faith and doubt at ground zero
a photo of helen whitney
Producer's Notes by Helen Whitney

The producer, director, and co-writer of "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" offers her personal reflections on the making of the documentary.

» Sept. 11

I am a New Yorker. I live in Greenwich Village. Through my bedroom windows I used to have a magnificent view of the Twin Towers. Unlike many of my architect friends, I loved the towers' big, bold, in-your-face beauty, especially when backlit by the setting sun. For months after Sept. 11, I kept the window shades down; it was too painful to look out on that smoking wound.

Like so many people, my world was changed irrevocably when the two planes tore into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, and one into a Pennsylvania field. With the destruction of these towers, so went my (and I suspect many peoples') innocence, however misbegotten, and my sense of invulnerability.

The reigning truism of the day -- that what was will never be again -- remains valid. How we walk through the day and what we say and do, how we relate to ourselves and everything around us, has sadly and tragically shifted. And it's not simply a cultural and political shift, but also a shift of the psyche from which there is no going back, a shift that many of us would have deemed laughable before 8:48, Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001.

» The Film's Genesis

Several weeks after the attacks, FRONTLINE called and asked whether I would be interested in producing a one-hour documentary about Sept. 11. FRONTLINE had already commissioned several productions that would explore the event historically and politically. Did I think that there was a spiritual angle? If so, was the spiritual lens an appropriate one at this point? Also, could I do it fast? And could I accomplish everything within the allotted hour?

Religious questions have preoccupied me at a deep level over the years, and I have focused on them in my previous documentary work. Clearly, Sept. 11 presented a unique opportunity to explore questions of belief and unbelief in a crisis situation. In many ways, it seemed like the perfect project for me.

Nonetheless, I hesitated. I asked FRONTLINE to give me a week to consider. I was daunted by the enormity of the event, the babble of voices, the rawness of the emotion, and the magnitude of the pain and loss. Was it too soon to approach people who were suffering? Would their spiritual questions shift dramatically over time?

The contentiousness of the debate among intellectuals and policy-makers made me apprehensive as well. Every day there seemed to be a new theory put forward by a swelling number of "experts." Some of these voices were learned and informative. But others were part of what one of our consultants, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, describes as the "Yes, but" Brigade. Yes, it is terrible, but ... this is due to American foreign policy; this is due to the Middle East tensions between Palestinians and Jews; this is due to the globalization drama; this is due to the envy of poor nations; these are the famous cultural wars; this is due to American imperialism, et cetera. Or if you are part of the Noam Chomsky or the Jerry Falwell brigades (which are remarkably similar in their analyses), it is because America itself is evil. And on and on.

Helen Whitney has worked as a producer, director, and writer for documentaries and feature films since 1971. Whitney's features have aired on PBS's American Playhouse, HBO, Trinity Playhouse, and ABC. Her documentary work has appeared on ABC's "Closeup" and PBS's American Masters, as well as on FRONTLINE. Her documentaries have ranged over a wide variety of subjects, among them: youth gangs, presidential candidates (FRONTLINE's "The Choice '96"), the mentally ill, a Trappist Monastery, Pope John Paul II, the class structure of Great Britain, homosexuals, and the photographer Richard Avedon.

Whitney maintains a passionate personal interest in the religious journey. Her 90-minute ABC News "Closeup" documentary, "The Monastery," about the Cistercians in Spencer, Mass., left her searching for other projects about spiritual life. This passion was also evident in FRONTLINE's "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope," a film for which she and her team conducted more than 800 interviews in six countries. Recently Whitney completed the research for a projected six-hour series for PBS, "The Future of Faith." Whitney's documentaries and features have received many honors, including an Emmy Award, a Peabody, an Oscar nomination, the Humanitas Award, and the prestigious duPont-Columbia Journalism Award.

For Monsignor Albacete, the search for political, economic, and diplomatic "explanations" was understandable but limited, and in some ways an escape that violated the complex reality of Sept. 11. "The terrorists' attack was all these things, but it was also something new: a hatred for humanity, an attack on humanity itself. The question is not only, Why do they hate us so much? But, more important, Why do they hate so much?"

The political debate rose in intensity, but there seemed to be more heat than light in the arguments. Voices were raised on and off the op-ed pages. Scores were being settled. There were shouting matches at parties, long friendships were frayed. The pieties of both the left and the right were being challenged. It seemed like a minefield to me.

Consequently, I spent not one but several weeks thinking about whether to make this film. I thrashed it out with friends and colleagues. I spent time with firemen friends who had been in the towers on Sept. 11 and with people who had lost loved ones. I kept postponing my decision.

I met with a wide variety of religious leaders. Some viewed the dramatic rise of attendance in churches and synagogues skeptically. There are no atheists in foxholes, they noted, and predicted that once the shelling stopped we would climb out of our holes and business would go on pretty much as usual. Others worried that our heightened sense of vulnerability might kill nascent faith, replacing it with anger and paranoia. More often, though, I talked to religious leaders who felt that this moment in our history was an extraordinary opportunity for genuine spiritual questioning and even transformation.

I traveled throughout the city listening to people -- from the beaches of Far Rockaway to backstage at the Metropolitan Opera. "God talk" seemed to be everywhere, and not just among the enclaves of believers. Conversations would flare up with strangers on the street, while standing in line at the deli, or at cocktail parties. Friends would talk incessantly over kitchen tables late into the night, and then continue the conversation by email and phone. I detected a subtle shift in the way questions were asked, a recognition that however important the language of politics and economics, it no longer sufficed. The debate -- in the most unlikely secular places in New York -- turned metaphysical as well.

There were dissenting voices, of course, and some of these people felt that our fevered response was disproportionate to the event. Yes, the attacks were horrific and unprecedented in design, they said, but certainly not exceptional in the scale of human suffering they inflicted. Among the most interesting of these voices was Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While acknowledging the seriousness of the attacks, he found the response "exaggerated" and the "jingoism" coming out of Washington very troubling.

I was struck by how insistently death seemed to be the text and the subtext of many of my conversations. Not only the deaths of the thousands trapped in the towers but one's own death. I remembered from college days a favorite saying, attributed to Samuel Johnson, that nothing so concentrates the mind as the knowledge that one will be hanged in the morning. It had always seemed a resonant spiritual truth. Virtually all of our religious traditions -- and common sense -- tell us that the experience of our mortality is the tripwire, the third rail, the moment of ambush. Certainties evaporate, our sense of control and invulnerability is shaken, and a spiritual assessment begins. It is one of the universal moments in the human journey when the drama of faith erupts.

I began to feel that the attack on Sept. 11 was such a moment. The catastrophe that turned the bottom of Manhattan into a gaping wound was an explosive encounter with our mortality. The visual impact of the planes hitting the towers and all the subsequent scenes only heightened our fevered sense of reckoning. The last words of the victims saying goodbye on their cell phones and in email fused with these images of destruction -- and were seared into our psyches. They compelled us to imagine our own deaths. What would we say? What do we believe?

I decided to make the film. I felt that the spiritual reverberations of Sept. 11 made a powerful and complex subject. My film would focus on the spiritual questions, not the political ones, coming out of the rubble. Has faith been challenged, deepened, lost, or found in the wake of this tragedy? If one is an atheist or an agnostic, have recent events shaken one's sense of the world? What is it we are talking about when we talk about evil? Whatever our belief or unbelief, are we now examining the meaning of our lives with greater intensity and in unexpected ways?

I persuaded Ron Rosenbaum, a brilliant writer, to collaborate with me on the script. Rosenbaum had obsessed about these big theodicy questions for decades. His book Explaining Hitler (1998) was a remarkable work of cultural history in which complex ideas were presented lucidly, elegantly, and rivetingly. Rosenbaum had thought long and hard about the question of evil, and his work reflected his belief in the importance of being precise about such a highly charged term. It is a word, for him, that has hierarchies and degrees: There is evil and then there is evil. In his various articles on this subject, he has discussed questions of magnitude (at what point do numbers matter?); of intention (does it matter that perpetrators are convinced of their own rectitude?); and, finally, of the ultimate degree of evil (is it doing evil for its own sake -- the "motiveless malignancy" of Iago, for instance? And, if so, is it applicable to Hitler and to bin Laden?). [See Rosenbaum's article "Degrees of Evil," from the February 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.] Rosenbaum and I spoke about how bin Laden had brought the problem of evil into the forefront of the national conversation -- as it should be -- and that there are valuable comparisons to be made with Hitler but only if we pay careful attention to commonalities and distinctions.

I had talked to Rosenbaum throughout this testing-the-waters period, and he had consistently encouraged me to jump in. Now we would jump in together. Both of us believed that we were uncovering and documenting a true national conversation about these spiritual questions, a conversation that continues today.

» Research

My June deadline suddenly seemed terrifyingly close. I decided that I would focus on New York City, the epicenter of this tragedy, though whenever appropriate I would talk to people in different parts of the country whose reflections were particularly relevant. Over the next four months a small team of reporters and I cast our net as widely as possible, and ultimately we pre-interviewed approximately 350 people. We spoke to those who were at Ground Zero -- firemen, rescue workers, volunteers. We talked to people who were in the towers and to those who watched, stunned, at home. We spoke to people who had lost loved ones and to those who felt as if they had. All ages, all faiths, all professions.

We spoke to bewildered believers streaming into churches, mosques, and synagogues, as well as to agnostics marching off to one of God's houses with angry, Job-like objections to the order of things. All were asking the same questions that have been asked for thousands of years, and hearing familiar, age-old answers: "God is just and loving. ... He gives us our freedom. ... There is consolation to be found in submitting to the mystery and peace and understanding in the hereafter when His ways will be revealed to us."

Some, in fact, were consoled. Deeply. Profoundly. But there were others to whom we spoke, for whom these answers did not suffice. One man said angrily, "There's no way that God can be all powerful and just. If he is a just God, he is weak and pathetic. If he is all powerful, he's Satan!" For these accusers, some of them Holocaust survivors, God was once again on trial -- not only for Sept. 11 but for the other horrors of our time.

A Jungian analyst who counseled people whose faith was challenged by Sept. 11 said, "When something like Sept. 11 happens, it shatters both our subjective and objective conceptions of God. It touches us in the deepest reaches of our subconscious. If you are a person trying to have a spiritual life [after such an event], ultimately whatever your images of God are, they are going to crumble because they are inadequate."

After four months of research, I took a deep breath and stopped. I spent several weeks with Rosenbaum writing a detailed shooting script for a film that was clearly growing well beyond an hour (ultimately it became two hours). Many documentary film directors don't write shooting scripts, but they are essential to my thinking; the script is my road map, my compass, and it allows me some peace of mind during the inevitably fraught period of shooting. The script also provides my editor, Ted Winterburn, and myself the frame within which to work during the final and (for me) the most pleasurable phase of the film. (The editing period for "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" lasted four months.) Winterburn, a true artist, has been my collaborator for the past 10 years.

» Challenges

On a personal level, it was difficult being with so many people who had lost loved ones -- not only being with them, but coming to know some of them intimately. In the beginning I worried about intruding on their grief. Later on I realized that most people wanted to talk. Badly. But there were days when it was simply too much for me. I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. Too much pain. Too many portraits of grief.

Intellectually, the greatest challenge for Rosenbaum and me was to find a structure for the film, to find the big overarching themes, to find the "through line" for the entire two hours, to find the stories within the acts that would create a sense of movement and progression, both emotionally and intellectually. The difficulty was in selecting and editing and paring down this extraordinarily rich material. (In addition to the 350 pre-interviews our team conducted and wrote up, there were countless memoirs, journals, and personal accounts from other sources.) In some ways it was the most difficult script I had ever written, not only because of the abundance of the material but because of the high level of stress and anxiety that simply came with the territory of Sept. 11.


Ultimately, we organized the film around three central themes: the face of God, the face of evil, the face of religion. These themes seemed to dominate the discussion taking place throughout the city in firehouses and cafes, in classrooms and in board rooms, in synagogues, churches, and mosques.

» Surprises

While the substance of the inquiry (or at least most of it) may not be new, what surprised me was the depth, the breadth, and the intensity of the questioning. The age-old theodicy questions were no longer academic; they were vivified, personal, and urgent.

What may be truly new since Sept. 11 (as the film documents) is our willingness to ask the toughest questions about the potential for violence within religion itself. I wasn't prepared for the fierceness of the questioning among laypeople and religious leaders.

I was surprised by the powerful response of many of the atheists to Sept. 11. Of course, many of them saw it as final proof, if any were needed, of the emptiness in the heavens and the foolishness of those of us who still yearned for a personal God. But there were others who said, unexpectedly, that it was harder for atheists than for believers because it had shaken their faith in humanity. The novelist Jim Crace, in a pre-interview, described eloquently the aftershocks of Sept. 11: "I think it was a greater shock for an atheist like myself than for the average Christian. Christianity is based on original sin, we are bruised and blemished people; therefore, something like Sept. 11 is not surprising. My belief, however, is that we come into the world unblemished and unbruised and unsinful and it is nurture rather than nature that sets us on the wrong track. This is where I was rocked. I couldn't find it in my heart to see the unblemished human being at the center of these acts. They were so self-hating, so cynical, so cruel, so invaded by evil, they couldn't fit in my world at all."

I had expected that the horror of the attack might undermine some peoples' faith. I was surprised, however, to see how the experience of evil had led some people back to their faith -- an odd but compelling paradox. The sociologist of religion Peter Berger explained it by saying that "there are certain deeds that cry out to heaven. These deeds are not only an outrage to our moral sense, they seem to violate a fundamental awareness of the constitution of our humanity. ... These are deeds that not only demand condemnation but damnation, in the full religious meaning of the word."

Likewise, I had expected that stories of heroic self-sacrifice -- of firefighters storming up the burning stairs and ordinary citizens who gave their lives to help others trapped in the towers -- would be inspiring and uplifting. And indeed they are. What was striking, however, was the degree to which these stories became core spiritual experiences for so many people. They not only shored up faltering faiths but in some cases gave people a faith they had not had before.

» Faith and Doubt

The questions remain the same. My search for faith continues. Since Sept. 11, however, I feel in some ways even further away from a visceral experience of faith. While I have never conceived of a God who could directly intervene in my life or others', God seems even more remote today.

Many of my friends, and even the priests and rabbis I know, are straight off the pages of a Graham Greene novel. They are interesting, fiercely honest, compassionate people who are also doubters. Doubt is what defines them. They doubt incessantly -- they even doubt their doubt. They honor complexity, ambiguity, and irony -- as I do. They are loyal friends and great company on life's journey. But there are times (like waiting for my mammography results, comforting a dying friend, or trying to hang on to an ephemeral signal of transcendence, the "moment in the rose garden") that I search out different, more reassuring company. There are times, and Sept. 11 was one of them, when I feel that questioning is overrated and that the leap of faith, which can't be willed, is truly a gift. And, of course, it is in those moments that I wonder whether my flickering faith, this "whistling in the dark," is as good as it gets -- and possibly, in its own way, the real thing.

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