A prejudice as American as apple pie

A new film that depicts Arabs as blood-thirsty terrorists is creating a storm in the States. Charles

America's politicians and pundits sound as disgruntled as the Duke of York's 10,000 men marching down that hill again. President Bill Clinton took them to the Baghdad brink yet again, then disappointed them by calling off the missiles and bombers only 18 minutes before they were due to kill a whole slew of Arabs - live on CNN. The American political class, already deprived by the electorate of a gladiatorial impeachment spectacle, is in a frustrated state of coitus interruptus. My old friend and ABC News colleague Sam Donaldson suggested on air that Washington should have bombed Iraq and pretended not to have received the letter in which Saddam Hussein acceded to all of America's demands. Lost in the post.

America still has capital punishment, of the judicial variety for convicted criminals at home, and of the extra-legal gunboat type for those, usually Arabs, who are foolhardy enough to threaten American leaders, who from the time of the Reagan administration adopted the Israeli mode of massive retaliation for minor affronts. Among the targets since then have been Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. In all of them except Sudan, civilians died and leaders thrived. (In Sudan, some may be dying now for lack of the medicines that are no longer produced in the plant that Clinton destroyed.)

When Clinton threatened Iraq this time, he did not make the mistake of convening a public meeting to explain what he was doing. He learnt from the last such CNN extravaganza in Columbus, Ohio, which starred Madeleine Albright and other top brass: the people said they did not want to zap Iraqis with cruise missiles. The unwashed of Ohio went so far as to harangue assembled cabinet members, who were unaccustomed to anything less reverent than the supine questions of the Washington press corps. This time it was not the public who robbed the defence department of the chance to show off all that weaponry their tax dollars have paid for. It was the Thief of Baghdad himself, Saddam Hussein. The son of a bitch could not wait that extra 18 minutes for the US to give him a good pasting before he caved in.

The secretaries of defence and state wanted to bomb Iraq even though the mere threat of force had achieved its stated objective. As if to prove Nelson's point, Sam Nunn, the former Georgia senator who once headed the Senate Armed Services Committee, lamented: "It would have been better if we could have gone ahead with the attacks." For the political hacks, compliance was not the objective: bombing itself was. Administration officials told the Wall Street Journal that "the best hope for Mr Clinton may be that Saddam Hussein somehow miscalculates and quickly tries to obstruct inspections, allowing the US to again move towards air strikes".

In what kind of world is it better to bomb a country and kill, by Pentagon estimates, ten thousand of its already oppressed civilians, rather than compel its government to adhere to UN resolutions? How did the means, bombing, replace the end, Iraqi compliance? The US government is seeking non-compliance so that it can launch an attack that it knows will not destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, will not weaken the Iraqi armed forces for long and will not depose Saddam Hussein. President Clinton "blinked", as Washington punditry calls it, because 10,000 Iraqi deaths, in the words of the pro-bombing military analyst Ralph Peters, "would turn world opinion against the US". Not that it would be wrong, mind you, just that much of the world, Britain undoubtedly excepted, would not support it.

What kind of world is this? Welcome to Hollywood, where Arabs long ago replaced perfidious redskins and inscrutable Japanese as villains of choice. Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American scholar who wrote The TV Arab, says the television and film portrayal of Arabs is invariably negative. No other ethnic group, he has written, has come in for such consistently negative portrayals as wily crooks, drug dealers, warlords and terrorists; mainly terrorists.

Ed Zwick is attempting to break the Hollywood mould in his film The Siege by showing the complexities of Arab existence and casting one Arab actor as a, more or less, decent man. However, a liberal film-maker can go disastrously wrong when he does not know what he is talking about.

The Siege is about Arab terrorism in America and American over-reaction to it, culminating in the declaration of martial law in New York City and the detention of thousands of Arab-Americans in a football stadium reminiscent of Chile in 1973. Zwick's hero is an FBI agent, who finally catches the terrorists and then puts the army commander of New York under arrest "for the torture and murder of Tariq Husseini, an American citizen". Zwick, who co-wrote the screenplay, depicts most of the Arabs as victims of racial discrimination of the kind once suffered by Japanese-Americans. His story dares to mention a few Arab grievances back in the homeland, even mentioning torture by the Israeli security forces. The Siege is a thriller, but not a moronic good guy-bad guy set piece, like Arnold Schwarzenegger's To Live and Die in LA, with its cardboard cut-out towel-heads waiting to be eliminated by the Austrian-American weightlifter.

When the FBI agent Frank Haddad first meets Samir Najdeh, he breaks his nose. Washington's Anthony Hubbard later tells Haddad he will take away his badge if he ever hits another prisoner. Haddad mentions what the Palestinians did to his village in Lebanon, although the Palestinians were not attacking Muslim villages in Lebanon. They destroyed the Christian village of Damour, but this Frank Haddad is not a Christian. The character of Haddad is meant to be a breakthrough, but he must be corrected and reined in repeatedly by his real American boss, Hubbard. Haddad is Hubbard's driver, his translator, who brings him his coffee and bends his own boss's rules. In order to hold a suspect for questioning, it is Haddad who throws a $20 bill into a suitcase to frame him. It is Haddad who hits prisoners. It is Haddad who complains about the limits of American law enforcement. "Back home the security services would be up this guy's ass with a poker. What do we do? We let him go." Haddad is an Arab Tonto to Washington's black Lone Ranger.

Watching The Siege in New York, I realised I was seeing an American version of one of the greatest political films ever made, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. Algiers, though, has a critical intelligence, an understanding of history and an appreciation of two cultures. Siege is sentimental, at times incoherent and, on its director's admission, just "a Hollywood thriller".

With all the trouble he took to raise his film above the usual level of thrillers, Zwick must have been surprised at the reaction. He took the unusual step of defending himself on the New York Times op-ed page. He wrote: "This film portrays Arab-Americans as cops, landlords, people with families, community leaders - and yes, terrorists." He says the film "is about stereotypes" and thus should not be accused of perpetuating them. His conclusion, however, would not have been written had his detractors been from almost any other American minority, from blacks to Jews to Hispanics. "So, I'm sorry I offended anyone. But I'm not really." Next to Zwick's non-apologia was an attack by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who complained: "Other images, characters and juxtapositions give the impression that every Muslim student, business owner and activist should be considered a possible threat."

Zwick's Muslims, he alleged, continued the anti-Arab images in lesser films like Executive Decision about Muslim hijackers and True Lies about Arabs who cause a nuclear explosion in Florida. Such stereotyping has led to violent attacks, verbal abuse and death threats against Arabs in America.

Is it any wonder so many in the political class, divorced from ordinary life in this country and absorbed in Hollywood culture, would rather bomb Iraq than not?

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie