'The Siege' doesn't malign Arabs, but it does offend

November 28, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

QUICK, WHILE THE movie's still in local theaters! Some of you rush out and see "The Siege" and tell me if its critics are right -- that it paints all Arabs as terrorists -- or if they simply watched a different film from the one I saw.

Edward Zwick, who directed the film, and screenwriters Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes bent over backward to say just the opposite: that the overwhelming majority of Arab-Americans are loyal and law-abiding. That phrase is

rehashed so many times throughout the movie that you could lose track of the number of times it's said.

Do Arab-Americans have a gripe? Not with this movie. But maybe they're still bristling because, the sympathetic portrayal given them in "The Siege" notwithstanding, they are still one of the most maligned ethnic group in films. Past films have suggested that either all terrorists are Arabs or all Arabs are terrorists. "True Lies," a sack of reeking garbage masquerading as a movie, portrayed Arabs not only as terrorists, but egregiously stupid terrorists to boot.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the "Star Trek" science fiction series, once said he couldn't write a screenplay portraying the Palestinians sympathetically and get it produced. Hollywood producers saw fit to give Native Americans long overdue sympathetic treatment in "Dances With Wolves" -- though they couldn't resist casting a white character in the lead -- and African-Americans with films such as "Roots," "Amistad" and "Beloved." But Arabs still seem to be Hollywood's choice as the ethnic group that gets maligned first.

So the Arab-American reaction to "The Siege" is probably a knee-jerk one. In Zwick's view, the real villain is the U.S. Army, personified by Bruce Willis' character of Gen. William Devereaux, the obligatory mean ol' white boy villain who kidnaps an imam from the Mideast and precipitates the crisis in which Arab terrorists bomb three sites in New York City. Devereaux is granted permission to impose martial law on the Big Apple and proceeds to round up all Arab males within a certain age group. He orders one suspected terrorist tortured and shot. With Denzel Washington playing the goody-two-shoes FBI agent committed

to civil liberties, the plot soon descends into a good guy vs. bad guy, cops-and-robbers tale.

Zwick has, indeed, committed an offense in the making of "The Siege." But it's not the one Arab-Americans accuse him of. It's the cop-out he makes on the question that underlies his whole movie: Does the government have the right and the duty to curtail civil liberties and suspend habeas corpus during wars and civil unrest?

One scene of "The Siege" shows government officials holding just this discussion. In the tradition of Hollywood's retelling of history, the film's debate regarding the suspension of habeas corpus is muddled.

"Lincoln tried suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War," one character says. "The Supreme Court ruled against it in ex parte Milligan."

Actually, the Supreme Court ruled -- in 1866, one year after the Civil War ended, it is important to note -- that Lambdin Milligan's 1864 military trial for treason was unconstitutional because, as a civilian, Milligan should have been tried in a civilian court. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution specifically says habeas corpus can be suspended " in cases of rebellion or invasion."

That clause appears in the section of the Constitution that describes the powers of Congress. Section II, which details the powers of the president, doesn't mention suspension of habeas corpus, and for good reason. The Founding Fathers probably didn't want such power in the hands of one person. Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court during the Civil War, repeatedly chided Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus. Such, Taney claimed, was a congressional power.

The issue of suspending habeas corpus arose again during World War II, when 110,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Mitsuye Endo filed her petition for a writ of habeas corpus in July 1942. A U.S. district court rejected it in July 1943, but the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in December 1944, well after some of the internees had been released and the threat of Japanese invasion had all but disappeared.

If terrorists of any ethnic persuasion routinely commit the acts of violence depicted in "The Siege," habeas corpus may well be suspended again. And the issue will be far more complex than the vapid story of good guys vs. bad guys given to us in "The Siege."

Pub Date: 11/28/98

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