JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

General Devereaux, the film’s domestic villain, took matters in his own hands in counterterrorism and therefore became the film’s primary threat to the American way of life, civil liberties, and Constitutional rights. Unlike the foreign villain, he is not killed, only arrested at the end of the film.

In 1998 the U.S. caught up with the action-adventure film justice for the villain. In the aftermath of attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. declared it had a legal right to kill those it defines as terrorist leaders. In True Lies the hero shoots the villain into the sky as a missile towards his death.

Hollywood films have been accused of having taught foreign terrorists how to attack the U.S. Several films have portrayed attacks against high-rise buildings, including Die Hard in 1988.

While action-adventure film heroes have effectively saved the U.S. during nonstop-action two-hour film rides ...

... films portraying international terrorism have mispresented terrorists as insane one-dimensional foreign villains whom U.S. heroes can easily outsmart and take out of the game. This cinematic representation along with sensational news portrayal of international terrorism left pre-9/11audiences unprepared for the reality of terrorism.

While The Siege fails to accurately delineate the terrorists' motivation, it succeeds in portraying terrorism as a complicated phenomenon within international relations, one that has strong historical, political and social roots. This is rare for a Hollywood film.

The film also succeeds in showing the effects of terrorism and counterterrorism. It portrays the fear and chaos created by terrorist attacks and ...

... the fear and chaos created by extreme government responses to terrorism. In the film the government's considering terrorism as an act of war brings soldiers patrolling in the middle of civil society. The Siege shows as the bigger threat to civil society drastic government action, which at worst undermines civil liberties and the U.S. Constitution more than it combats terrorism.

 

 

Media portrayals of terrorism
and September 11, 2001

I believe that one reason why September 11, 2001, was such a shock in the United States was that the U.S. news media and film industry have misrepresented terrorism as something irrational and terrorists as ineffective insane individuals who are not capable of rational planning, and whom, at least in films, official representatives of the State kill effectively with only minor scratches to the hero. Also, before 9/11 the news media and politicians largely ignored several warnings of possible attacks. For example, in the spring of 2001 three former lawmakers, former Senators Gary Hart (Colorado) and Warren Rudman (New Hampshire) and former Representative Lee Hamilton (Indiana), from the Commission on National Security in the 21st Century reported to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee terrorism hearing that

“a possible strike inside the United States is the nation’s top security concern.”

They warned about attacks in which U.S. citizens would die on U.S. soil in big numbers. Hart further warned of the use of weapons of mass destruction in high-rise buildings. The three commission members recommended that one Cabinet-level agency should be formed in order to be able to respond in case such a major attack ever took place (Associated Press, NYTimes.com/Articles, 2001, April 3; Columbia Journalism Review, Evans, 2001 November/December). At that time there was not enough political will in the U.S. for the foundation of such an agency. Furthermore, the U.S. public knew little of the proposal because the report received little news media coverage (Columbia Journalism Review, Evans, 2001, November/ December).

It is open to question whether a new Cabinet-level agency would have been able to prevent the al Qaeda attack on the U.S. in 2001. The network had been targeting the U.S. already for several years by that time. For example, in 1998, in the release year of The Siege, attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and U.S. counterattacks in Sudan and Afghanistan highlighted the threat of terrorism, in particular the threat of bin Laden against U.S. interests. The threat was somewhat followed up by intelligence briefings; for example, in December 1998 the Presidential Daily Brief included a CIA warning, “Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks” (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004: p. 128). Less than three years later that became reality.

I think audiences were unprepared for the reality of terrorism, for attacks that took several years to plan and carry out, and whose images imitated Hollywood’s most destructive portrayals of terrorism, though in Hollywood productions rather against foreigners than on U.S. soil. The Siege, which had not performed well in the domestic box-office, was the only big production film on international terrorism that had portrayed hundreds of Americans dying in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. While Hollywood’s immediate reaction to the 2001 attack was to shelve films with terrorist themes, audiences rushed to rent films which had terrorist content and which showed the film terrorists dying at the end of each film. In the immediate post-9/11 weeks, world prophecies and terrorism were popular movie themes among audiences. Video Software Dealers Association's VidTrac, which reports the number of actual rental transactions, found several 1990s terrorist movies re-entering the top 1,000 list. But not everyone trusted viewers to want to watch terrorist movies. The video-rental chain Blockbuster announced in the end of September that it would label new terrorist film video releases with a placard that would warn viewers about each film's terrorist content (Grossberg, 2001, September 27).

Hollywood itself postponed the release and production of films with terrorist themes. Some filmmakers, including director Robert Altman, even blamed Hollywood for having created an atmosphere which had encouraged terrorists and taught them how to attack the U.S. (Guardian Unlimited, 2001, October 18, citing Hollywood Reporter). Audiences or the film industry were not the only ones finding similarities between real and fictional terrorism. Soon after the attack the U.S. Army invited Hollywood filmmakers and screenwriters to meet with Army intelligence representatives to discuss what possible targets terrorists might have in the U.S. (Variety.com, Brodesser, 2001, October 7). The meetings may not have been farfetched when looking at the original attack plan of September 11, 2001.

Similar to media organizations, terrorists have understood the value of live pictures, spectacular media images, immediate information transmission, and big audiences, as an attack in New York City showed. The city was within an easy reach of the world media, including the world’s leading media right there. According to The 9/11 Commission Report (2004), the main planner of the 9/11 attack was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a college-educated Afghan war veteran and the 1993 World Trade Center plotter, Ramzi Ahmad Yousef’s uncle. Mohammed’s original plan was even larger than what eventually took place on September 11, 2001, and far greater than what any Hollywood film had ever depicted. According to the report, his plan had been to hijack ten airliners of which nine would have crashed into specific targets, including the 9/11 targets as well as “the CIA and the FBI headquarters, nuclear power plants, and the tallest buildings in California and the state of Washington” (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004: p. 154). Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s final act in the original plan was

“to land the tenth plane at a U.S. airport and, after killing all adult male passengers on board, and alerting the media, deliver a speech excoriating U.S. support for Israel, the Philippines, and repressive governments in the Arab world” (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004: p. 154).

Conclusion

The Siege was not a financial blockbuster in movie theaters but in my view its portrayal of citizen and government responses to terrorism comes closer to reality than other pre-9/11 films. But even though the film draws from the historical and political U.S. experiences with terrorism, which is exceptional for an action-adventure film, its portrayal of Arab terrorism, in particular fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, does not rise above past stereotypical news media and film images. Largely ignoring what fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is as well as its long-term goals, the film offers viewers misrepresentations, that is, a propagandistic view of Arabs and a depiction of Islam as a religion of terrorism. In its imagery of the detention camp of Arabs in New York City and the mass public protest against it and martial law, the film does generate sympathy at the end for the Arab people, and against the U.S. military in the person of General Devereaux whose handiwork the extreme measures had been. Interestingly, it had been within that demonstration that Samir had intended to set off his bomb, implying how terrorists can take advantage of progressive forces and views in the U.S. His plan had not only been to exploit the suffering of his own ethnic group but also to target those who were voicing their objection to that suffering. Their opposition to terrorist and also to extreme government actions that were undermining civil rights were setting a threat to Samir’s group’s terrorist goal of creating fear and chaos in society, in this case fear and chaos caused both by terrorists and by the country’s own government in the name of security. The film only briefly touches on this important aspect of terrorism.

In spite of that impressive impact of the mise en scene at the end, I still feel that unfortunately the film fails in its attempt to be an anti-prejudice film, one that shows “the tragic consequences of racism,” as 20th Century Fox put it. Rather, I see the film as reinforcing prejudice for the major ways in which it develops its plot. It relies on religion, in this case Islam, as a motivation but offers only a superficial portrayal of Islam, especially in not making a clear separation between extremist and moderate views. It addition, it portrays two major Arab characters, both of whom are Muslims but neither of whom fully practices his religion. The cultural Other remains incomprehensible in this film.

Despite its shortcomings, I think The Siege does succeed in developing concepts that other films and the mainstream news media had not done in pre-9/11 United States. Terrorism and counterterrorism are not simple phenomena that exist in any particular moment in history, but they develop and change over time as social, historical and political conditions change. Mujahideen fighters, whom President Reagan once saw as freedom fighters and whom he compared to the United States' founding fathers, developed into a U.S. enemy several years later. Similar to the U.S. experience with mujahideen fighters, the film’s terrorists react to U.S. actions and vice versa, the two parties having a long history with each other. Even the main terrorist, Samir Nazhde, has a more complicated storyline and personal motivation in the film than the more traditional insane killer, who is so familiar from Hollywood films on terrorism.

While in pre-9/11 United States The Siege did not attract large audiences, home audiences found the film on video after real life terrorism surpassed the destructive power of film portrayals of terrorism. Despite the film's offering a traditional Hollywood ending with the Third World terrorist, Samir, killed and the white U.S. threat to civil liberties, General Devereaux, arrested, I think the film's dark tone and portrayal of threatening government responses to terrorism better describe terrorism and its threats to civil society than familiar questions from the news media such as, “Why do they hate us?” Instead of asking that question, maybe the question should be, “What is the whole story?” We are not "supporting" terrorists if the news media, researchers, and the public ask tough questions in order to understand how current and future terrorist threats have developed and are developing. Rather, that approach means understanding better the complexity of terrorism and better protecting the country and its citizens. The plan for the September 11, 2001, attack was in the works for several years. Its political background and motivations grew out of historical and political developments and changes that took several decades, just as did the events that resulted in terrorist attacks and threats in The Siege.

Now the U.S. is fighting a war on terror in Iraq, according to the White House. By now more U.S. citizens have died in that war than on September 11, 2001, not to forget the tens of thousands of, if not a hundred thousand, Iraqi casualties. The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) found no connection between the 9/11 attack and Iraq. The war on the true origins of the 9/11 terror, the war in Afghanistan, has largely disappeared from news headlines and political speeches while hardliners have been resurfacing in the area. On the home front, the war in Iraq and on terrorism has been used in political speeches, at times even to claim that electing one’s political opponent to office would be voting for terrorists.

One of the main objectives of terrorism is to create fear and chaos in society. In my view civil society should not aid and support terrorists in that goal, as has happened in the post-9/11 era when, for example, politicians have used scare tactics and propaganda to influence citizens’ voting decisions, and when the government, without warrants, has spied on U.S. citizens and residents on their phone calls, e-mail messages, library transactions and Internet habits. Furthermore, indefinitely detaining terror suspects in the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, hiding unreported and therefore officially nonexistent terror suspects, so-called “ghost detainees,” at secret locations, and using torture as a method of questioning are questionable methods of any legal society. In agent Hubbard’s words in The Siege the terrorists “have won” if our society fights terror with terror and takes steps that erode the rules of civil society.

At the same time, the film’s main terrorist, Samir Nazhde, reminds us of the reality of terrorism,

“There will never be a last cell.”

His goal was to create fear and chaos in society through his own and his group’s actions as well as through his target’s countermeasures. Those citizens who protect civil liberties, reject ethnic profiling, and question extreme government responses to terrorism, in addition to standing up against terrorism, are a threat to his or any terrorist‘s cause because these citizens would uphold and maintain the rules of civil society even when that society is a direct target of terrorism. These citizens' actions reject the goal of terrorism: fear and chaos. That is, their goal is freedom from fear and chaos from any source. In my view it is not unpatriotic to ask tough questions under tough times when protecting the rules of civil society and when trying to keep society free of fear and chaos from terrorists and extreme government responses to terrorism.

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