Real-life terrorism is scarier than Hollywood fiction

The 1998 movie “The Siege” depicts three terrorist bombings in New York. What is amazing is how many of the events the movie depicts have been played out within the last two years and how quickly events can spiral out of control.

Soon after terrorists in the movie blow up a bus, the director of the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit, Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), suggests the FBI should create what sounds like an early draft of the USA Patriot Act. We discover that interdepartmental miscues and miscommunications created a ripe environment for the bus bombing. We learn that Ali Wiziri, “one of the bombers of bus 87,” arrived on a “student visa” via Frankfurt, Germany. We also learn government agencies knew about Wiziri but failed to act soon enough.

Immediately after the first bombing, the FBI and other governmental agencies began to trace the terrorists’ money. Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are continuously mentioned so movie watchers know exactly who we are talking about, even if they do not know where any of those countries are on a map.

What comes through clearly in the film is the never-ending theme that once you eliminate a terror network, you will not have eliminated terrorism. Never was that expressed more clearly in the movie than during the second bombing in which a Broadway theater is reduced to

rubble just as the FBI prematurely celebrates its efforts to root out a terrorist cell. In the wake of that incident, National Public Radio’s real-life Daniel Schorr reports that “hate crimes are skyrocketing,” as the camera pans across a New York skyline that still includes the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The Arab Anti-Defamation League extends their immediate support to the anti-terrorism effort.

Gen. Devereaux, however, still vehemently opposes the deployment of the military in U.S. cities. He argues, “You don’t want the Army in an American city.” Soon after Devereaux’s declaration, a truck bomb destroys One Federal Plaza, the home in this film of the FBI. (One Federal Plaza is directly across the street from what was the World Trade Center.) As we learn that 600 people died as a result of this event, we see lights shinning on the hole left by the bomb. We witness firefighters sifting through the ruins. The FBI is quickly blamed for their failure to act.

It’s a “new kind of war” on U.S. soil, Devereaux says. Soon after the FBI bombing, an Arab grocer is killed. Martial law is declared. In Brooklyn, the indiscriminate search for terrorists begins. Countless Arabic-speaking people are detained behind high fences that look like those at Guantanamo Bay. Upset with the way in which business is being conducted, Hubbard confronts Devereaux. Devereaux inquires, “Are you questioning my patriotism?” Hubbard is forced to reply, “I’m not questioning your patriotism. I’m questioning your judgment.”

I understand it is not credible to craft an argument based on a movie. But look at some of the countless parallels between Hollywood and reality: that we financed terrorists during the 1980s (we funded the Taliban as late as May 2001, when we sent them $43 million) and provided dictators such as Saddam Hussein with chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction; that it is not possible to stop terrorism; that New York would be the site of terrorist bombings; that Arab grocers would be among some of the first to feel the backlash; that the FBI and CIA, among other governmental agencies, failed to talk and work with each other; that the terrorists were known to the FBI; that the “patriotism” of citizens who do not agree with our government would be challenged; that Muslims would be herded into pens and prisons; and that the U.S. government would threaten the very fabric of our nation’s existence – the Constitution.

Perhaps we should look at comments in the December issue of Cigar Aficionado by the real life Gen. Tommy Franks, the man responsible for the leading the U.S. operation to “liberate” Iraq. Franks said, “The potential of a weapon of mass destruction and a terrorist, massive, casualty-producing event somewhere in the Western world . . . causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass, casualty-producing event. Which in fact, then begins to unravel the fabric of our Constitution.”

According to John Edwards, writing for the right-leaning, Franks “is the first high-ranking official to openly speculate that the Constitution could be scrapped in favor of a military form of government.”

The difference between fictional Hollywood and real-life Franks, however, is that Hollywood recognizes the dangers of martial law and men like Devereaux. Nonetheless, while Franks, as of August, is no longer the commander of the U.S. military’s Central Command, his comments might be viewed as representative of the type of leadership still in power in our government. That power is more frightening than any movie Hollywood can create.

Joel T. Helfrich is a columnist. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]