Terrorism at the Multiplex
This past November, Muslim and Arab-American organizations staged protests at movie theaters around the country to coincide with the opening of The Siege, a 20th Century Fox thriller that depicts a series of terrorist bombings in New York followed by the forcible internment of the city’s male Arab inhabitants. Complaining that The Siege “portrays Arabs and Muslims as a homogeneous, threatening mass,” Hala Maksoud, president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), called the film “dangerous and incendiary” and warned of its potential to lead to “harassment, intimidation, discrimination, and even hate crimes” against Arab-Americans.
Because this was, in the boast of the studio, “one of the biggest films ever shot in the Big Apple,” and because of the extreme sensitivity these days to anything smacking of ethnic bigotry, the controversy drew considerable attention. A reporter for the Washington Post, in a frontpage story, wondered aloud about the likely reaction to a movie portraying Orthodox Jews or Catholic priests in similar terms. The film’s leading actor, Denzel Washington, sounded a note of sympathy with the protesters, telling the Toronto Star, “There are Jewish terrorists but nobody would associate them with their religion.” And the New York Times ran a debate on its op-ed page between the film’s producer, Edward Zwick, and a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the other main sponsor of protests.
Zwick’s reply to his critics took two tacks. On the one hand, he invoked with some bravado the freedom of the artist. “What I’m trying to do as a filmmaker,” he wrote, “is to look at the world. And write about what I see. . . . I’m sorry if I offended anyone. But I’m really not.” Yet, on the other hand, he insisted that the true message conveyed by the film was quite the opposite of what the ADC and CAIR took it to be. If The Siege has a “single . . . conclusion,” Zwick averred, it is that
it is impossible to generalize about Arab-Americans, [and] that the distinction between them and terrorists must be understood before we, as a nation, can grapple with our fear of the “other.”
In other words, “The Siege is not about terrorism; it’s about us.”
Even before the movie was completed Zwick had, in fact, taken extraordinary pains to propitiate any who might be offended, going so far as to furnish the ADC and CAIR with copies of the script and inviting them to suggest changes. A number of these suggestions were duly acted upon; thus, a scene in which a New York taxi driver of Middle Eastern background refuses to pick up Denzel Washington was excised from the final cut. Only when he was asked to change the identity of the bombers from Muslims to members of an American militia group did Zwick draw the line.
For their part, although they did not deny Zwick’s benign intentions, the protesters insisted that his message would be lost on most viewers, who would be left with a reinforced association between terrorism and Arabs or Muslims. And in this they had a point, although a more complicated one than they themselves realized.
With its thousands of extras and its on-scene production in Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan, The Siege does vividly succeed in creating an image of a world capital in the throes of escalating terror. In charge of combating this campaign, whose purpose is to compel U.S. authorities to release the leader of a radical Islamic group, is Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (Denzel Washington), head of an FBI task force. He soon discovers that he is not the only federal official on the case. A winsome CIA operative (Annette Bening), with deep and murky ties to the Muslim world, is working her own game. The simultaneously cooperative and competitive relationship between these two sexy characters gives the film much of its dramatic power.
Their investigations yield little, however. And so the President, spurred by narrow-minded Senators, orders the military in. Under the command of General Devereaux (Bruce Willis), tanks fill the streets of Brooklyn, and the male Muslim population is rounded up. Caught in the government dragnet is Frank Haddad, Jr., the fourteen-year-old son of Hub’s chief deputy. The elder Haddad (played by Tony Shalhoub) is a Shiite Arab-American of unflinching patriotism, without a shred of sympathy for the miscreants with whom he shares common roots. (His anguish over the detention of his boy drives home the moral message about the dangers of stereotyping that Zwick alluded to in the New York Times.) Although not even Hub can secure Frank Jr.’s release from General Devereaux’s megalomaniacal grip, in the end he does save all, shooting the last terrorist before he can stage a final horrific bombing and then facing down and arresting Devereaux in a gunpoint confrontation.
As a movie, The Siege barely meets even today’s low standards for thrillers. Zwick’s co-producer, Lynda Obst, has said that “Ed and I liked the material’s verisimilitude,” but the verisimilitude begins and ends with the postulating of terrorist activity in America. Particularly ludicrous are the American officials—CIA and FBI agents, military officers, Senators, and others—who populate The Siege. Not an aspect of their behavior or a line of their dialogue—to say nothing of Denzel Washington’s virtuoso trigger finger—bears any resemblance to the way such people act and speak. The worst offender in this regard may be Bruce Willis, whose performance, in contrast to that of Washington and Bening, has been widely panned. But in fairness to Willis, it is hard to imagine how anyone could bring to life a character as absurdly drawn as General Devereaux.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. Zwick is right to say that The Siege does not assign the role of villain to Arabs or Muslims per se. Instead, it assigns that role to the U.S. military and the CIA. The relation of bad guy to good guy is epitomized in The Siege by a scene in which General Devereaux strips, tortures, and summarily executes an Arab-American who turns out—thanks to the incompetence of the CIA—to be a false suspect. Even the small band of Islamic terrorists are, in their own way, victims of the same evil force, having been trained in terror and then betrayed and abandoned by the CIA itself. It is this betrayal that drives the remnant first to attack American targets in the Middle East and then finally to resort to terrorism on American soil—but only after their holy leader has been illegally snatched by secret operatives of the power-mad General Devereaux, and only after their use of nonlethal methods to gain his release meets with rebuff.
In sum, The Siege is, as charged, an exercise in stereotyping. The objects of the stereotyping, however, are not Arabs or Muslims but Hollywood’s favorite bogeymen. No wonder Zwick seemed bewildered by the accusations aimed at him by ADC and CAIR.
Still, they may be right that many viewers will take from the film something different from the message Zwick was trying to convey. For all his efforts to shift the burden of blame, the movie’s image of a U.S. military run amok comes across as an overworked caricature. As against it, the image of Middle Eastern terrorists wreaking havoc in the streets of America is both compelling and only too plausible.
According to the groups protesting The Siege, terrorism is an activity distributed more or less evenly among nations and peoples. This equal-opportunity notion is also, presumably, what Denzel Washington had in mind in referring to “Jewish terrorists,” and Zwick himself has made a similar point. “Terrorism,” he says, “exists in the Jewish religion and the Catholic religion and in all religions as well.”
Is the point valid? Invoking the State Department’s annual report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, CAIR spokesmen point out that, in 1997, 97 out of 123 anti-American attacks were listed as having occurred in Latin America, while relatively few occurred in the Middle East. But as the report itself explains, most of the incidents in Latin America “consisted of low-level bombings of multinational oil pipelines in Colombia,” while, of “the more significant attacks during the year,” the top six were carried out by Muslim groups. Half of the 36 terrorist organizations mentioned in the report, moreover, are Muslim. Most important, five of the seven states designated as sponsors of terror—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria—are also Muslim. (The other two are Cuba and North Korea.)
This is not to suggest that terrorism is endemic ethnically to Arabs or doctrinally to Islam. But it does underline the fact that terrorism has enjoyed a prevalence and acceptance in the Muslim Middle East that have no parallel elsewhere. The five named states do not merely give succor to a variety of terrorist groups; they actively employ terrorism as an instrument of statecraft, often using their diplomats and embassies for terrorist activities. Rarely, moreover, have these states been condemned by their brother states. Indeed, other Arab and Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan, have themselves given support to terrorist groups on occasion.
Contrast this with the situation in other places. Although terrorist cells have arisen in Germany, Italy, Japan, and even Israel, in each of these countries they have been anathematized and placed outside the law. Nowhere do they openly maintain offices or enjoy respect as they do in numerous Arab capitals. In fact, European and Japanese terrorist groups, isolated in their own countries, have turned to the Arab world for arms-training and haven.
The foremost beneficiary of the Arab states’ indulgence of terrorism has of course been the Palestine Liberation Organization. In The Siege, the cold-blooded execution of an Arab suspect by a haywire U.S. general is pure fiction. In real life, two U.S. diplomats held hostage in Khartoum were executed in just this fashion by the PLO, apparently at the direct order of Yasir Arafat. Nothing in the PLO’s record, however, ever caused the Arab nations to hesitate for a single moment before proclaiming it “the sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people. In fact, the PLO has long enjoyed the status of a cause célèbre among Arabs and Muslims; ironically, only now that it has officially renounced terrorism to pursue the Oslo peace process has it lost its standing with the likes of Iran.
There is a significant wrinkle here. Since some Arab states are themselves victims of terror (most notably, in recent years, Algeria and Egypt), the Arab League in 1996 adopted an “anti-terrorism agreement” aimed at strengthening cooperation against domestic threats. Yet while its first section denounces “terrorist crimes,” its second explains that “cases of struggle by all means, including armed struggle, against foreign occupation and aggression for the sake of liberation and self-determination in accordance with the principles of international law are not considered crimes.” As spelled out by Dr. Mustafa ‘Abd-al-Hamid Karah, speaking for the council of Arab ministers of interior, this means that “it is not possible to regard the operations mounted by the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization against the forces of Zionist occupation as acts of terrorism.” Nor has the existence of the anti-terrorism pact prevented the Arab League from recently proclaiming “solidarity with Libya in its just position” on the proposed trial of Libyan agents for the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. According to the prevailing stand of the Arab world, in other words, terrorism is not inherently wrong; it is, rather, a matter of whose ox is being gored.
Nevertheless, should Americans of Arab descent or of the Islamic faith be tarred with the brush of others’ lamentable record concerning terrorism? In her open letter to Zwick, ADC president Maksoud beseeched Fox studios “to portray Arab-Americans for who they really are—honest, hardworking, and law-abiding citizens who make valuable contributions to our nation.” And the film duly makes clear its sympathy with this point of view. At one juncture, Hubbard, the FBI man, announces that leaders of the Arab-American community “want these criminals brought to justice just as much as we do.” Later, even as hate crimes against Middle Easterners multiply, a character identifying himself as a spokesman for the ADC proclaims: “Whatever injustices my people may be suffering at this moment, we will continue to show our commitment to this country.”
Undoubtedly, Maksoud’s description of the generality of Arab and Muslim Americans is accurate. But the advocacy groups that speak in their name, including the groups that have protested against The Siege, have been considerably more equivocal than the film portrays them. Although they do condemn terrorist attacks against the United States, and several have even condemned bombings in Israel, these statements are typically ringed about with caveats to the effect that U.S. retaliation is equally wrong, or that the attacks have been provoked by Israeli obduracy.
On the whole, indeed, the position taken by groups like CAIR and ADC echoes that of the Arab states. According to a report in an ADC publication, for example, Maksoud herself has
emphasized the need to differentiate between legitimate acts of resistance which are sanctioned by international law, and acts of terrorism which take the lives of innocent civilians. She [has] warned against accepting Israel’s definition of terrorism at face value, instead advocating recourse to the law of nations, which recognizes the legitimacy of the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance against occupation.
In the same vein, Maksoud has found “shocking” a journalist’s description of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, characterizing it, instead, as a “resistance organization engaged in the legitimate defense of Lebanese land.” (Hezbollah, according to the State Department, is “known or suspected to have been involved” in acts ranging from the October 1983 suicide truck bombing of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, to the kidnapping of American and other hostages in Lebanon, to the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina.) On other occasions, the ADC has objected to the inclusion of Syria on the list of countries supporting terrorism and, together with the National Association of Arab Americans, campaigned against two 1997 amendments forbidding most financial transactions with state sponsors of terrorism.
For its part, CAIR is, if anything, even more equivocal about terrorism than the ADC. Its executive director, Nihad Awad, declared at a 1994 conference that although he “used to support the PLO,” he was now “in support of the Hamas movement more than the PLO.”
To complete the picture, ADC, CAIR, and other Arab-American and Muslim advocacy groups have taken up the cudgels in behalf of one after another Arab-American facing legal action in connection with terrorism. Thus, CAIR denounced the deportation, on the basis of classified evidence, of Mazzen al-Najjar, the director of the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) in Tampa, Florida. This group had come under government scrutiny after al-Najjar’s predecessor, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, left Tampa in 1995 to take up a position as the head of Islamic Jihad. In a 1996 study of some 300 “anti-Muslim incidents” in the United States, CAIR listed the detention on American soil of Mousa Abu Marzuk, the leader of Hamas, as well as aspects of the trial and detention of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. The latter was the mastermind behind the plot to blow up major buildings and tunnels in New York and perhaps behind the World Trade Center bombing as well—acts, that is, of the very kind that give the images in The Siege their verisimilitude.
Undoubtedly, Americans of Arab and Muslim background experience discrimination and bias. While American society provides many avenues of redress for individuals denied their rights, derogatory stereotypes are more difficult to exorcise. Those protesting The Siege seem to think a complete ban on the subject of Middle Eastern terrorism will do the trick, but as long as the reality endures, nothing is likely to dispel the image in people’s minds.
An end to Middle Eastern terrorism is a matter beyond the power of the Arab-American majority to effect. The majority can, however, counteract stereotypes by opposing forthrightly and condemning unequivocally vicious acts done in the name of a shared heritage. In this, the Arab and Muslim Americans so poignantly evoked by Hala Maksoud are ill-served not by The Siege, whose scurrility is aimed not at them but at American institutions, but by the very people who organized the protests against it.