A movie released in 1998. It has the unusual distinction in that I thought it was a poor and unrealistic film when it was in theaters, but 3 years later I realized how thoroughly chilling it was.

Imagine the US government sent a SEAL team to Afghanistan and managed to secretly capture Osama bin Laden. He's safely hidden in US custody, but nobody knows that, its Top Secret.

Suddenly, New York has a problem on its hands. Suicide bombers. Busses full of people are blown up, and an anonymous terrorist group makes one demand: "Release Him." The implication is that it is the guy the US caught. But the government swears up and down they don't know where he is, nor do they have him.

Meanwhile, the bombings in the city intensify, and more details emerge. It turns out that the US government actually armed and trained some of these terrorists years ago to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but then withdrew support suddenly, allowing most of them to be slaughtered. As a result, the survivors have 2 things: knowledge in subversive warfare like bombmaking, and a hatred of the US.

Denzel Washington plays an FBI agent trying to figure this whole situation all out. He's there for the first bombing, and uncovers how this group got their motivation. It's going to be very hard to break up, since the terrorist cells are compartmentalized.

Suddenly, calamity strikes. The terrorists manage to take out basically the entire New York FBI branch with a car bomb. The city is put under martial law, with the US military in full control of the city and its resources. As a precaution, and to catch the terrorists, they arrest every Arab and Muslim male in New York City within a certain age range, and move them to a detention camp, not unlike what happened to the Japanese-Americans in World War II.

The actors were great for this movie. Denzel Washington is the FBI guy trying to do his job while upholding the Constitution and civil liberties, Bruce Willis is a cold monstrous pragmatist general. Tony Shaloub is the best, he plays an Arab-American FBI agent who's caught in this whole thing on two sides; loyalty to his country, and rage at having his family detained at an interment camp for being Arab. Annette Benning has a role, albeit not as great as her others.

I gotta say a few things. The plot, as unrealistic as it is in some places, suddenly has a new effect after September 11, 2001. I HATE saying that, since the idea is so overused, but this one I really believe to be the case. Many Arab-Americans and Muslims protested this movie, understandably, since it had Arabs and Muslims as the bad guys. At the same time, it did portray innocent legal Arabs who love this country and still got arrested and interred as a group. That really doesn't fix the problem, it's like saying Tonto was a moderating character in all the movies where the Indians were the bad guys. The film ostensibly wasn't about anti-Arab sentiment, it was more about paranoia and hasty-decision making. Still, I did think they had a very distorted image of what a terrorist would be, and what real Muslims do. Worse, the film connected Islamic activities, like reciting from the Holy Quran, the ritual washing before prayer, and the call to prayer, with terrorism. Also, once again, it had Palestinian bad guys, and even worse, it showed Arab immigrants, a college professor, and Arab-American auto mechanics in Brooklyn as terrorists. In 1998, Arabs and Muslims demonstrated in front of movie theaters showing the film, and after watching it, I wouldn't blame them.

Personally, after September 11, the thought of this film gave me chills. It was the kind of thing that people predicted would happen in a worst-case scenario. I had nightmares that I was arrested in NY just for being Muslim. Someone astutely pointed out that one of the bad guys in this movie, Bruce Willis, does exactly what Ariel Sharon has done recently in the West Bank; seal off the neighborhood, arrest all males in a specific age range, and put them in temporary concentration camps.

A film reviewer wrote this in May 2002: "Another thing to note is that this movie simply isn't the same movie after September 11th. Which is remarkable of itself, because most movies about current events are made after the fact, rather than before." Think of it as an alternate result to what happened after 9/11.

I saw and enjoyed this movie, pre-9/11. Today, in retrospect it is an eerie, and sometimes prophetic, must-see. There are some poignant NYC establishment shots of the WTC. Denzel was OK, but I tire of seeing him as the straightforward protagonist expressing sentiments with which one could hardly disagree:
What if what they really want is for us to herd children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and - and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything that we have bled and fought and died for is over, and they've won. They've already won!
The Bruce Willis character was the more complex of the two, and had more memorable lines, including "This is the land of opportunity, gentlemen. You have the opportunity to turn yourself in"...but of course they're both glorified action-heros. Annette Bening as the two-faced, tough-as-nails CIA agent ("We're the CIA, something always goes wrong") was a far more convincing character than the earnest, politically correct lobbyist/sex kitten she played in The American President. The (tasteful) bathhouse scene in which she learns SPOILER!her precious informant is actually the accused terrorist is well done, as is the scene in which Shalhoub's character, an Arab-American FBI agent, is searching (I think it's) Shea Stadium turned prison camp for his son Frank Jr. who was caught up in a military police sweep. There are some good plot twists, however, the moral of movie, while it contains more than a kernel of truth is unsatisfying, predictable, and even stereotypical (and hence hardly a spoiler at all): all the bad things happen in the movie because we didn't respect someone's constitutional rights. The terrorists are simply our conscience; we are our own worse enemy. If only we lived up to the true meaning of our creed, the terrorists would somehow be satisfied and leave us alone. And so on.

I am proud to see that in the real world, our response to mass terrorism, while infringing on too many fundamental liberties, has so far been far more measured than the movie portrays. I wish the real FBI had been as interested in the getting to the bottom of things as Denzel Washington's character was. The movie cast an harsh light on the Bruce Willis character's "brutal pragmatism" as he implemented martial law, including torture, in NYC, but failed to portray the politicians who allowed martial law to be declared, leaving us with the impression that the military can just hop into their HMMWV's anytime they like and declare martial law (legally they can't and in the history of the US they never have without authorization). The movie also completely ignored the real FBI's tendency to whitewash Islamic terrorists as emotionally disturbed individuals acting alone and devoid of any larger religious or political context or movement.1 This movie deserves some credit for being willing to explore some of the Arab dimensions of some terrorism, as well as our response to it, without cop-outs such as were done in the film adaptation of Sum of All Fears. The Fox Network TV series 24 also deserves credit in this respect. I left the movie (who am I kidding; I left the living room :-) with a feeling similar to the TV series The West Wing: admiring the chops of the actors, directors, and writers, and intrigued by occasional, genuine insights into US politics and culture, but forever wary of the heavy hand of Hollywood group-think.

One of the most pitiful things I've heard about this movie is the claim that it's anti-Arab. To mr100percent's credit, he doesn't make the claim, he only repeats it, and he touches gently on the irony, noting that most of the Arabs portrayed in the movie were innocent victims of, in my opinion, the terrorism and the repression that followed. At the risk of being considered less gentle, I want to make clear the full implications. To make this claim, one has to at best accept the premise that any attempt to portray Arabs as ordinary, flawed human beings (some good, some evil, most just trying to survive) is somehow anti-Arab. Which is to say, any movie that doesn't portray all Arabs in a uniformly positive light (which in my view would be propaganda, not art), is anti-Arab.

At worse, since the only Arabs that are portrayed in a bad light are the ones who (based on the premises of the movie) are terrorists, the claim implies that the only true Arabs are terrorists.

I want to end on a positive note. In real life, the January 10, 2003 NY Daily News carried this story:

Syed Ali, 35, was working at the Amoco station on Ocean Ave. in Sheepshead Bay at about 4 a.m. when he sold $2 worth of fuel to the alleged would-be arsonist.

The Pakistani immigrant said he watched in disbelief as Sead Jakup, 22, took the canister across the street and began dousing the Young Israel of Kings Bay synagogue.

Ali quickly called 911, and cops arrived before Jakup, a Bosnian Muslim, could set the temple ablaze
...
Ali declined to accept the mantle of hero, saying he did only what any responsible person would do. "It's a sacred place he was going to destroy," Ali said.
http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/50402p-47251c.html
It's hard to think of a more pro-Arab2 story.


Movie quotes and other info courtesy the IMDB, including http://us.imdb.com/Quotes?0133952.

1. Examples of FBI whitewashing include, but are not limited to:

  • The investigation of the 1993 WTC bombing;
  • The repeated, baffling failure to pursue leads prior to the 2001 bombing, as documented in the famous memo by FBI agent Coleen Rowley;
  • The case of FBI agent Gamal Abdel-Hafiz who flat out refused to eavesdrop on a fellow Muslim. Everyone, including an FBI agent, is I suppose entitled to follow the dictates of their conscience and accept the consequences; my point is that so far, the FBI has refused to fire him, citing sensitivity concerns! See the NY Post March 14, 2003 op-ed, reproduced at http://www.danielpipes.org/article/1038, or the December 19, ABC Primetime Live broadcast, reproduced at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/primetime/DailyNews/FBI_whistleblowers021219.html;
2. Or at least, pro-Islam since if I understand correctly, not all Pakistanis are of Arab descent.

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