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Recap / The West Wing S 03 E 01 Isaac And Ishmael

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"Isaac and Ishmael" is an intentionally out-of-continuity episode of The West Wing. It is a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, which happened just before the premiere of the third season. This episode took the place of the premier, delaying by a week the resolution of season two's cliffhanger ending, where President Bartlet was about to announce whether he would run again.

This episode was broadcast as the first one of the third season. If someone were trying to place it in the show's continuity, naturally, the characters that appear would place it within the first three and a half seasons (Sam Seaborn is there, Leo is chief of staff, etc.). But in the intro, Bradley Whitford explicitly states that it's not in the timeline of the show.


It begins with the cast of the show commenting on what is going on, initially out of character. Martin Sheen announces that tonight's episode won't be the season premier, and the other cast members elaborate on that. They describe what will happen in the new season, with Donna being the first to go into character: "And I get a boyfriend."

The episode features two parallel stories. The White House "crashes," meaning that no one can enter or exit, because of a terrorist threat. An Arab-American working in the White House has the same name as the alias of a known terrorist, and he gets questioned and treated pretty badly because of it. Meanwhile, a group of high-school students gets locked in the White House, giving the staff, the President, and the First Lady and opportunity to talk to them about terrorism and its faults and origins.



The episode proper opens on an FBI field office in Burlington, Vermont. Agents are running a search on the name Yaarun Nabi. They come up with some aliases, one of which is Raqim Ali. There's a dramatic pause, the agent calls for her boss, and then her boss calls the Secret Service office in the White House…

... Where Josh is telling Donna that he's going home (which by now everyone knows is a cue that he's not going to get to go home). Donna reminds him that he needs to talk to the students from Presidential Classroom, which is a group of high-school kids visiting the White House. Josh whines and capitulates, mentioning along the way that the White House has "crashed" five times in the last three weeks.

Josh goes to meet the kids. He asks how they got there and introduces himself to the teacher, in a scene reminiscent of Sam's disastrous encounter with Mallory's class in the pilot episode. Donna points out the red phone on the table; its light is blinking. The security guard picks up the phone and says, "Code Black, crash!" Josh tells the students not to be scared as Secret Service agents burst through all of the doors and tell them to stay where they are.


The scene fades out and a message appears: "The West Wing Encourages You to Give What You Can to the Following Organizations," and two addresses are listed.

Theme music and credits...

Act I

Josh and Donna usher the students into the White House mess. Josh doesn't know what's going on and asks Donna to call Leo's office to get the info. Donna tells Josh to lighten up, and then he tells the students what it means to be in a "crash." He starts talking to the students, and finds out that they know the basics about the government. (One of the kids calls him on a point that he makes, and Josh tells him he's on his "list.") There are a few more jokes, and one of the girls asks Josh why everyone's trying to kill him and if he's scared to work at the White House.

After the kids start saying things like "It's the Arabs" and "It's Islamic," Josh puts the following analogy on the dry-erase board:

Islamic extremist is to Islamic as ______ is to Christianity

After a few guesses, Josh fills in the blank with "KKK." He explains the analogy a bit, and then a student rephrases the original question: Why are Islamic extremists trying to kill us?

After a few guesses, Josh brings up some specific complaints that the extremists have. Donna corrects him, though, saying that it is ridiculous to try to find rational reasons for why someone straps a bomb to their chests. Josh expands upon that point for a moment, basically saying that the problem is that the extremists only accept one idea of how to do things, and in America we accept multiple ways of doing things. He uses soccer as the central example. Josh asks one of the kids to go get some food, and he goes out for a minute.

The next scene is of Ron Butterfield, the Secret Service agent, and four other agents walking into a room in the Old Executive Office Building. The agents rush into a room where a man is sitting and smoking, startling him. They ask about his name, and then say that they're going to ask him a few questions. The scene fades out.

Act II

Leo's office, Leo and Ron Butterfield are there. Ron tells Leo about a terrorist who was taken into custody and named a co-conspirator, whose name was the one that the FBI agents were searching for at the beginning of the episode. One of that person's aliases was Raqim Ali, which is the name of the person who was surprised and questioned in the previous scene (there were also two other people who had that name). Leo seems surprised, and says, "It was only a matter of time, huh?"

In Ali's office, he's being questioned by several agents. He knows about the terrorist and about where he was arrested. Leo then walks in and asks if Ali knows who he is; of course, he does.

Back in the White House mess, Toby is now talking to the children: "Kill them all, yeah." He goes on for some reason about all the people he wants to stay alive (the Knicks, the Lakers and the Laker Girls, some chefs...) and Josh introduces him to the kids. Toby is surly. One of the more central speeches ensues after a girl compliments Toby on his beard:

And by the way, there's nothing wrong with a religion whose laws say a man's got to wear a beard or cover his head or wear a collar. It's when violation of these laws become a crime against the State and not your parents that we're talking about lack of choice.

Toby goes on to extend Josh's analogy to a governmental one. The Taliban took over the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and that's the analogy at the governmental level. (Another version: the Nazis took over the government of Poland; the Taliban are the Nazis in the analogy.)

A boy asks Toby, and then Toby asks Josh, "What was the first act of terrorism?" Toby starts to answer that it was in the eleventh century, followers of Al-hassan Ibn-al-Sabbah were taught to murder fellow Muslims in a state of religious ecstasy. They were drugged and taken to a paradise-like area and told that they would return there if they murdered their master's enemies. (Sam walks in about halfway through this.) Turns out the name of this murder-organization was "Assassins." And that Sam is the terrorism expert.

A girl asks Sam what he's struck by most about terrorism, and Sam answers, "Its 100% failure rate." Terrorists always fail to get what they want, and they usually strengthen their opposition. They mention Ghandi and the civil rights movement as examples of nonviolent protests that worked. A kid mentions that we were terrorists at the Boston Tea Party, but Sam corrects her, saying that no one got hurt there.

Cut to Ali's office. Leo is questioning him. He asks him about the wires in his bag, his education, and other things. Leo asks Ali about his father's contributions to some groups, and Ali finally becomes indignant those questions, calling Leo out on what he's doing.


Back in the White House Mess, C.J. is now in the room and they're talking about the CIA, which C.J. apparently has some affection for. The conversation turns to civil liberties and how they are sometimes compromised in the name of security. C.J.'s argument is that we need human spies, wiretaps, and so on; Toby counters with some pretty good arguments for not invading privacy. C.J. makes a point about it being a lesser of two evils equation.

In Ali's office, Leo and an FBI agent are questioning him. He's asked about being arrested for holding a rally protesting U.S. troops' presence in Saudi Arabia; the arrest was a mistake and the charges were dropped. They also ask Ali about a bomb threat at his high school, which he was questioned about, even though he had nothing to do with it, because he's Arab-American. Leo is condescending and racist about all this, and Ali is indignant. The scene ends with this exchange:

Leo: No, I'm trying to figure out why anytime there's any terrorist activity, people always assume its Arabs. I'm racking my brain.
Ali: I don't know the answer to that, Mr. McGarry, but I can tell you it's horrible.
Leo: Well, that's the price you pay.
Ali: (angry) Excuse me? The price for what?

Act IV

Toby leaves the mess. Charlie has arrived and is standing in a doorway at the back of the room with his arms crossed. C.J. says that "There's "nothing more American than coalition building," and then equates it to John Wayne gathering a posse.

A girl asks where terrorists come from. Sam answers that they come from everywhere, mostly poverty-stricken places. That's when Charlie joins the conversation, saying that it's the same in America. Charlie's point is another of the episode's big ones: terrorist cells are a lot like gangs. People with nothing and no future join up with gangs for a sense of pride—"I'm with them."

President and Mrs. Bartlet enter the room, and the staff all stand. The teacher reminds the students to stand, and they do. President Bartlet greets them good-naturedly and leaves, but Abbey stays. As the President is leaving, a boy asks him if he considers there to be something noble about being a martyr. President Bartlet responds that killing innocents to make a point isn’t martyrdom, but rather a “twisted, sick” act; and that we need heroes, not martyrs (“A martyr would die for his country, a hero […] would much rather live for it.”).

Outside of Ali's office, an agent approaches the Secret Service agent standing next to the door. The one from the door enters the office to talk to Ron Butterfield. Ali is in the office still being questioned.

The agent who was the messenger tells Ron, "We found him." In Germany, it turns out. The agent tells Ali that he's free to go. Ali gets up to leave, but stops and returns to confront Leo. He reminds him that, when they were being shot at in Rosslyn, "Not only were the shooters white... they were doing it because one of us wasn't."

Back in the mess, Abbey is addressing the class. A student asks how this all started, and Abbey explains the beginning of the strife between the Jews and the Arabs:

Summarizing a bit: Abraham and Sarah were supposed to have lots of descendants. But they were getting old and had not had any kids. So Sarah sent Abraham to the bed of her maid, and they conceived Ishmael. Not long after, Sarah conceived Isaac. Sarah told Abraham to get rid of the maid and her son, so that Sarah's son would be the only heir. "And so it began: the Jews, the sons of Isaac. The Arabs, the sons of Ishmael. But what most people find important to remember is that, in the end, the two sons came together to bury their father."

Donna comes in to tell everyone that they're clear. Abbey says goodbye and leaves. One more question comes from the students to Josh: does he favor the death penalty? Josh responds that he wishes there was another option, and then describes how he'd like to punish them: by putting them in a cell and making them watch the home movies of all of the people that they have killed. He tells the kids not to worry about all that now, though, and to focus on school, learn things, read a book. He finishes with this: "Remember pluralism. You want to get to these people? ... Keep accepting more than one idea. Makes 'em absolutely crazy."

The kids leave, and Josh says a special goodbye to Billy.

Leo walks into Ali's office. He explains what he meant earlier with the "that's the price you pay" comment, and he sort-of apologizes. "That was unlike me." He turns to leave, and finishes with "Way to be back at your desk," at least leaving Ali with a compliment.

Leo leaves and Ali turns back to his desk, and the music to "For What it's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield starts playing.

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down.

This episode contains examples of:

  • Always Chaotic Evil: Outright defied by the White House senior staff. They will accept that the terrorists at the moment are Muslims, but they point out that just because they are Muslims, that doesn't mean that all Muslims are terrorists nor do they all hate the US, as Josh points out that there are a lot of Muslims who both live in the US with their own jobs and serve in the US military. The terrorists are extremists, end of discussion.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Toby's account of the Hashashin is very much Hollywood History, down to "they were given hashish to induce hallucinations" (most historians who've weighed in on the subject think this is extremely unlikely, being both pretty impractical for an assassin and not a plausible side effect of hashish consumption). He also denounces their attacks as "treacherous", when their targeted assassinations were probably a lot more humane than the far-less-discriminate warfare typical of the time period.
    • The argument is made that the Sons of Liberty and American Revolutionaries were purely peaceful. That's not entirely true; just ask Andrew Oliver, a stamp distributor whose business was burned down (and almost his home as well, even after he complied with demands by resigning).
    • Sam says that terrorism is 100% failure rate. He probably never read up on the Irish Republican Brotherhood, arguably the first "modern" terrorist group. The clue is in their name as to what they accomplished.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Abbey quotes the Bible at length, and explains the origins of the world's oldest conflict in the process.
  • Breather Episode: Takes a break from the in-progress story arc, relenting on all the crap the cast was going through. It was specifically written in response to the 9/11 plane hijacking, so it was something of a breather out of universe as well.
  • Mistaken Identity: How Ali ends up being interrogated by federal agents for suspected terrorist links - he happens to share the name with a known alias of one.
  • Very Special Episode: The episode is out-of-continuity (though the Rosslyn shooting is referenced) and was written and produced only a few weeks after the September 11th attacks.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Leo gets pretty racist toward Ali. He sort-of apologizes, and they're under a lot of stress and all that, but it's really rather out of character for Leo.

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