NEW YORK – The highly anticipated special episode of The West Wing, billed as a head on look at the nation's latest headline, instead turned into a history lesson for high school students.
In the first TV show to refer to the Sept. 11 attacks, the West Wing staff found themselves in a lockdown in which no one was allowed in or out of the White House. In addition to the usual crew, a group of high-school students on a tour was forced to remain in the building's cafeteria to wait out the emergency.
Executive producer Aaron Sorkin wrote and filmed the episode, start to finish, in the three weeks since the attacks.
The events that inspired the episode were never directly addressed. Word of a security breach forced the Secret Service to seal the building while they questioned an Arab-American suspected of terrorism in another area of the building.
The program took the form of a lesson revolving around the current national dialogue about terrorism, with the faux White House staff drifting in and out of a cafeteria filled with students.
"So what can anyone do about the terrorists around the world?" the students wanted to know.
"You want to get these people?" asked Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford. Embrace pluralism, he said. "Keep accepting more than one idea. Makes 'em absolutely crazy."
Press secretary C.J. Gregg (Allison Janney) spoke on behalf of supporting covert actions by the CIA, while communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) warned of the consequences of curtailing civil liberties.
President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, made a brief appearance. A student asked him if there isn't something noble about a martyr.
"We don't need martyrs right now. We need heroes," pronounced Bartlet. "A hero would die for his country, but he'd much rather live for it."
And deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) sounded what, at first, seemed an encouraging note.
"Not only do terrorists always fail in what they're after," he said, "they pretty much always succeed in strengthening whatever it is they're against."
What about the IRA in Northern Ireland? "The Brits are still there," Seaborn replied.
But the student persisted: Failure, if that's what it is, doesn't put a stop to terrorism.
"No," Seaborn grimly agreed.
While most of the issues surrounding terrorism were touched on, the role of the military was not. That may have been by design — or it may have been due to the limitations of a storyline that gave only vague reasons for the White House lockdown.
Intercut with this impromptu seminar was the harsh questioning of an Arab-American suspect — an and administration insider — by chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer). The man, swiftly nabbed and highly suspicious, turned out to be innocent.
The Associated Press and the New York Post contributed to this report.