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New Film Strikes A Political Nerve

A new Hollywood film, “The Siege,” is being denounced by Arab-American groups as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim. This “R”-rated film, which includes graphic violence and dirty language, is a fictional account of an Arab terrorist assault on New York City. We don’t normally do movie reviews on “Media Monitor,” but the political controversy caused by this film has prompted us to take a closer look. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which is calling for national pickets and protests, claims the film is “dangerous” because it is “based entirely on stereotypes, demonization and unfounded fear of Arab Americans and Muslims.” It’s true that the bad guys are Arab terrorists. But is this unfair? Arab terrorists were behind the World Trade Center bombing in New York several years ago. The rest of their criticism also strikes us as completely invalid. Arab-Americans are drawing attention to a movie that does not, in fact, demonize them.

The actual plot deals not only with an Arab terrorist assault but the government reaction. In the film, the federal government declares martial law, sends U.S. troops to patrol the streets, and throws Arab Americans into internment camps. A U.S. military general is portrayed as the bad guy and, in the end, he is arrested for subverting the U.S. Constitution. If anyone has a gripe about negative stereotypes, it is the U.S. military. The general in the film provokes the terrorist assault on New York City by kidnaping an Arab terrorist leader. With the assistance of a CIA operative, he tortures a Muslim militant for information about the terrorists. The good guys in the film are federal FBI agents who arrest the general.

Rather than demonizing Arab-Americans, one of the key FBI agents is an Arab-American, a U.S. citizen for 20 years, whose son is rounded-up and placed in one of those internment camps. He is a sympathetic character who is in turmoil as he sees his family’s allegiance to the United States being questioned. Sprinkled throughout the film are spokespersons for patriotic Arab-American groups who call for the apprehension of the terrorists.

The Arab-American groups objecting to the film didn’t want Arabs depicted as terrorists under any circumstances. One of their leaders had suggested that the plot should have been modified to reflect the real-life tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing, “after which,” he said, “Arabs were unjustly blamed for this act of terror as the media rushed to judgment.” In fact, the Oklahoma City bombing is still a subject of much controversy. It was blamed on two former U.S. military personnel, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who had been on the fringes of the militia movement. But McVeigh’s lawyer, Stephen Jones, has now written a book titled “Others Unknown” suggesting an international Islamic connection. The “John Doe Number Two” who was being sought after the event has never been apprehended.

The film “The Siege” is objectionable because of its anti-military stereotypes, not because it is offensive to Arabs. But Arab-American groups may have a point in saying that Hollywood should take a look at the Oklahoma City bombing case. Perhaps a documentary based on Jones’ book would be in order.