'Frontline' ponders God after 9-11

As a television critic, I take no small pleasure in finding fault with TV programming, particularly when it seems petty, banal and superficial. But I take greater joy when television rises to greatness. And tonight's "Frontline" presentation, "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" (8 p.m., PBS), is excellent television.

The two-hour special assembles a panel of religious leaders, writers and friends and family members of the fallen to deliberate on the simple question: "Where was God on Sep. 11?" The responses are as fascinating as they are varied.

The father of a 24-year-old slain fireman explains how he finds comfort in knowing that his son is now with God. He breaks into tears when he jokes, "I've got to be good; my boy is watching me now."

The wife of another fireman had the exact opposite spiritual experience. While she used to comfort herself with daily conversations with the divine, she has become increasingly angry with God since her husband's death. "I'm not ready to talk to him right now," she says bitterly.

Two men who helped each other escape from a collapsing tower had completely different spiritual experiences. One praised God for helping him escape. The other cursed him for allowing such cruel and pointless destruction.

Some who had given little thought to religion have found faith since the attacks. A witty, formerly agnostic French photographer wishes that God had a phone number. "It wouldn't even have to be an 800 number," he joked.

Clerics from several denominations discuss faith's role in the planning and execution of the terror attacks.

A young rabbi recalls days spent among extremists in the West Bank town of Hebron who used their fervor to justify murder. A Muslim cleric decries contemporary Islam's flirtation with what he calls "the dark side." A Roman Catholic monsignor, Lorenzo Albacete, speaks eloquently about the destructive nature of unhinged devotion.

"From the first moment," Albacete observes, "I looked into that horror ... into that fireball, into that explosion of horror. I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion."

� Peter Jennings hosts the six-part series "In Search of America" (9 p.m., ABC, TV-PG), examining how the principles of the founding fathers still affect contemporary Americans. Tonight's premiere installment visits a group of Idaho ranchers who are resisting efforts to re-introduce gray wolves into the wilderness. Does Washington's enforcement of the 1973 Endangered Species Act trump the property rights of Idaho farmers?

The series continues through Saturday, visiting a new locale and examining a new issue every night.

Tonight's other highlights

� Comedians, including Jay Leno, Ray Romano and Arsenio Hall celebrate a stand-up institution on "40 Years of Laughter at the Improv" (7 p.m., NBC).

� What college students don't know about meningococcal disease can kill them � very quickly. That's the focus of "Killer Disease on Campus" on "NOVA" (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings).

� Kelly and Justin battle it out for the top spot on "American Idol" (8 p.m., Fox).

� An obese, bed-ridden billionaire faces murder charges on "Monk" (8 p.m., ABC).

� Scheduled on "Dateline" (9 p.m., NBC): untold stories of bravery from Flight 93.

Cult choice

� Director Francis Coppola restored more than an hour of footage to his 1979 epic, "Apocalypse Now Redux" (9:30 p.m., Showtime).

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