With 11-Part ‘Cross­roads,’ PBS Looks Many Ways

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Tom Shales

“Amer­ica at a Cross­roads” an­swers the ques­tion “ Is there still a pur­pose for pub­lic television?” And the 11- part PBS se­ries replies in the af­fir­ma­tive, be­cause it’s hard to imag­ine an­other na­tional net­work that would at­tempt a project this am­bi­tious, this chal­leng­ing and this rel­a­tively es­o­teric.

Start­ing tonight with two hours of “ Ji­had: The Men and Ideas Be­hind Al- Qaeda” and con­clud­ing Fri­day with “ Se­cu­rity vs. Lib­erty: The Other War” and “ The Broth­er­hood,” this mag­num opus tack­les some of the tough­est sub­jects of our time. “ Cross­roads” asks plen- ty of salient, cru­cial ques­tions — and works slav­ishly to find sane, sat­is­fy­ing an­swers.

Even the for­mat and length of the spe­cial se­ries are on the gutsy side: 12 hours over six con­sec­u­tive nights of prime time. Sev­eral decades ago, CBS News aired a land­mark re­port on “ The De­fense of the United States” — five hours over five nights, al­though not all in prime time — but the fo­cus of “ Cross­roads” is more spe­cific, and that gives it added ur­gency. When you’re at a cross­roads, you have to do some­thing; you can’t just watch the world go by and hope there aren’t col­li­sions.

“ Cross­roads” puts the dom­i­nant is­sues in the cross hairs, its goal oc­ca­sion­ally just to make sense of Is­lamic rad­i­cals and what they en­vi­sion as their global “ cause.” The se­ries’s more am­bi­tious pur­pose is to hold a seem­ingly in­sol­u­ble con­flict up to the light and study it from as many an­gles as pos­si­ble.

The approach is bound to strike some view­ers are fla­grantly one- sided. There doesn’t seem to be any at­tempt by the other side to “ un­der­stand” us — only to oblit­er­ate us. If com­mu­nists were won over, or un­done, by the al­lure of Amer­i­can pop cul­ture — by tight jeans, catchy dit­ties and such in­spi­ra­tions as a bugeyed talk­ing sponge who works at an un­der­wa­ter diner — such mag­netic en­ti­ties are viewed as poi­son by, for lack of a bet­ter term, The En­emy.

When Muham­mad bin Laden — fa­ther of 54 chil-

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