Monday, October 03, 2011

Isaac and Ishmael

Inspiration comes from many sources.

And, as terrible as Sept. 11, 2001, was, it was a definite source of inspiration — for musicians, for artists and for writers.

Aaron Sorkin, a writer for The West Wing, was inspired by the events of that day to write a special episode of the series. The episode had no real place in the story line, but it served as the unofficial start for the series' third season, and it educated an American public that was ignorant of many of the issues that so enraged the Muslim extremists.

(I have always been frustrated by the public's eagerness to accept simplistic — and ridiculous — explanations for those terrorist attacks, such as "They hate our freedom" or "They hate democracy." In truth, Muslim anger at the West had — and continues to have — far more to do with Westerners' treatment of Islam, its values and its adherents in the Middle East than it has ever had to do with systems of government, here or anywhere else.

(And, while many Muslims walking the streets of America may have been offended by the sights of casinos, strip clubs and bars, so, too, are people of other faiths — and none, including Muslims, have launched holy wars because of them.)

Apparently, the West Wing story came to Sorkin in a burst of inspiration — it was written, filmed and broadcast within three weeks of the terrorist attacks. And, even now, people mention it to me in conversations about the TV series.

I seldom need encouragement to talk about The West Wing — and I need even less encouragement to talk about that episode, which was titled "Isaac and Ishmael."

As incredible as it is to believe, that episode first aired 10 years ago tonight — when the shock of the September 11 attacks was still fresh.

The episode, as I said, had no real place in the series' timeline — but it did utilize a familiar West Wing technique with parallel stories taking place within it.

One story involved a group of young people who were visiting the White House. A "lockdown" occurred when it was discovered that a White House staffer's name was the same as a known terrorist.

The group was ushered into the mess hall, where most of the cast members came by and discussed terrorism, racism and religion with the students.

The other story focused on the staffer — who was previously unknown to viewers and never, to my knowledge, appeared in the series again — undergoing interrogation.

In all, I thought it was a great one–hour lesson for Americans who knew little about the Middle East, little about Islam, little about a lot of things, as it turned out.

Americans had been through — and were continuing to experience — day after endless day of 9/11 footage.

The West Wing gave them an opportunity to learn about something that scared and bewildered them mostly because they still knew so little about it — and, thus, were susceptible to all kinds of .

For that matter, many viewers probably didn't understand the name of the episode, even after it should have been made clear at the end.

The first lady told the story that inspired the title — the story of Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham from the Bible, and how the conflict between Jews and Muslims began.

I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, and I have never had much interest in the origin of their conflict so I wasn't all that different from anyone else who watched this special episode of The West Wing 10 years ago tonight. But watch it I did, and I even learned a few things in the process.

And that was no small accomplishment, given the backlash against Muslims in this country at that time.

There were hints of that backlash in the interrogation of the staffer by the chief of staff. At one point, he made a wisecrack, following an exchange that raised one of fundamentalist Muslims' greatest complaints of Western occupation of Middle Eastern cities and countries:

"You sent an army composed of women as well as men to protect a Muslim dynasty where women aren't even allowed to drive a car," the staffer said.

To which the chief of staff replied, "Maybe we can teach them."

The staffer, frustrated by it all, finally told the chief of staff, "You have the memory of a gypsy moth.

"When you and the president and the president's daughter and about a hundred other people — including me, by the way — were met with a hail of .44–caliber gunfire ... not only were the shooters white, they were doing it because one of us wasn't."

I guess you have to put it in the context of those times and the times that followed. Emotions were running quite high in the United States, and Muslims were the new targets of hate crimes that previously had been almost exclusively mentioned in connection with acts against blacks and women.

There weren't many mainstream Americans standing up to defend the rights of Muslims. Everyone knew they were the enemy. Why, defending the rights of Muslims in America in 2001 would have been roughly the same as saying during World War II that putting Japanese–Americans in those internment camps was wrong.

Relations between non–Muslims and Muslims in this country are better today than they were then, but that really isn't saying much. There really was nowhere to go but up.

There was a lot of anger, fear and suspicion between those groups at the time, which was understandable, I suppose, given what had happened, and much of it has receded. But a significant amount remains because a significant amount has always been there. It was there after the Oklahoma City bombing, when a man of Middle Eastern descent was detained and interrogated for hours — and then released when the real perpetrator, a white Christian, had been taken into custody.

It has taken root.

I'd like to think that The West Wing contributed to the improvement we've seen, and maybe, in its own, small way, it did.

I often wonder, though.

Truly unifying national experiences on television don't happen frequently anymore — and, when they do, it is more often than not the immediate result of an unexpected and terrible event. Consequently, I'm inclined to think that the televised multi–artist concert to benefit the victims of the attacks and their families a few days after the attacks was such a unifying experience.

The West Wing's episode — as remarkable as it was — was a few weeks in the making. The nation's notoriously short attention span had already been diverted to the randomness of the anthrax attacks

Although it was written, filmed and broadcast in a remarkably brief period for such a project, I don't know if "Isaac and Ishmael" was as unifying an experience as I thought it was at the time.

I've never seen the ratings for that episode, but I always felt the audience was rather large. The West Wing was ranked 13th in the country at the end of the 2000–2001 season and appeared poised to keep rising in the ratings.

And, as it turned out, the 2001–2002 season on which the series was about to embark was its best in the Nielsen ratings.

So there is good reason to think that quite a few people saw it when it aired for the first time 10 years ago — and countless others have seen it in reruns and on home video and DVD.

And, of course, there is that imprecise figure based only on my observations at the time — and the people who have mentioned it to me in the years since.

I watched it again recently, and I was amazed by how timely it remains a decade later. There are still things in it that need to be said — and, I suspect, will be needed to be said again in the future