After five years and a few more days, maybe enough time has passed to bring up an odd fact about Sept. 11, 2001, and the attack they said no one possibly could have imagined.
Six months before it happened, it was on TV. Imagine that.
It was such an eerie coincidence, it could have come out of “The X-Files.” And it did.
It went unmentioned in the mainstream media — partly due to a sort of collective amnesia, and partly, I think, because of feelings it would be dangerously impertinent or trivializing to bring it up.
It happened in the debut episode of “The Lone Gunmen,” a quirky spinoff of “The X-Files,” which was nearing the end of its run. The ironic title, a callback to the JFK assassination, referred to three patriotic conspiracy geeks who helped “X-Files” agents Mulder and Scully and published a tiny muckraking newspaper: Melvin Frohike (the short one), Richard “Ringo” Langly (the long-haired one) and John Fitzgerald Byers (the bearded one who formerly worked for government).
“The X-Files” veered heavily into paranormal phenomena. The often-comic “Gunmen” focused on corporate crime. Its first episode, on Fox on March 4, 2001, opens with the three trying to expose a computer processor chip that’s secretly rigged to invade the privacy of users.
But they’re soon looking into the apparently faked death of Byers’ father, Bertram, an idealistic civilian employee of the Defense Department. The probe leads them to hack into a government computer and download a file dealing with terrorism against civilian aircraft.
Bertram turns up alive and tells his son the file is a plot by a “small faction” in the government to crash a jet in New York City. They plan to juice up arms sales by blaming the crash on “tin-pot dictators” who are “begging to be smart-bombed.”
He knows which flight is targeted. He and his son board it to search for a bomb. There isn’t one. Langly and Frohike, on the ground, hack into the navigation system and find the plane is being flown by remote control to an “unscheduled stop” at the corner of Liberty and Washington in lower Manhattan.
“World Trade Center,” Byers says. “They’re going to crash it into the World Trade Center.”
From the cockpit, the twin towers loom ahead in the night sky. Langly’s frantic hacking frees the manual controls. The pilot pulls the 727 into a steep climb. The jet narrowly misses the towers, but clips the broadcasting antenna atop one. Too close for comfort.
“X-Files” writer-producer Frank Spotnitz scripted the episode with Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban.
“We were brainstorming about what a huge attack on the United States might look like,” he told me this week. “When we hit on the hijacking, we liked it as a story point because early in the show you think there’s a bomb on the plane. You would not realize until much later that the airplane itself was the weapon.”
What was his reaction on Sept. 11?
“I remember it vividly,” he said. “The moment I turned on the TV, the first thing I thought of was Lone Gunmen.’ For some period of time I had this anxiety [the terrorists] had seen it, too, and that the show had given them the idea. But that was not the case,” because the actual attack was planned earlier.
What surprised Spotnitz was that no one else seemed to notice. The show had a high-profile premiere, in place of the “The X-Files,” but when he mentioned the story line, months later at an industry panel, “it was like people had blocked it until then,” he said.
No investigators ever contacted him or the other “X-Files” writers. They were not among the screenwriters whom military intelligence asked to brainstorm terrorist scenarios later in 2001.
What bothered Spotnitz, however, was the idea the plot was unimaginable. It gave too much credit to terrorists. The trade center was car-bombed in 1993. It was the biggest target in America’s biggest city.
“That’s why we put it in the episode,” he said. “It did seem like a big symbolic target. If we could have imagined it, why couldn’t our government?”
Maybe truth is stranger than fiction. Maybe it just gets harder to tell the difference.