February 16, 2006
You want to see a scary movie? Not creepy, jump-out-of-your-seat scary like "Saw" or "Final Destination" but melt-your-face, make-you-almost-cry scary?
Then wait until Court TV screens, "On Native Soil."
The one-hour documentary tells the story of the 9/11 Commission, the government's nonpartisan inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks. It tracks the lives of a handful of victims and survivors and the way they or their loved ones battled a recalcitrant Bush administration to create a national commission of inquiry.
I watched this documentary the same week a Republican commission called the government's response to Katrina "an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare." This just after President Bush offered details of a thwarted terrorist attack on downtown Los Angeles.
But I'll get back to Los Angeles in a second.
First, the documentary: "On Native Ground" is no Michael Moore trip down know-it-all lane. In fact, the film was financed in part by Jeff Hays, a Salt Lake City investor who also did "FahrenHYPE 9/11," a takedown of Moore's anti-Bush film.
The deliberate, cool and nonpartisan nature of the film makes it all the more effective. Director Linda Ellman weaves archival footage around a handful of stories: a decorated New York Fire Department veteran whose firefighter son never returned from Tower 2; an elderly couple whose son, daughter-in-law and 4-year-old granddaughter were on one of the doomed planes; a mother whose son worked at a high-power firm in one of the towers; two bankers who helped rescue each other from the towers' toxic smoke.
As wounded as these people were by Sept. 11, they were livid that their government refused to launch a thorough investigation into how such an attack could occur. They took their protest to the capital. A former senior Bush aide admits on camera telling his colleagues that they would never win against the families' bottomless grief.
In recounting the commission's discoveries, Ellman served her facts up straight: Immigration officials allowed terrorists to enter, despite visa applications that were partially or incompletely filled out. The Federal Aviation Administration was unable to monitor flights or activate emergency procedures -- one former employee called FAA leaders "traitorous." Rescue workers didn't have the technical capability to communicate with one another. And our own National Security Adviser, Condoleeza Rice, chose to discount an intelligence briefing report headlined, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the United States."
The documentary will air on Court TV this summer, as the five-year anniversary of the attacks nears. Court TV -- evidently now trying to awaken a public it has anesthetized with a decade of O.J., Michael Jackson and Robert Blake -- will bookend the film by a report card on how the government has implemented the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. The short answer, the film's producer David Lewine told me, is "not well."
Which brings us to Los Angeles Last week, Bush revealed how the government had thwarted a terrorist plot to fly planes into the downtown's U.S. Bank Tower, Los Angeles' tallest building. A cynic would say there wasn't all that much new in the president's announcement -- just a few new details of a plot first laid bare two years ago -- and that it was timed to deflect criticism of the warrantless wiretapping the Bush administration has conducted in its fight against terror.
But one outcome of the speech was to prompt L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to point out that the president has never responded to his requests for a face-to-face meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss L.A. disaster and terror preparedness.
Frankly, that scares me. Watching "On Native Ground," you realize how direct is the link between planning, cooperation and communication and the ability to save lives. A certain hurricane in New Orleans drove that point home.
"The lesson of Katrina is you don't want elected leaders getting to know each other for the first time during a disaster," City Councilman Jack Weiss told me. "In a crisis, Antonio Villaraigosa will be the decisionmaker in Los Angeles."
At the very least, he will coordinate that role with Sheriff Lee Baca.
As Villaraigosa helpfully pointed out in a press conference, L.A. is the second-largest city in the United States, and in times like these, the president and the city's mayor need to touch base.
"I think there is benefit" to a Bush-Villaraigosa meeting, Republican activist and local attorney Sheldon Sloan told me. "We have the harbor and the airport."
A man who knows a bit about how Washington works put it in stronger terms. "What message are you sending through the rest of your federal agencies?" said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles). "You're basically saying the mayor of Los Angeles isn't worth the government's time."
The president has met with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley several times.
Bush has some major financial and political backers in Los Angeles who also happen to be Jewish. They must know that government agencies have identified several Jewish institutions in the L.A. area at special risk for terror attacks. So our stake in this is perhaps even more urgent than for other Angelenos. This is the time for these important Republican donors to pick up the phone and use their influence to urge a meeting between our mayor and our president.
The lesson of "On Native Ground" and Katrina is clear: You don't just get the government you deserve, you get the government you demand.