No. 357  |  Sept 11, 2011   Start   Study   The Financial Crisis   9/11: THE SIEGE   Hurricane Katrina   A Woman's Place   Back

The Siege

America Post-9/11

Stranger Than Fiction

Three years before 9/11 the film The Siege came out, a great movie featuring Denzel Washington sparring with the delightful and mesmerizing Annette Bening in an FBI vs. CIA catfight over a hunt for (of course) Islamic terrorists. This is old hat, now, but the hat was fairly fresh at the time, coming on the heels of President Clinton’s failed attempt to nail bin Laden. Bruce Willis’s Major General William Devereaux was their foil, Willis’s stunt casting being one of two major flaws in this otherwise tense thriller. The Willis role called for somebody who could act. Willis either can’t act or is certainly not in the weight class of Washington and Bening who simply vaporize the screen whenever they’re on. It’s also possible the sheer inertia of Willis’ oversized cartoon heroics from previous films simply distracted from what might have been a credible performance. The conceit is the U.S. Army (I suppose the National Guard were busy) invades Brooklyn after NYC suffers a series of devastating terrorist attacks. The story becomes about the conflict between our need for national security versus our rights as individuals, an incredibly prescient theme considering this film was written and shot many years before 9/11. There are no platoons of soldiers in the streets (yet), but beyond that, the movie-FBI’s frustrating efforts to find the terrorists engender rounds of discussions in the film on the restrictive nature of search warrants, the right of habeas corpus and illegal surveillance. The brilliant Tony Shaloub (Monk) co-stars as Washington’s (conveniently Lebanese) partner, who complains bitterly throughout that the FBI can use video footage but not sound without a search warrant.

The other thing that ruined the film was the rudimentary state of CGI effects in those days. Director Edward Zwick didn’t have nearly enough troops. I mean, he had a bunch, but I know people who live in Brooklyn. You need way more guys than they could afford for the film. There needed to be ten, fifteen thousand guys. Looked like they rounded up maybe twelve hundred, and only for the wide shots. The rest of the film, you saw, like, three guys.

I remember shaking my head at the film at the time thinking, this film, likely intended to draw attention to the security-vs.-rights issue, could actually inspire terrorists to hit us here, if they weren’t planning that already. I consider it a matter of inevitability that a bus in NYC will someday be blown up, as it was in The Siege. That something unfortunate will, inevitably, happen in the subway. Or a bridge or tunnel. We have been remarkably and thankfully blessed to have escaped that inevitability so far, but if these things go on in London, in Spain, in Tel Aviv of all places where they’re not clowning around with security, it is certainly likely to happen here. All it will take is one bus, one subway, to send this nation spiraling into chaos.

To my ongoing grief, Zwick didn’t think nearly big enough in his set pieces for the movie. Had he crafted a scenario where terrorist flew planes into the World Trade towers and collapsed them, Zwick likely would have been mocked and ridiculed for how ridiculous a notion that would have been. The real thing, when it happened, was much worse, much more devastating to the American psyche and global economy, than I or Zwick could have imagined. And, yes, we have been under siege ever since.

The Bush administration demonstrably and provably raised the useless, color-coded “Threat Level” to coincide with political opportunity. While the Obama administration has seemed to go out of its way to make America feel safe and reassured (and, as a side effect, the president look weak), the Bush administrations routine practice was to keep paranoia high. The higher our paranoia, the more we would rally behind whatever idiotic thing the president chose to do, like squander the budget surplus on tax cuts for the rich before starting two unfunded wars back to back—all of it in the face of an economic recession which loomed at the end of Clinton's term and sent stocks plummeting at the beginning of Bush’s. Whenever America would begin to question the president’s leadership, he’d send Tom Ridge out there with that ridiculous color chart and scare the pants off everybody. New York City has spent millions—with an “M”—because of these stupid alerts, many of which were conveniently timed to upstage political rival John Kerry or distract from other things.

The invasions of privacy and violations of due process Denzel Washington warns about in the movie are now a routine part of life, the Patriot Act, which President Obama quietly renewed. Post-9/11, both the Bush and Obama administrations have routinely engaged in severe violations of our civil rights, including getting major wireless providers to give up personal data collected from people stupid enough to give it to them. We are now and have been for some time living in an Orwellian age where privacy, an unenumerated constitutional right, has been utterly obliterated because a handful of guys stole some planes and flew them into buildings.  

"They've Already Won!": Washington warns against civil rights violations.

Then And Now

There simply is no privacy in this country anymore, which also may have been an inevitability as most developed nations make you walk around with papers of some kind.
The advent of Facebook and smartphones hasn’t helped. Dozens of these online networking sites, online file backups, this “cloud” computing business, and cell carriers allowing you to backup your smartphone data online: this represents a complete loss of privacy in this country. Worse, most people don’t ever think about it, don’t ever consider how much of themselves they are freely giving away with a few thumb clicks. “Wow, this is cool.” Idiot. Typing your personal data into the air like that. Putting your trust in some huge corporation because they issue a “privacy statement.” I never fail to be chagrined at America’s naïveté, its like we simply refuse to stop being stoopit. Apple has billions of credit card numbers, names, addresses, phone numbers. Worse, even if you yourself don’t freely give up your personal info, don’t worry, your buddy is doing it for you. People with these “smart” phones are entering my name, my email address, my phone number, my birthday—you schmucks—my address, what I like for dinner, into these devices which they have connected to Facebook, of all places. The data inevitably gets into these idiotic online networking sites. It makes me furious. It is incredibly wrong to give someone’s personal information to a third party without their permission, but stupid people do this every single day by thoughtlessly entering their friends’ data into these devices or uploading that info, knowingly or unkowingly, to websites. Billions of addresses, phone numbers, birthdays. “Send a birthday wish!” Idiot.

There is so much pressure for people to buy a smartphone

that smartphones are fast becoming, literally, all you can buy. Why? Because hundreds of millions of Americans still live this fantasy where they actually believe their every move isn’t being monitored, and that all that data—gigs and gigs of it—they enter into these devices is somehow magically protected. This is foolish and dangerous thinking. Every piece of email you’ve ever written, every single text you’ve ever sent, and every piece of information, every photo or video you have ever saved on a “smartphone” can be easily accessed, stored and retrieved. Apple was busted last year for keeping track of everywhere you go with an iPhone, for storing that data. Google routinely provides lists of every search you have ever made—ever—to law enforcement. Google literally saves trillions of searches and can trace every single search you have ever made to the IP address of the computer sitting on your desk.

This is not freedom. This is nowhere near freedom. 9/11 didn’t cause this, but the terrible events of that day certainly accelerated it. Both government and the private sector have routinely exploited those tragedies to do what they’ve wanted to do all along.

The government’s ongoing routine violation of our basic freedoms, in the name of protecting us from terrorism, is terrorism in and of itself. 9/11 has been exploited by virtually everyone for virtually everything, from the former president using it as an excuse to invade a country that was no threat to us, to the tee-shirt vendors at Ground Zero. This horrifying loss of privacy was likely coming anyway: that is simply where the technology was going. But government’s continuing and troubling access to all that data floating around out there is a devastating blow to the very principles this nation was founded upon. What’s even more horrifying is that nobody seems to notice or care.

Christopher J. Priest
11 September 2011

No. 357  |  Sept 11, 2011   Start   Study   The Financial Crisis   9/11: THE SIEGE   Hurricane Katrina   A Woman's Place   Back