The film portrays how extreme governmental counterterrorism measures can erode civil liberties and citizens’ sense of freedom even more than terrorists. In The Siege soldiers enter New York City in the name of security.
The film’s domestic villain is General Devereaux (Bruce Willis) who sets a threat to civil society. As his actions toughen, he starts to wear a uniform.
Against the action-adventure film traditions, the film stars an African-American, not a white Anglo-American, as the hero. FBI agent Anthony Hubbard has a sidekick from the same ethnic group as the villains, Frank Haddad, a FBI agent, as well as a white woman, Elise Kraft who is a CIA operative. The three characters explore terrorism and effects of terrorism on society in more depth than what is traditional in the action-adventure genre.
Agent Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) is Lebanese by birth and assimilated into mainstream culture.
The cultural Other remains incomprehensible in this film. The film does not separate between moderate and extreme views of Islam. Nor does the film portray any identifiable characters who would truly practice their religion. The religion of Islam, supposedly a central part of the plot, is depicted only superficially.
Both terrorists and extreme government actions create fear and chaos in society. Toward the end of the film, citizens representing different ethnic and religious groups march united against both sources of fear. For Samir the march is the perfect target. He sees no separation between military and civilian targets, just as Osama bin Laden had announced.
Governmental extremism: General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis) declares martial law in New York City.
Tanks roll into New York City in the name of security.
Soldiers go primarily after one ethnic group, Arab Americans, in their search for terrorists.
Martial law cancels civil liberties when soldiers maintain security. Counterterrorism has become warfare on the country’s own soil.
Agent Hubbard’s stand for civil society is futile when General Devereaux and CIA operative Elise Kraft decide to rely on torture to try to get information from a terrorism suspect. In the post-9/11 world, torture has become a part of U.S. counterterrorism.
The hero’s sidekick, Agent Haddad, questions how welcoming the U.S. is to his ethnic group but eventually he returns to help the hero, as the action-adventure film traditions require.
The budding romance between agent Hubbard and CIA operative Elise Kraft ends before it has barely started when Elise, the tainted woman, ...
... receives the other type of a traditional sidekick destiny: she is killed. The saving of the United States is left to strong men from U.S. minority groups.
In certain ways the portrayal of the Sheikh and his followers, including the film’s terrorist antagonist, Samir, in The Siege resembles the roots and actions of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. For them "belief is power" as Samir Nazhde, the sleeper cell leader, tells Elise Kraft. Earlier in the film, Kraft, a CIA operative, stated how she tends to be suspicious of all true believers. Furthermore, the film has as a character a good Arab-American, who, like many of Hollywood's characters of color, is the hero’s sidekick. This is Beirut-born FBI agent Haddad (played by Tony Shalhoub), who has adapted to the West. While he does practice his religion, Islam, he does not fully follow it in his everyday life. In other words, he is not a true believer so he is considered trustworthy. In addition, he has a key role towards the end of the film when he goes to find and support his son, whom General Devereaux had rounded up with other Arab-looking detainees. Through Haddad’s eyes viewers can experience an innocent person’s pain when his family becomes a target of ethnic profiling.
Although the film brings up the film terrorists’ religion, their actions are portrayed only as a revenge mission. Such a script development follows in the line of action-adventure film genre traditions of not addressing film villains' motivation. The Siege 's villains are Muslims, blinded and motivated by hatred especially after U.S. betrayal, thus reminiscent of Osama bin Laden’s image in the West.
According to The 9/11 Commission Report (2004), Osama bin Laden has been targeting the U.S. since 1992. Publicly he has announced the U.S. as his main target several times. First, in 1992 al Qaeda issued a fatwa, encouraging a jihad to drive the Western powers, in particular the U.S., from Islamic lands. In 1996 bin Laden himself urged Muslims to drive the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia. In 1998 he and Ayman al Zawahiri, a fugitive Egyptian physician, declared a fatwa against the United States, in an Arabic newspaper published in London. The 9/11 Commission Report points out that neither was authorized to issue a fatwa, which only scholars of Islamic law can issue as interpretations of the law. The report continues to explain that in bin Laden and al Zawahiri’s view,
The report continues that only three months later bin Laden further argued in an ABC-TV interview,
Asked whether he approved of terrorism and of attacks on civilians, bin Laden replied:
In my view The Siege fails in its portrayal of Islamic fundamentalism. It touches on Islam superficially, portraying neither the religion nor its extreme forms in their context. The film does portray its terrorists drawing from their religion when preparing for their bombings; that is, they follow the steps of ritualistic self-purification by fasting, washing their bodies, and by using funeral shrouds. Shots of ritualistic hand washing in the film translate into a new bomb attack. Significantly, the only time the film portrays Samir Nazhde, supposedly a “true believer,” as following his religion is when he is preparing for a suicide bombing near the film's climax. Before that, the script had not had him express his religious views or practice his religion.
Rather, the narrative develops him as a character motivated by disillusionment at U.S betrayal, by a feeling of powerlessness, and by a need for vengeance. He is as deceiving as Elise Kraft, his handler, making love and consuming alcohol with her to throw the CIA off his track. When Elise realizes that he alone comprises the last terrorist cell in New York City, Samir tells her,
The ex-CIA ally has become a terrorist on a suicide mission, having learned from the CIA how to make bombs. Samir continues,
His act is pure vengeance; a retaliation that does not separate between civilians or military targets, just as bin Laden had announced. And just as al Qaeda’s and other extremists’ attacks have targeted also other Muslims, for Samir a demonstration which has “Arabs and Jews side by side, black and white, Christian and Muslim” is a perfect target for the whole world to hear his and his group’s anger. However, while bin Laden declares his fundamentalist religious views, the film script does not articulate such views. Furthermore, since the 1990s bin Laden has been declaring a clear political goal — forcing the U.S. out of the Middle East — but the film terrorist has only an individual goal — to revenge past injustices.
Although the terrorists of The Siege are not psychopaths or insane, as is often the case with Hollywood’s terrorist villains, the film’s portrayal does not differ much from previous films on Arab terrorism. Islam is depicted as a religion of terrorism in this film, as in the other four films I mentioned from the 1980s and 1990s which specifically deal with Middle-Eastern-originated terrorism. The portrayals draw from the State Department’s lists of the foreign terrorist organizations and the state sponsors of terrorism. But unlike the State Department, which emphasizes in its annual reports that different nations and ethnic groups should not be stereotyped due to the activities of small groups, Hollywood films do not much have variation in their portrayal of Arab villains. The main difference between the films of the 1980s and 1990s is that while the films from the 1980s, both international co-productions, only refer to Islam, in the films of the 1990s, each by a U.S. major, religion is an essential part of the terrorists’ motivation.
This shift to focusing on religion as motivation reflects the development of concepts about international terrorism in U.S. foreign policy. Analyzing terrorism as motivated by fundamentalist religious views emerged in the 1990s State Department reports, seeing fundamentalism as a primary threat to U.S. interests and citizens. Specifically towards the end of the decade there were reports detailing Osama bin Laden’s fundamentalist Islamic network al Qaeda as a primary threat to the U.S., although the reports missed the magnitude of that threat. Similarly to the State Department’s reports, Hollywood films of the 1990s portray extremist Islamic terrorists threatening the U.S. mainland, while in the films of the 1980s the threat was outside the U.S. borders. Thus film plots followed the development of real life international terrorism, which was introduced to the U.S. in news headlines for the first time as a real threat on U.S. soil in 1993 when the World Trade Center was targeted.
The Siege: terrorism is a crime not war
When Hubbard and Kraft, representing the NYPD, FBI and CIA, fail to capture the terrorists or prevent various bombings — of a bus, a Broadway theater, and the FBI counterterrorism headquarters — the U.S. army takes over. General William Devereaux (played by Bruce Willis) dictates the rules of martial law in New York City,
He orders the internment of all young Arab-American males in New York, particularly in Brooklyn. He is portrayed as a sadist as he tortures an Arab prisoner, who has no information to give, eventually shooting him dead. The military siege of New York City and General Devereaux’s disregard for the country’s laws leave it to Hubbard not only to save the U.S. from an international terrorist threat but in particular to save the American way of life, civil liberties and constitutional rights. Hubbard's primary antagonist is the threat of the U.S. military, personified in General Devereaux. Terrorism itself, and the phenomenon’s main proponent in the film, Samir Nazhde, are only secondary threats, and since Samir personifies the foreign threat, as the action-adventure and thriller genre traditions require, the protagonist kills him at the end of the film.
Although the terrorist villains of The Siege cause casualties, counted in hundreds, the film was behind the times in depicting real-life terrorism goals, that is, mass casualties. In the other two 1990s films that portray Middle-Eastern-originated terrorism, True Lies (1994) and Executive Decision (1996), foreign terrorists aim at mass casualties, imitating al Qaeda’s attack goals. For the Arab villains who in True Lies and Executive Decision come from unnamed countries, a male Muslim’s hatred of the U.S. is enough to motivate an attack on Americans. Clear backstory and human feelings, other than insanity and unexplained rage, are missing in these two films. They follow the traditional action-adventure film portrayal of villains.
In their plotlines, True Lies and Executive Decision highlight the effectiveness of a special federal agency and a special military unit in U.S. counterterrorism. They heroically bring the film terrorists to Hollywood justice, that is, to their deaths, not to justice in the United States as the State Department describes as one of the main goals of U.S. counterterrorism. In terms of historical developments, the films may have foreseen U.S. policy, since the United States, under President Clinton, declared in 1998 that the country has a legal right to kill those it defines as terrorist leaders (The Los Angeles Times, Richter, 1998, October 29, syndicated reprint in The Register Guard). The particular events that changed the policy then were the simultaneous 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which the U.S. traced back to Osama bin Laden and his network. However, from then on the administration’s attempts to assassinate Osama bin Laden were futile.
Though The Siege is quite critical of and analytical about the U.S. governmental and military role in counterterrorism when the country is under a terrorist threat on its own soil, the film also supports the prevailing social order. The film’s hero, a special FBI agent, not only beats the terrorist threat but also the threat of a military general who has run amok. FBI agent Hubbard’s work and words throughout the film support the view of terrorism being a crime, that is, a foreign terrorist threat on U.S. soil is a crime, not war. Therefore cases of terrorism fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI, which carries the primary responsibility for the investigation of terrorist acts on U.S. soil, performing that task under the Justice Department (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004; Pillar 2001/2004). Hero Hubbard distrusts the CIA’s involvement in the case, as well the Army’s. He later finds the Army spying on his taskforce. This type of distrust is later echoed by The 9/11 Commission Report’s description of the difficulty in the coordination of some fifty counterterrorist agencies in pre-9/11 United States. And although the U.S. military has a major role in The Siege, the film denounces the view that terrorism is war (vs. a crime), in which case counterterrorism would fall under military purview (Pillar, 2001/2004). In our own historical past, almost three years after the release of this film and in the post-9/11 world, President George W. Bush announced two days after the attack that the fight against international terrorism is
A few days later President Bush announced to the world,
In this way, the film plot differs significantly from developments in historical reality. In the film the armed forces are the ultimate answer to U.S. security but also a threat bigger than terrorism to civil society. Martial law limits civil liberties and makes innocent citizens terrorist suspects. The film reduces the armed forces to the power-hungry character of General Devereaux, whom the heroic FBI agent brings down at the end of the film, and therefore restores the balance of power in civil society.
The hero voices at one point of the film that the terrorists “are attacking our way of life.” However, in the film the attacks per se are not the major threat, but how citizens and the government respond to the attacks. Hate crimes and government actions that undermine civil liberties and the Constitution are shown to be more effective in destabilizing a society than that society’s external terrorist enemies. In order to restore the rules of civil society, the film’s answer is to state that terrorism is a crime, not war.
Beyond a white hero
The Siege reflects a changing U.S. society. An African-American hero has at his side a strong white female, although limited by her lies and delusions, and an Arab-American male. Hollywood’s answer to accusations of stereotyping certain groups as villains has been to add a sidekick from the same ethnic group as the villains (New York Times, Lyman, 2001, October 3; Parenti, 1992). In The Siege, the ethnic sidekick, agent Haddad survives General Devereaux' attacks on the Arab-American community, though he refuses to be an Arab poster boy, in the character’s own words a “sand nigger,” to the U.S. government when his family is affected by martial law. His son is taken away to a government internment camp with other young Arab males, poignantly predicting the ethnic profiling of terrorist threats in the post-9/11 United States. However, in spite of this, agent Haddad fills his role as a loyal sidekick, eventually returning to help Hubbard.
The strong female CIA agent faces the more traditional sidekick destiny, in particular since she is a deluded, flawed woman who not only sleeps with the enemy but also approves of and is part of counterterrorism methods that law-abiding and law-protecting hero Hubbard objects to, such as the torture of terrorist suspects. Elise Kraft dies at the hands of the terrorist antagonist, her former lover, who has used her as a shield. Hubbard and Haddad both shoot at Samir Nazhde, who dies without setting off the bomb on his body. Hubbard then rushes to help Kraft who dies before his eyes. If there had been a budding romance between her and Hubbard, it never had a chance. He fails to save her, which is just as well because her character was built as "tainted." She used all methods available to her; she was sleeping with the enemy and for that she had to pay the ultimate price.
The final confrontation takes place between agent Hubbard and his white U.S. antagonist, General Devereaux, who has taken law into his own hands. Unlike foreign antagonists, the bad General's destiny is to stay alive and only get arrested. Hubbard’s prodigal journey brings the return of his faith in U.S. society and law. A strong African-American male hero saves the country. That is a job a strong woman is still not capable of doing in Hollywood.