The Siege

In The Siege, nominated for the best film of 1998 raising consciousness of the need to protect both democracy and human rights, Edward Zwick (director of Courage Under Fire and Glory) poses a hypothetical: What if terrorism graduated from retail bombings to wholesale slaughter in New York City? What would government authorities do? Would the conventional FBI and local police departments be shuffled into the background by a declaration of martial law? After all, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, martial law was imposed on the South after the Civil War, Japanese Americans were incarcerated arbitrarily during World War II, and the Territory of Hawai`i was under military rule after December 7, 1941. In this film, the military does indeed impose martial law in Brooklyn, rounds up Arab-looking Americans, and sees torture of prisoners as a necessary step to root out terrorists. However, the protagonist forces the military to back down when he points out that martial law so abandons democratic values as to raise the ante on terrorism. The film also makes the point that if terrorism gain a foothold in the United States, this could be because terrorists have been trained by the U.S. military for foreign low-intensity warfare and then provided sanctuary in the United States. Although many film critics found the political statement to be too didactic, the film clearly is intended to tell filmviewers to be watchful of their liberties, which can be jettisoned too easily by powerful forces, and to note that terrorism is one of Washington’s exports. MH