University of South Florida
Denzel Washington plays Anthony Hubbard, a strait-laced FBI agent determined to hunt down terrorists secreted in New York without “shredding” the Constitution. (Yes, like Alan Parker’s ludicrous Mississippi Burning, the FBI poses as the champion of civil rights.) Bruce Willis plays General Jack Devereaux, the president’s patriotism-driven national security adviser who sets events in motion by covertly ordering the sheik’s capture. The casualties mount—from a few dozen (bus) to 150 (theater) to 600 (federal building). Scenes of carnage mount, too, including a well-dressed, newly one-armed victim in evening gown. Life in the city effectively shuts down: parents remove children from school; businesses close their doors; people refuse to leave home. The FBI can only react. Martial law, demanded by a frightened citizenry, ensues: the Army occupies part of the city, conducts house-to-house searches, builds makeshift concentrations camps, and tortures prisoners—all for naught.
The film’s moral and political climax transpires in the men’s room of an abandoned sport’s stadium housing the usual racial suspects. As Devereaux prepares to torture a detainee in a desperate effort to learn the identity of one last terrorist cell, Hubbard screams that if this line is crossed, the terrorists have won. We will have destroyed what prior generations fought and died for. Ultimately, the audience learns the film’s central drama amounts to a case of blowback. Forces the United States created to serve its global interests and subsequently abandoned when those interests were redefined turn against their creators—with a vengeance. By the time this ugly imperial truth (presented as the unfortunate byproduct of good intentions) is delivered, no one is likely to care—not just because too many American citizens have been detonated, but because the film has become a patriot’s dream, an all-American struggle on the streets of Brooklyn between our better and worse selves.
This is Hollywood, remember, so even if Devereaux crosses the line (which he does), the terrorists can’t be allowed to win (which they’re not). The FBI discovers the last cell and Devereaux is arrested on murder charges. The restoration of constitutional balance accompanies American tanks rumbling out of Brooklyn. Roll credits.
Despite Zwick’s apparent intention, namely, to warn a democracy against self-destructive action, the Army’s incompetence suggests two alternatives the film does not anticipate: 1) the military needs to be retrained if it’s going to protect American life and limb at home, which the FBI cannot do, at least not quickly enough, to avert mass casualties; 2) Devereaux’s ineptitude aside, to ensure the war on terror does not erupt on American soil, the United States needs to contain and eradicate its enemies abroad. Ruthless deployment of American military might overseas offers the best chance for enhanced domestic security. Think Obama and Afghanistan. Think Obama and indefinite detention and torture. Think Obama and the assassination of American citizens abroad.
What’s worse, Zwick’s caricature of the military backfires: the film loses an opportunity to challenge the carefully cultivated image of the United States military, somehow the country’s most respected and beloved institution. As National Security Adviser, Devereaux argues vehemently against martial law. Nevertheless, he will execute the order if it is given. That he opposes the idea, we are told, makes him the ideal choice to carry it out. Yet why does Devereaux not resign rather than follow an order he knows to be morally and politically repugnant? The film answers the question by reducing Devereaux to a cartoonish blowhard who grossly overestimates his abilities; moreover, the fiascos that ensue from American military intervention attach themselves to him. Apparently the idea of a military official refusing to follow orders he knows to be wrong is unthinkable. Are there no high-ranking officers willing to risk career rather than sacrifice the Constitution? From Vietnam to Iraq, where were the generals who would resign rather than wage illegal, even genocidal wars? The American military loves to pay lip service to the Constitution, but its true love lies in its own power, especially to wage war.
The Siege nevertheless poses a fundamental challenge to democracy. Hubbard’s commitment to the rule of law verges on the tragic. Despite repeated bombings, he insists not only on following but affirming a democracy’s best traditions. Expediency equals cowardice. This is what it means to be strong and to die for one’s beliefs. Democratic life entails cost; it can be absorbed. Toward the film’s close, a demonstration finds citizens chanting “no fear.” Given the presence of American troops ordering them to disperse, the target of their chant might seem homegrown. It’s more likely, however, that they chant no fear precisely because they are afraid. Danger or not, they take to the public square. Hubbard embodies the position that the state routinely and cynically exploits threats to enhance its power and curtail liberties. With some threats, however, there are no fully adequate resources. If an enemy is determined to harm us, it will find a way to do so, sooner or later. No amount of prevention or preemption can alter this fact of democratic life. Here’s the question: do we possess the civic integrity to adhere to our values in a world indifferent to macho displays of prowess? This seems unlikely, since the exercise of power often generates the self-perpetuating illusion of success, as it corresponds, by chance, to a period free of incidents. Think how often you hear the claim by Bush operatives that the country has not been attacked since September 2001, as if that could only be the result of newly usurped powers. If we start with the assumption that attack is inevitable rather than with the childish insistence that we can prevent it if we grant the state more and more power, the logic for sacrificing liberty in the name of security begins to dissolve.