2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
Civil society under siege:
Terrorism and government response to
terrorism in The Siege
by Helena Vanhala
“Make no mistake, we will hunt down the enemy, we will
find the enemy and we will kill the enemy."
—Actor Bruce Willis as General William Devereaux
The Siege (1998), 20th Century Fox
"Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and
punish those responsible for these cowardly attacks."
—President of the United States George W. Bush, September 11, 2001
When 20th Century Fox released The Siege in movie theaters in November 1998, protesters challenged the film’s plot device of Middle Eastern villains motivated by their Islamic faith.[open endnotes in new window] Even when the film was in production, Arab-American organizations criticized it for reinforcing U.S. stereotypes of Muslims and of Islam as a religion of terrorism. As a result of this criticism and a meeting with representatives of Arab-American organizations, the movie producers made some changes to the movie, but they did not change the script to replace the Muslim terrorists with domestic terrorists, as had been suggested (CNN, Bay, 1998, November 10). The film’s director, Edward Zwick, defended the film by stating that art should be provocative. 20th Century Fox further defended the film by releasing a statement declaring:
“This movie is not an anti-Muslim but an anti-prejudice film, and shows the tragic consequences of racism" (Mail & Guardian online, Worsdale, 1998).
The view of the film as an anti-prejudice film was further promoted in the words of the film’s hero, FBI agent Anthony Hubbard (played by Denzel Washington) talking about Arab-Americans:
“They love this country as much as we do.”
In this essay I analyze to what extent the portrayal of international terrorism, in particular fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, in The Siege compares to the political and social construction of modern international terrorism of the late 1990s as well as to the official U.S. interpretation of international terrorism, as published in the annual Patterns of Global Terrorism reports by the U.S. Department of State, and to the events that led to the September 11, 2001 attack against the U.S.
Not your average Hollywood film
The Siege opens with footage of a bombed Marine base in Saudi Arabia, similar to the 1983 Beirut attack on Marine barracks and the later 1996 fuel truck bombing outside a U.S. housing facility in Saudi Arabia. The plot is introduced immediately when the film moves to show how, in a covert operation, a special U.S. military task force captures an Iraqi cleric. In retaliation, his Middle Eastern followers start setting off bombs in Manhattan in their efforts to free their radical fundamentalist Muslim leader. Small terror cells, from one to three members, act independently of each other in New York City, each cell launching attacks after the success or failure of another cell of the main group. The terrorists bomb a bus, a Broadway theater and the headquarters of the FBI counterterrorism task force, killing hundreds of citizens. But they fail in the bombing of a school and in their final attack, the bombing of a citizens’ march protesting martial law and the detainment of Arabs.
The FBI, CIA, NYPD and U.S. Army all become involved. The plot portrays conflicts and distrust among these agencies' representatives, reflecting real life trouble among the country’s some fifty counterterrorist agencies. The film’s protagonist, Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (played by Denzel Washington) leads a joint FBI/NYPD antiterrorist force. He works in partial co-operation with a CIA operative, Elise Kraft/ Sharon Bridger (played by Annette Bening), who first introduces herself as Elise Kraft, hiding her real name as well as her own close connections to the suspected Arab terrorists. General Devereaux (played by Bruce Willis) further complicates Hubbard’s efforts when the General implements martial law. The narrative emphasizes the unsavory aspects of Devereaux' character, especially showing that he has no respect for the U.S. Constitution, that he is over-zealous in trying to resolve the matter his own way, and that he had been the brains behind the Muslim religious leader’s capture, which he has kept a secret from the President.
The Siege clearly takes a much darker approach to terrorism than any other film with terrorist themes that was in the annual top fifty domestic box-office in the two decades prior to the September 11, 2001 attack. It largely relies on creating a mood and fear of terrorism. Its focus is on the aftermath and social consequences of terrorist attacks rather than on reveling in portraying explosive fireworks, bloody massacres or detailed killings of villains. The film does portray one bus explosion as it happens and some minor counterterrorism attacks in New York City, but it also addresses the emotional impact of terrorist attacks by showing the after-attack destruction of the film’s terrorist attacks. This includes showing the attacks’ human toll and how that impacts society and some of the film’s main characters.
But The Siege still relies on the use of film villains familiar from other films on terrorism, that is, terrorists who are on a crusade against the United States. However, the script then revolves around the threats that come from government responses to terrorism, that is, responses that damage civil liberties and civil society. The plot's conclusion deals with what happens to citizens and society when the U.S. government sees the country as a target of terrorists attacks and takes action to protect the country, but does it using such extreme actions that U.S. citizens themselves become targets. In other words, the main threat in the film is not actually international terrorism per se. Rather, the plot explores how shifts in the country’s foreign policy can work against its own security, in this particular film bringing old U.S. allies to the U.S. to attack the country on its own soil.
In contradiction to a more traditional Hollywood portrayal of terrorist villains, the film’s foreign villains are not insane individuals but people who have a clear terror campaign as well as clear plans of how to carry it out. They present a threat to U.S. society that is uncomfortable to viewers in the sense that the threat the film describes is believable. In fact this true U.S. nightmare was realized in a similar but even more horrifying form on September 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 lives were lost. Real life imitated this 1998 film when in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, many civil liberties were lost as a result of government responses to a terrorist attack against the U.S. on its own soil.
Action-adventure films and terrorist villainy
The Siege was not the first, nor the last, Hollywood film to portray Arab terrorism as a threat to the United States. Arabs as well as other foreigners and ethnic minorities are familiar villains from action adventure films, which have been Hollywood’s main domestic and foreign products since the 1980s (Maltby, 1998). As Neale (2000: p. 52) points out, the term “action-adventure” primarily refers to the action films of the 1980s and 1990s, and they all have common ingredients:
“a propensity for spectacular physical action, a narrative structure involving fights, chases and explosions, and in addition to the deployment of state-of-the-art special effects, an emphasis in performance on athletic feats and stunts.”
Although the action-adventure classification as a film genre did not become part of the popular culture until the 1980s, the 1960s had already introduced spectacular non-stop action with the screen arrival of James Bond. The Bond films, which at very first were considered to be B-films in the U.S., set the standard for big-event action-adventure films which have repeated ingredients, including a simplified characterization of villains, usually foreign and to some degree insane. At the end of each film the white hero returns the balance of power, the last shot showing Bond’s departure from the screen with his latest female conquest.
Action-adventure films typically follow the classical Hollywood cinema format, having predictable characters and storylines, and a predictable final clash between the hero and the villain, that is, after a one-on-one confrontation the hero kills the villain. Audiences of James Bond, Die Hard, True Lies and other action-adventure films know the traditional formula thoroughly and expect to have, as Welsh (2000: p. 169) puts is,
"wild but predictable characters, laconic heroes sometime supported by prop partners, male or female, and designing, inhuman villains motivated by evil intent and a lust for power, always posing a threat to civilization or order."
In his (or seldom her) attempt to save the day, the hero, who is often muscular and over-sized, is faced with
"wicked villains, terrorists, mad bombers, anarchists, power-hungry despots, or crime lords" (Welsh, 2000, p. 170).
Parenti (1992) points out that according to the genre traditions, the hero is traditionally a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male who is saving the Western civilization from threats to its structures and way of life. The antagonist is usually a foreigner, and often his skin color is darker than the skin color of the white protagonist. Parenti (1992) lists Native Americans, black Africans, African-Americans, Russians, Arabs, alien monsters and evil cosmic powers as familiar Hollywood villains. As a character the villain is typically depicted as devil, subhuman, sadistic, anti-American, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist, and of an anti-Judeo-Christian religion (Welsh, 2000; Parenti, 1992; Schatz, 1994).
As Wasko (1994) points out, Hollywood films are foremost commodities and have been recognized as such for a long time. In today’s extremely competitive market economy, media conglomerates, whose subsidiaries film studios are, fight against losses by investing in products and formulas that have brought profits in the past, such as films of the action-adventure genre. Film genres regularly follow the traditional classical Hollywood cinema narrative structure but also respond to the prevailing political environment, as well as to changes in public opinion and audience interests. This is also the case with the action-adventure film genre.
When the Cold War started to crumble, patriarchal and hyper-masculinized one-man killing machines played by Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris (Belton, 1994; Jeffords, 1994) gave way to a new type of a hero of a new world order. The new hero’s physique and weapons did not match that of the previous heroes. Furthermore, he was accompanied with an important adult relationship and even children, and he entertained audiences with one-liners, imitating the lighter touch of James Bond films. The first to enter the screen with box-office success and to set the format for future action-adventure heroes was Die Hard (1988) by 20th Century Fox, Gordon Company and Silver Pictures, which introduced Bruce Willis as New York City police lieutenant John McClane. Also the villain received a new wrapping: Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) was a smart, well educated European who knew exactly what he was doing when he tried to rob a Japanese company in the United States, effectively and creatively concealing the robbery as an international terrorist attack. The new hero was vulnerable because of his family. Furthermore, he bled as any of us do, but was still capable of taking his opponents out of the game one by one. This new type of hero was introduced on the big screen in a variety of roles from a government agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies in 1994, to a U.S. President, played by Harrison Ford in Air Force One in 1997. While the new hero relied as much, if not more, on his intellectual powers than on his muscle power, unfortunately the intellectual villain of Die Hard rather stayed as an exception within the Die Hard-series than a prototype for future action-adventure film villains.
While foreign villains have been attacking the U.S. on the big screen for decades, foreign terrorists do not usually appear in the most commercially successful action-adventure or thriller films. From the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981), which introduced the phenomenon of international terrorism to the big U.S. public in news headlines, to 9/11, foreign terrorism was a central theme in the top fifty films of the annual domestic box-office less than twenty times. Arab terrorism was the most popular with five films, its greatest competition coming from four films that drew their theme from the conflict in Northern Ireland. Commercial films introduced Arab terrorist villains in two films in the 1980s: Iron Eagle (1986; the year’s #39 in the domestic box-office) and Delta Force (1986: #49), both international co-productions; and three films, each by a Hollywood major, in the 1990s: True Lies (1994: #3), Executive Decision (1996: #24) and The Siege (1998: #48).
While The Siege did poorly in the domestic box-office when it was released in 1998, audiences found it at rental stores in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. The VHS version of The Siege finished in the top 200 the week following the attack and was still in the top 250 a week later. The movie's DVD version also attracted renters (Video Software Dealers Association, 2001, September press release, no longer available online). Though the film’s events are reminiscent of the events of 9/11, the film still offers a typical action-adventure film ending which is more utopian than what occurred in the post-9/11 social reality. As genre traditions require, the film’s conclusion reproduces and maintains the prevailing order that has been attacked. The film’s ending even restores racial justice, rejecting the film’s overzealous General’s attack on civil liberties, including the civil liberties of ethnic minorities. In addition, the film offers a true Hollywood ending: the hero kills the foreign terrorist villain.
Modern international terrorism and the United States
The Siege feels contemporary because it has a plot that relies on a familiar version of that both the U.S. foreign policy agenda and news headlines regularly articulate. The federal government has been collecting and publishing statistical data on international terrorism since 1968, generally considered the starting year of modern international terrorism due to the July 23, 1968, hijacking of an Israeli airliner by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). According to Bruce Hoffman (1998) in Inside Terrorism, this event marked the first notable time when terrorists crossed international borders to commit an attack for political purposes while targeting innocent civilians in foreign countries, and they aimed to gain international media coverage while spreading fear and alarm in the world.
During the first decade of modern international terrorism, spectacular media-attention-grabbing terrorist events with destructive power focused on the Middle East and Western Europe. It was not until 1979 when Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that international terrorism became a visible topic on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, in the U.S. news media and in public consciousness (Evans, 1979; Stohl, 1988), and soon after, also on the big screen. Since the 1980s the U.S. Department of State has been in charge of data collection on international terrorism, as well as of the publication of the data as annual Patterns of Global Terrorism documents, as U.S. legislation requires (Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1995, 1996). In 2004 the reports were replaced by Country Reports on Terrorism, which include data collected by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The department maintains the country’s only continuous statistical database on international terrorism. I use this data here to indicate the official U.S. interpretation of terrorism.
News media also play a central role in creating public understanding of terrorism. When modern international terrorism emerged in the late 1960s, the news media and reporters were crucial sources of information, indeed the only sources of information on the topic, other than governmental. Academics held back from doing research on the subject for fear that their work would be interpreted as supporting the perpetrators of terrorist acts (Wieviorka, 1995). In fact, we have seen such name-calling, with terms such as “un-American and “unpatriotic,” in post-9/11 United States of those who question some of the methods of national policy on fighting global terrorism, especially U.S. policies in Iraq, which have only more recently become unpopular with the U.S. public. These methods are echoed in the film. When agent Hubbard in The Siege questions General Devereaux’s extreme counterterrorism methods and the implementation of martial law which erode civil liberties and terrorize citizens, the General angrily responds
“Are you questioning my patriotism?”
Furthermore, in real life an erosion of civil rights, including spying on the country’s own citizens and residents and even using torture as a method of questioning of terror suspects, has become part of U.S. post-9/11 reality without much resistance from the public.
True to modern terrorism and the way it is communicated in our time, The Siege's narrative depicts the news media as the public's main source of information about terrorism. Only at the end of the film do the citizens of New York City become part of the story as actors when they react against the government action of detaining Arab-Americans and implementing martial law. With different ethnic and religious groups united, they protest against terrorism and extreme government actions. The film further uses the news media for exposition, and it even mentions news coverage as a specific goal of modern terrorism, as has been the case of modern international terrorism since its emergence in the late 1960s. When news helicopters arrive at a public bus that Arab terrorists on a suicide mission have taken over, the film’s female CIA operative cries out,
"They are not here to negotiate. They were waiting for the cameras. They want everyone watching."
Throughout the film, the film’s terrorists seek media attention.
Real terrorist threats versus reel terrorist threats
The Siege's screenwriters did their homework well. The film comes quite close to the State Department’s definitions of international terrorism. The script makes terrorism a complicated phenomenon of international relations that has historical similarities to world politics. The film's terrorism fits the State Department’s definitions of international terrorism, as described in Patterns of Global Terrorism publications. Foreign nationals are threatening the security of the U.S. and U.S. citizens, and the terrorists are crossing international borders to perform politically motivated attacks, though the film only vaguely addresses the group’s political motivations beyond portraying their attacks as a revenge mission. Several facts from the State Department documents on international terrorism appear in the film itself. These include, for example, a $2 million reward for leads (in 1999 moved up to $5 million), the cell structure of modern terrorist organizations, as well as a list of the possible countries behind the film’s attacks, that is, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Syria, each of them familiar from the State Department’s list of the state sponsors of terrorism.
The film’s attacks are reminiscent of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which was an act of domestic terrorism. Just as in 1995, a van bomb in the film destroys a federal building, in this case it destroys the headquarters of the FBI Counterterrorism Task Force, killing some six hundred people. The film’s terrorists bring terror into New York City, just as Islamic fundamentalists had tried to do in the early 1990s. At that time, six U.S. citizens were killed when fundamentalist Islamic terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. The goal of the bomb’s planter, Ramzi Ahmad Yousef, had been to kill at least a quarter million people. According to the State Department, the World Trade Center suspects had links to those who had been arrested the previous year and whose targets had included, for example, the United Nations building, and the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. Their motivation for fighting an urban “holy war” drew from the extremists’ view that the U.S. is an enemy of Islam (Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1994, 1995; Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1995, 1996; The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004).
The Siege provides its foreign terrorists with a backstory. That backstory draws on the first Persian Gulf War, combined with the U.S. 1980s experience with Afghan mujahideen fighters. We find out in exposition that the terrorist group’s leader, Sheik Ahmed bin Talal (played by Ahmed Ben Larby), is a radical fundamentalist Muslim cleric whom the U.S. supported and financed during a two-year U.S. operation to destabilize Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with the help of the cleric and his followers. That group in Iraq was trained by the CIA. However, the U.S. left the group behind after the end of the Persian Gulf War after which many of the group’s members were slaughtered. These events reflect real-life CIA and Saudi aid to Afghan fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and subsequent U.S. indifference to the area after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the Cold War (Jentleson, 2004; The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004). The film also portrays some events that were historically realized later in 2001; for example, in the film the suicide bomber who sets off a bomb in the bus came here from Germany on a student visa, which was later to be true of some of the 9/11 hijackers.
Other true historical events from the 1990s form part of the film's backstory. As part of the first Persian Gulf War, the Bush administration brought U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam, where the troops stayed after the end of the war. This did not sit well with Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, which had grown out of the veterans of the Saudi- and CIA-backed mujahideen fighters from Afghanistan, although according to The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) while the Saudi and U.S. aid to Afghan fighters was worth billions of dollars, Osama bin Laden and his group received little or no U.S. funding. Osama bin Laden’s response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had been an offer to the Saudi monarchy to call for a jihad and fight Iraq and defend Saudi Arabia with his mujahideen fighters. Saudi Arabia refused the offer, and instead joined the U.S.-led international coalition (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004). Bin Laden vocalized his opposition to allowing U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. According to Ahmad (1998/2004), bin Laden was a U.S. ally until 1990 when U.S. military forces as the first foreign military forces entered Saudi Arabia and never left. For bin Laden and his group, the United States became the target of a new jihad. Ahmad (1998/2004) argues that it is important to note that bin Laden’s code of ethics is determined by his background. Discussing bin Laden, Ahmad points out,
"…he comes from a tribal people. Being a millionaire doesn’t matter. His code of ethics is tribal. The tribal code of ethics consists of two words: loyalty and revenge. You are my friend. You keep your word. I am loyal to you. You break your word, I go on my path of revenge. For him, America has broken its word. The loyal friend has betrayed him. Now they’re going to go for you" (Ahmad, 1998/2004: p. 51).
Furthermore, for the mujahideen group, it was not new to take on a super power. In their view they had succeeded in driving the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Now it was time to turn on another powerful enemy.
Paralleling historical events, the film’s plot has the Sheik and his followers turn against their old ally after the U.S. leaves them behind forgotten and unprotected when U.S policy interests change. They go on their path of revenge against their ex-ally who, in their view, has betrayed them. This becomes central to the group's motivation after the abduction of their cleric, whom the film’s General Devereaux considered a threat to the U.S. At first even the FBI/NYPD counterterrorism taskforce does not know that the U.S. has the cleric, and is baffled by a faxed demand that only spells, “Release him.”
The terrorist villain most developed as a character in The Siege, Samir Nazhde (played by Sami Bouajila), teaches Arab Studies at Brooklyn College. His backstory, as given in exposition in the film, draws from real-life events, that is, from the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising in the occupied areas in Israel (Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1992, 1993), during which he spent two years in jail. He became a U.S. ally, being part of a CIA covert operation in Iraq, run by Elise Kraft (played by Annette Bening). In her words,
“He risked his life for us.”
Kraft is Samir Nazhde’s handler but also compromised as a character. She has a sexual relationship with him in order to support him in his work and thus to receive information. She is indeed a tainted woman who sleeps around professionally. She tells to agent Hubbard that “I’m not fucking with you,” when she is trying to convince him that she is not hiding any information but giving the facts as she has them. Agent Hubbard’s terse response to her is,
“How could you possibly remember who you are fucking?”
The script gives Samir Nazhde a certain amount of sympathetic dialogue. He tells how his brother became a suicide bomber because the youth could no longer tolerate living in a refugee camp. The brother was promised that he'd live in paradise with seventy virgins and that his parents would be taken care of after his death. Bitter, Samir relates,
“Living in a camp, my brother needs to believe it very much.”
And so the brother blew up a movie theater in Tel Aviv. I indicate these lines because it is exceptional for a Hollywood action-adventure film, especially for one that draws on Middle Eastern terrorism, to provide the film’s antagonist with a backstory or any human feelings other than insanity or vengeance. Furthermore, the film also provides the villain’s brother, a suicide bomber who is not even portrayed in the film, with a backstory, describing the despair of living in inhuman conditions, even if just briefly.
However, even with the inclusion of such moments, the film's script largely draws the terrorists' motivation as vengeance, with a touch of religious fundamentalism, while not explaining any of their political goals. While fundamentalist Islam serves as a motivation for the attacks, the film does a poor job of portraying a religiously motivated terrorist who would actually practice his religion. This kind of script development, in fact, parallels the way news media coverage of international terrorism is structured. In the United States, the news mentions religion when terrorists come from the Middle East and when that religion is Islam but otherwise rarely touches the topic, as should be the case, for example, in portrayals of Northern Ireland where religion is an important part of the complex construction of the area’s terrorism. Furthermore, the way the script fails to explain the group’s political or social objectives also parallels news media portrayals of terrorism, which focus on the act, not on the motivation nor the political nor social context of terrorism (Falkenrath, 2001; Picard, 1993; Herman & O’Sullivan, 1989). While The Siege relies on the action-adventure film genre traditions when not exploring or presenting the villain’s motivations, the news media have no excuse for their poor coverage of the phenomenon of terrorism.
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,
“America had declared war against God and his messenger, they called for the murder of any American, anywhere on earth, as the 'individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it'” (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004: p. 47).
The report continues that only three months later bin Laden further argued in an ABC-TV interview,
“It was more important for Muslims to kill Americans than to kill other infidels. It is far better for anyone to kill a single American soldier than to squander his efforts on other activities.”
Asked whether he approved of terrorism and of attacks on civilians, bin Laden replied:
"We believe that the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists are the Americans. Nothing could stop you except perhaps retaliation in kind. We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004: p. 47)."
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,
“You believe money is power. Belief is power.”
The ex-CIA ally has become a terrorist on a suicide mission, having learned from the CIA how to make bombs. Samir continues,
“Now you are to face the consequences of telling the world how to live.”
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,
“I am the law. Right here, right now, I am the law.”
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
"the first war of the 21st century. It will be the focus of my administration" (CNN, 2001, September 13).
A few days later President Bush announced to the world,
“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” (Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001, 2002: p. 63).
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.
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).
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.
1. The work draws from my 2005 doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon, School of Journalism and Communications, Hollywood Portrayal of Modern International Terrorism in Blockbuster Action-Adventure Films: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to September 11, 2001.
2. The top fifty domestic box-office from 1980 until September 11, 2001, had sixteen films that have international terrorism as the film’s main theme (annual domestic box-office, top 250 (1980-2001), Variety.com):
3. Annual domestic box-office data, top 250. Variety.com. See the list of films in endnote 2.
4. Patriot Games (1992), Blown Away (1994), The Jackal (1997) and Ronin (1998).
5. The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) citing: text of World Islamic Front’s Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (1998, February 23). In Al Quds al Arabi. (Foreign Broadcast Information Service transl.), signed by Usama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and three others.
6. The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) citing: Hunting Bin Ladin (1998, May). PBS Frontline broadcast, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/interview.html.
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