The Siege

The Siege

A Blockbuster Mourning

September 11,  2001 was like watching a movie. This is what we were watching.


Blockbuster — n., slang, 1.) a 500-lb bomb, so designated in World War II for its ability to reduce an entire city block to rubble. 2.) a Hollywood movie that is a "hit" in terms of producing large box-office receipts.

We swore we were watching a movie. Everyone thought it, said it, or agreed to it during the entire week since the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. And not just the spectators—even one professional newscameraman confessed, "I felt like I was shooting a film."

The question that remains unanswered of course, is, which movie we were watching. In New York, a lot of folks thought they were watching Die Hard, Independence Day, or maybe even Armageddon. Still others claimed it was more like the ending of Fight Club. Older moviegoers remembered seeing The Towering Inferno. The really old thought they were witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor, while the really young thought they were witnessing the attack on audiences known as Pearl Harbor. In Washington, a few thought they were watching Air Force One. The event struck one observer as a cynical but failsafe marketing campaign to resurrect Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flagging career as America’s symbolic superman. His next film, now postponed, was to be Collateral Damage, a rendition of American bombing victims at Oklahoma City and an unwitting requiem for Timothy McVeigh.

Unfortunately, the tragic reality of the World Trade Center attack was not portrayed in any one of these movies. The movie you were watching all week long was, in fact, the 1998 action-adventure drama, The Siege. Underrated at the time for having a lackluster script and competing against such tyrants as Jerry Bruckheimer’s Enemy of the State, The Siege suffered from a dense script, which, in retrospect, turns out be merely an accurately detailed assessment of the geopolitical situation.

Here’s the plot summary: After the abduction by the U.S. military of a Muslim leader, New York City becomes the target of escalating terrorist attacks. Anthony Hubbard, the head of the FBI/NYPD Terrorism Task Force, teams up with CIA operative Elise Kraft to capture the organization responsible for the terror in NYC. As bomb attacks go on, the U.S. government decides to send the army into the NYC streets, led by the General Devereaux, who declares martial law.

But throughout the film, eerily familiar details come out that make you wonder, as one writer did, whether this isn’t another Wag the Dog scenario: a U.S. military operation scripted along the lines of a movie. Wag the Dog was actually based on Larry Beinhardt’s novel American Hero, in which the hero was George Bush, Sr. Now, as Neal Gabler points out in the Sunday New York Times, Americans are almost incapable of seeing reality through any frame of reference other than cinema, so why shouldn’t the U.S. military package our political conflicts as high-stakes entertainment? In one sense, it’s really the only way they can get us to believe any of it is real.

Here are just a few of the eerily familiar details.

  • An early shot of the Khobar tower devastation, in which the chief suspect and the contractor hired to rebuild the tower was Osama Bin Laden.
  • A terrorist cell leader who comes to the U.S. via Germany on a student visa three days prior to an attack, very much how Mohammed Atta came into the U.S.
  • A discussion of posse comitatas, complete with the justification of military in U.S. streets based on the precedent of Somalia and Haiti.
  • A rendering of the spiritual war from the Muslim fanatic’s point of view: "You Americans believe that money is power . . . belief is power."
  • An ongoing debate about treating Arab-Americans decently while simultaneously rounding them up for interrogation. As of September 24, one-third of New Yorkers favored internment camps for "individuals who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes," according to Newsday.
  • The image of the U.S. military patrolling its own citizens in Brooklyn. Currently in Battery Park, Manhattan, the National Guard is checking the I.D.s of NYPD officers as they come onto ground zero, a reversal of the roles traditionally assigned to the two groups—the military’s job is to defend our shores while the policeman’s job is to patrol our streets.
  • A redneck southern senator who says we should "Bomb the shit out of them," almost the exact sentence expressed by Georgia Senator Zell Miller in response to the attacks. (Miller used the expletive "hell" instead of "shit.")
  • A fascinating contrast between the ultimate meaninglessness of movies and the perverse meaningfulness of suicide terrorism made in a speech by Samir, the professor who turns out to be the last cell group leader: "My brother couldn’t live in the [refugee] camps. For him it was already a kind of death. The only thing he lived for was the movies. Then some sheikh comes to him and says, ‘To die for Allah is beautiful’ . . . and my brother, he very much needs to believe that."
  • The cinema-as-ultimate-reality motif is played up even further in a key scene in which FBI stormtroopers blast away at three terrorists in a squalid Brooklyn apartment, destroying everything in the room except the television, which is still yammering away as the body count is added up.
  • The little known fact that The Siege has a sequel being produced that was to be called Athens. It opens with Muslim terrorists bombing, you guessed it, the World Trade Center. Frantic rewriting is now the top order of the day.
  • Annette Bening as the quintessential psychosis of American foreign policy: ambivalence or split personality—you make the call! Bening plays a character who goes by both Elise Kraft (National Security Agency) and Sharon Bridger (top know-it-all on terrorists), manifesting America’s love/hate relationship with the Mid-East for reasons ranging from genuine humanitarian love to cynical political expediency and economic interests.
  • Phrases from the film that could be coming straight from CNN, as pointed out by Anthony Lane in the September 24, 2001 New Yorker:
    • "The worst terrorist bombing in America since Oklahoma City."
    • "Make no mistake—we will hunt down the enemy, we will find the enemy, and we will kill the enemy."
    • "You can’t fight a war against an enemy you can’t see."
    • "This is a time of war. The fact that it’s inside our borders means it’s a new kind of war."

If The Siege is a Hollywood prescription that the American military pharmacy is now dispensing, then we are currently swallowing a brand name war whose target marketing was delivered three years ago. Whether The Siege is the template for America’s reaction or whether it’s the inspiration for bored fanatics who decide to commit copycat terrorism instead of something truly original, is anyone’s guess. First, a random series of attacks. Then, a crackdown on Muslims and a declaration of war. Finally, the president’s invocation of the War Powers Act to declare martial law in the streets.

If the conspiracy theorists are right in their insistence on the numerology of eleven in this whole thing, then this should happen on November 5, because it would follow the pattern of something significant happening every eleven days after 9/11. Please don’t freak out. I say this not because I espouse any conspiracy theory, but because all conspiracy theories are easily dismissed that only have retroactive explanatory power. A good conspiracy theory is one that has some predictive power, and I want to give these guys a chance before I start laughing at them.

The irony of some tragedy on November 5 that would trigger a declaration of martial law the day after, is twofold: First, it’s the day before election day. Second, if martial law (or some simulacrum thereof) is instituted on election day, then the tagline of The Siege will be more than a little chilling in its prophecy: "On November 6, our freedom is history."

Among those currently in favor of destroying our liberties in the name of defending them are those who are not bothered by the, um, law, so long as they can have the comfort of continuity in keeping Rudy Giuliani as Mayor of New York. As Denzel Washington says in the film, "Maybe what they really want is for us to bend the law a little, shred the Constitution, and if that happens, then they’ve already won." So, if this does happen, you saw it here first. If it doesn’t happen, well, thank God it didn’t.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time the Constitution’s been temporarily suspended in our history. As of September 27, 2001, the National Guard has the job of policing American airports, and you can bet your student ID that after October 3, when the Croatian man in Tennessee slashed the driver’s throat with a boxcutter (copycat? coincidence?), anonymous travel in this country is officially over. Bring your passport next time you want to ride the new improved Blue-and-Greyhound bus line. (So what if fewer than 10 percent of Americans even have a passport? Just bring your Social Security card. It’s not supposed to be used for identification, but we won’t tell.)

And conspiracy theory or not, the government is now, as of October 8, soliciting terrorist scenarios from top Hollywood directors and writers to come up with possible clues as to what they might expect next.

To make a really long story a little bit shorter, the point is this: now that two-and-a-half out of three of the film’s prophecies have come true, perhaps The Siege really is the best text you can see to catch yourself up on everything you may have been able to ignore for the last thirty years. In fact, in the wake of September 11, The Siege is so strange and yet so familiar you’ll swear you’re watching television.

As to why watching television has become so much like reading a tabloid in recent weeks, well, that’s another story altogether.

posted by editor ::: October 08, 2001 ::: philms :::