Legacies of 9/11 – A release of The Roots of War…the Road To Peace

The original and aired versions

September 11, 2001 was a defining moment in history; a date which has forever changed the landscape in which we live, work, travel,  look at our neighbors and wage war and peace.

America has embraced an endless war, in which few anywhere are completely safe;a war fought by an enemy that wears no uniform and engages in acts of terrorism against civilian populations. War used to be an aberration. Today it is a way of life that has turned the 21st century into one of persistent conflict. According to the Pentagon’s most recent major assessment of global security, “no one should harbor the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future”. Fueled by radical ideologies, new technologies and homemade weapons, the rules of war have changed. Our economy has foundered as we put our money into war, ignoring our infrastructure and social responsibilities.

Where were you on September 11th is a question most anyone over ten years of age can answer. The horror of that day, the vividness of the photos, the impact of the Twin Towers collapsing, will forever be on our minds’ screen. We lived in terror of further attacks, which luckily were disrupted. In that, at least, the war on terrorism has somewhat succeeded. Our mission was to prevent further attacks and that has, to some degree been accomplished. Yet while there have been successes , at what cost? The United States has lost much of its luster , many of us are frustrated with the steady erosion of our freedoms and the daily frustration of our world after 9/11. We each have personal stories to share.

My story- September 11th and the few months following profoundly changed my life. It provided a detour, a divergence , into a new way of life, new ways of doing business, new friends, and a new home. That day- while visiting family in Northern California we were jarred awake by a persistent phone ringing. My son’s family, based in New York, safe but shocked, relayed the news. We ran to the TV set, and stayed glued to it through out the morning. His small town closed shops, people prayed in the plaza, church bells called the grieving stunned townspeople to services. Everywhere, everyone in shock.

Leaving California I was jarred by the new changes at the airport. And, surprised that I personally  was taken out of the security  line, questioned as to where I was going, my  carry on hand checked and rechecked. It took a while for this new factoid to sink in- I’d heard of profiling- but had a hard time thinking it was being applied to me; yet with my dark eyes, hair and complexion…well.

Within days of September 11th,  KERA had asked me to produce a quick TV show on terrorism and 9/11. The result: Terrorism: Important Information You Haven’t Heard Yet, (click here for video) which aired barely a week after 9/11; the host not sure he would be back in town to host it. That program led to a new interest, terrorism specifically and its root cause. Six months later my avocation took me to Israel as a guest of the World Affairs Council, and to Jordan as a guest of the Queen Alia Foundation. Experiencing firsthand many different perspectives of an old history and listening to informed speakers tell their sides, sparked an even deeper interest. Listening to the point of view of a Danny Grossman, the Jerusalem head of the American Jewish Congress, or of  Rabbi David Lerman’s, a man of peace; and then the polar opposite viewpoint of Leila Deeb,  an exiled Palestinian journalist, now in Jordan,  whose family had lived in what is now the west bank, I had to question and ask, who was / is accurate? From each one’s perspective, their point of view is the accurate one. They each claim validity and that history is on their side. They each gave me their perspective on terrorism and freedom fighting. Before 9/11, this would have just been a history lesson. Now, it had relevance.

In late 2003, when Hugh Akin , Executive Director of the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation, one of the funders of the McCuistion TV program, called me with an intriguing suggestion, ” Niki, how would you like to do a doc on 9/11, the war on terrorism…” , there was no hesitancy. This was a natural extension of a new interest that had taken hold of my mind and heart. Several months of research later,  getting papers together , the right shots, and making appointments to talk to people from  places I’d only seen on a revolving globe, who had names that were familiar to me only  from reading the news; our team, Dennis McCuistion, narrator and co- interviewer, Phil Smith, co- editor and lead camera, and myself, filmmaker, co-editor, camera, you name it; we found ourselves on the road to Iraq, and then to  places from Lebanon to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi and Turkey. We asked questions,and more questions,  and talked, listened ,learned,filmed ,argued and filmed some more.

Lots of adventures, some not so good, a car bomb exploding two blocks from our hotel on our first day in Iraq, which took out 4 square blocks of shops and homes. And the good, the soldiers, officials and citizens we met with , who wanted us there, welcomed our being there, and told us why they needed our help, and how naive we were, to think we could change centuries of a certain way of life. One afternoon in  old Baghdad , citizens surronded us shaking their fists in our faces, too close for comfort. A family whisked us into their” home”. And while we sat on benches, and on the floor, they  served us tea, and  the daughters, mother and grandmother of the house,  some veiled, some not, talked of the goals they eventually wanted to pursue .I was tested that day, when the dad  swept a mouse into my lap- everyone held their breath,  and I did not bat an eyelash. Phil got their laughter on tape and we became real to them. The tea kept flowing.

Our quest led us to the spiritual head of Hezbollah, Ayatollah Fadlallah, and some where down the line and in new countries, into Arafats’s old compound. In a Lebanese camp, as I interviewed a Palestinian refugee ,she screamed in my face, that yes,  she would sacrifice her son as a martyr. Phil did not capture the tears running down my face- it was the Arab  Mother’s Day. I withheld comment- and judgement. A Saudi student spoke of Wahabism, a Saudi woman doctor said no such thing, Wahabism doesn’t exist. An Israeli soldier, just  a teenager, spoke to us of the problems Palestinians posed at checkpoints,  a Palestinian told  of the outrages perpetrated by the same teenaged soldiers  who guarded the checkpoints.  We saw angry faces who hated Americans and welcoming ones who asked we take their stories of wanting peace back with us.

And we did. And after the months’ work we came back with hundreds of hours, most of which stayed on the cutting room floor. I went back to Lebanon and Syria that same year- more footage, firsthand interviews, with Hezbollah leaders while picnicking by a stream in Lebanon, Syrian journalists, stories of leaders and heroes, freedom fighters and terrorists. And finally, hours and hours of work, we cut and sliced and diced interviews in DC that brought more balance to the work, new footage, shock and awe, the doc, The Roots of War… the Road to Peace… was ready or as close as it could ever be to airing. Thank you team, Dennis and Phil.

And airing time came,  January of 2006. We held  a reception and prescreening at the Angelika Theatre for friends, family, and community leaders. I was flying high; the doc had come in at budget, an amazing piece of work, ( ok my perspective)  that showed innocence and naïveté, but nevertheless had merit- and on time and budget! And the feedback that night showed it had balance and merit.

Imagine our surprise when one of the attendees , Mohamed Elibiary, founder of the Freedom and Justice Foundation,
protested the doc’s fairness, accuracy and balance. He and his group claimed we had accused CAIR of being a terrorist group, of showing Islam in a bad light and portraying Muslims as terrorists, among other items.

The rest of the story … KERA pulled the program 2 days before it was scheduled to air- we met ,shook hands with all of the players, gave a good PR face to the events and the work did not air. We had choices, edit this and that and this. But- as the filmmaker  and my right to do so – I stood behind what we had accomplished. Still,  there was an obligation to our funders, the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation and so the bottom line… the budget had been well used, no monies left, and  I took my own personal savings, Phil Smith’s time and mine, 6 trips back to the Middle East, on my own, as camera and interviewer: new interviews, new footage, and many revisions and cuts later, a whole new process of vetting; it seemed obstacle after obstacle with little guidance - finally- 2 years later  we were pronounced a go. In June 2009, what was originally scheduled as 2 separate hours aired as a 90 minute doc, the Roots of War… the Road to Peace. Less solvent- but I met my promise…

The final voice is up to you. The original 2 hour  protested doc and the revised edition which finally aired are now both on line. If you like, view both, send  me your comments-  nikin@ nikimccuistion.com. I welcome your perspective. Roots became a mission, and I readily acknowledge it has its faults- yet please consider it as a first doc, done on a very slim budget and under incredible duress. Still  it was finished and promises were kept and for that I’m grateful.
This adventure may indeed have taken most of my savings, definitely an immense amount of time, Phil Smith’s time and patience, yet it had its lessons. It gave us a picture that text books and the media  did not. When you attend a Hamas funeral, or stand by Queen Rania of Jordan,  at a protect women from domestic violence rally, when you listen to the story of a mother who has lost her only daughter to a Palestinian  suicide bomber, your perspective changes. While I was determined to finish and fulfill the promise made, Roots is far more than a project.

Much later its protester, Mohamed Elibiary has given me  insights into a culture and people and ideologies I had not been privy to before. Some of the suggestions he made for the doc  were in fact incorporated. Before 9/11 , this may not have happened. I might have felt too right, and too priviledged to listen.

The original and aired versions

Incidentally, Mohamed who has worked for years influencing young Muslims away from radical views, and advising law enforcement agencies, was recently recognized by the FBI in Washington, D.C., with the Louis E. Peters Memorial Award for extraordinary citizen contribution to the agency and the country. Elibiary was nominated for the award by the heads of the FBI offices in Dallas and Houston. “If you defended everybody, then the public doesn’t trust you, but you have a way into your community,” Elibiary said. “I tried a third way — I didn’t throw anyone under the bus, but voiced public critiques of radical thought.” That he did, and it cost me dearly. Yet, I’ve also gained.

And while his work inspires respect, it also inspires rancor. In many ways his protest of Roots of War changed the direction of my life. And  coincidentally ,Oliver, ”Buck” Revell, a former FBI regional  manager,  was also a key player in the Roots production and appears in it, as does, Ambassador Robert Jordan, who was in Saudi Arabia as our Ambassador on September 11.

9/11 has given me a personal legacy, a look into the minds and hearts of people and communities I may not have ordinarily interacted with. To be surrounded by children in a camp in Lebanon, some of whom hug you and say, they want to go to America someday, some of whom say, they hate us, not us personally- oh no, but our government policies, is life changing. There are few of my acquaintances and neighbors who could discuss politics the way some of those 12 year olds could.

To be in a commune in Israel, and be told by the executive director, as she had coffee served , “the bunker is here, we have room for 15 of us. If you hear a whining ,  walk, don’t run, walk  and get in that bunker”; and you look around and realize we might not all make it. And then you spend time at the Gaza gate and hear a reverse story;

To walk quietly before dawn rises down dark streets in old Jerusalem, alongside your host, the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, founder of the Jerusalem Peacemakers , and head of the Naqshabandi Sufi’s, and go into the Al Aqsa mosque, yes I got in, not once but twice, fully veiled, no one would have known I did not belong. An Arab woman, gave me her prayer beads;  yet as I prayed and bowed and prayed, a young girl- no more than 10 years old,  pulled at my gown, pointed to my red toes, and put her scarf over them, so I would not offend anymore.  To leave the service, walk back to the Sheik’s home on Via Dolorosa for breakfast, along with other community leaders! I interviewed him and asked him.  what do we need to do so there will never be a 9/11 again? He answered, “pray for peace and the divineness in each of us. It’s there. We can get to peace, one person, one prayer at time”.

To walk arm in arm with Martin Luther King’s son and his team through the streets of old Jerusalem and chant peace songs,
Or meet with representatives of IDF that same day and get a sense of the wall and its implications,
To sit with Hanan Ashrawi and hear her points of view on government and corruption and then meet with officials in Arafat’s complex, who claim the opposite,
Or sip tea with an Israeli defense officer and hear his point of view, 180 degrees the reverse  from Sheik Abdul Aziz’s,
To watch families climb the security fence or  apartheid wall- yes it depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?
Or see the magnificence of Saudi universities for women, and think hey, you’ve come a long way baby… ok, but you can’t leave your home without a male “family” companion, ok, ok,

To sit across from a woman targeted for a mercy killing by her family, or talk to a young Israeli woman, her counterpart and breathe in the freshness of freedom she has the other doesn’t,
Or Beirzet University students who may not get to school that day because of flying checkpoints- movable checkpoints that a native can’t get through- living in occupied land, so 4 years of university takes 7.

I learned that whether it be Turkey, or Tunisia, South Korea, or France, Syria or Israel, Saudi, Palestine or Dallas; whether one be Jewish, Christian or Muslim, at the heart of things most of us are compassionate , caring human beings who want the best for our families and communities; safety, shelter, education, health . We want the freedom of being part of the human spirit…. we want peace not war.

9/11- changed my life- enriched me beyond what I would ever have expected, it enhanced my spirit, compassion and respect for others.
I can not ever assume anything we have as my right again. The gratitude I feel every day because I am part of the human spirit is a direct result of 9/11.  My heart and my prayers go to the victims of that day and their families . And once again I ask where were you on September 11th? How did it change your life?

I hope for all our sakes that that day is leading us to a resurgence of the human spirit.

Niki Nicastro McCuistion:
nikin@nikimccuistion.com

Commited to helping people understand our world through conversations that matter…

Comments (3)

MarySeptember 10th, 2011 at 8:35 am

Thank you, thank you – your words put me in these places with you! I look forward to more!

Charlene GaffneySeptember 10th, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I must admit after viewing The Roots of War at the Angelika I did not fully comprehend the magnitude regarding the problems in the Middle East. It was something I heard on the news and watched it fleetingly while doing something else. After reading and re-reading the above and viewing the 2 hr. documentary, I have an enormous amount of empathy and perhaps a better perspective of the turmoil the people have endured. Living in a free country this citizen has taken for granted the amount of freedom I really do have. Also, as President Bush said at the memorial of flight 93, “we need to be engaged in the world.” How true. To be not engaged, even just a little, in all aspects of our nation and the world is no excuse.

I thank you for your committment in “making a difference.”

Chad SmithSeptember 11th, 2011 at 11:16 am

Great post Niki. I learned a lot from working with you on that project, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of what is going on in the rest of the world, one that we all know is not perfect, and one that we weren’t meant to completely understand. Thanks for the opportunity, and God bless all those around the world that combat terrorism in whatever ways they can.

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