentator states that after an interview she did with Vladimir Putin where they discussed the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” versus Osama bin Laden, she came to the conclusion that evil is when you believe in something to such a degree that you lose your sense that a human being is a human being.  I thought that was an incredible explanation, especially in light of some of the political in-fighting we have seen come about in this country without the help of terrorists.

Act 4 – The Face of Religion

In this section, religious leaders talk about how the beliefs and religious traditions can be warped to justify what happened on September 11th, or when a Jewish man entered a mosque in Hebron and killed 29 people.  The Rabbi who discusses this also makes the point that fighting against these acts and striving to make sure they don’t happen again is also a deep religious tradition.

A priest states that he was in no way surprised when he heard that the people who drove those planes into the towers did it in the name of God.  He talks about the intolerance and fear of diversity that seems to go hand-in-hand with religious passion.

I found it interesting how the Rabbi talks about not thinking about the impact his beliefs had on others; on those who didn’t share them.  Other people were “just wrong”, and it wasn’t until he saw people doing murderous things in the name of religion that he finally stopped and thought about it.

Perhaps the part I related to best was here.  As a member of the Lutheran Church, although not the same denomination as him, I knew well what had happened to Reverend David Benke, President of the Atlantic Division of the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod).  He talks about his experience leading the prayer at Yankee Stadium, and the backlash he received from it.  Now, the Missouri Synod is typically more conservative than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  There was a huge backlash against Rev. Benke from within his religion for participating in the service that might surprise those who haven’t heard it before seeing it here.  He was charged with heresy by a faction of clergy in his denomination who believed that a Christian could not stand at a podium with someone of another faith or everybody’s going to get the idea that all religions are equal and we have made exclusive claims about our faith.  “If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history, perhaps, then what’s underneath religion? Is religion part of a lust for power and control in people’s lives? Is it a desire for absolute security so strong that people cannot see the need to reach out and help? If that’s true, then I have a lot of wrestling to do with my own religion.”  I was very moved by his experience long before I saw it re-told here and it’s something I think many religions who promote exclusivity and intolerance of other beliefs can learn from.

There is also a piece here about the fight for the soul and identity of Islam.  However, the focus seemed to be on how the major religions in this country responded to the events of September 11th.

Act Five: Ground Zero

This part was probably the hardest to quantify.  It blended the religious with the political and economic as it talked about the debate about what the World Trade Center site has become.  Some state it is now  “Hallowed Ground” and needs to be treated as such.  I reflected on that in light of the attempts by people to develop battlefields where many more have died in the past.  For us; for this lifetime it is something sacred.  One hundred years from now, it will likely just be another piece of real estate.

Here also is talk of the weight of the work on those who worked at the site doing the recovery and clean-up and how it affected them spiritually.  It successfully contrasts the planning that went into carrying out the attack versus no planning for the response; for the people who wouldn’t leave their friends, who spent time at the site and in the area trying to help others.  This is really an amazing point of just how much the people in the World Trade Center never acted like it was every man for themselves deserting a sinking ship and instead we watched a city and a nation come together.  Too bad it seems to have swung back to everyone being just for themselves.

Not all of the changes to come out of that day were good.  Some people talk of becoming more cynical or felt more alone in a world that was a lot more crueler than they previously believed.  It also seems like that day was the point at which the  culture of fear took hold in this country and now somewhat permeates our society thanks to those in government who would rather scare us than inspire us.

Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero had to be one of the best documentaries about September 11th.  Rather than being about the tangible, it tackles the intangible and puts a face and a voice to the various feelings that came out of that day as well as the very different way people were affected by it.  It doesn’t seem to judge anyone but rather lets the people talk for themselves.  There are none of the voices of the intolerant such as those who said the events of the day were a form of punishment from God, and I leave it to those who feel that way to make and watch their own documentaries as I am fine with not hearing that message.  Instead, this made me feel that even religious leaders struggle with the same questions and doubts we do at times and find evil at their doorstep in various forms even as they strive to grow themselves and cope with events such as these.  I highly recommend it to everyone.