Monday, November 29, 2010

Security Theatre

When it comes to movies about Islamic terrorism, there is a certain amount of timeliness expected. It's a zeitgeist thing. But Four Lions' timing was especially fortuitous: an English satire of jihadists, it arrived on U.S. shores November 5th, just a week after the TSA patdowns and body scanners began meeting some resistance, and just another week before John Tyner’s “don’t touch my junk” objection became a cause célèbre for ACLU lawyers and right wing authoritarians alike. Though Four Lions doesn’t particularly concern itself with these issues or the post-9/11 security apparatus, it is useful in defusing the mentality that allows them to thrive.

The four lions in question are actually five English Muslims living in the suburb of Sheffield, of varying levels of unintelligence: there is Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), stupid but mostly harmless; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a recent and very possibly gay convert, bloodthirsty to the point of spiting his own face; Hassan (Arsher Ali), who thinks his Islamist bona fides make him much cooler than he actually is—and who has one of the funniest introductory scenes I can remember—Waj (Kayvan Novak), generally confused and clueless; and Omar (Riz Ahmed), the protagonist, generally klutzy but on some level cognizant of his cohorts’ ineptness and with a growing ambivalence on what the group is trying to do. (I am dealing with generalities here, as the film’s comic surprises are best kept concealed. The film’s trailer spoils far too much.)

Making characters stupid but not hatefully obnoxious is a tough balancing act--see Idiocracy for an example of when it doesn’t work, and Burn After Reading for when it does--but the movie pulls it off pretty well, making them interesting enough that we want to see how gloriously they screw up next. It's smart stupid comedy, like seeing different permutations of Ali G bounce off one another.

Yet Omar and his friend are far from the only fools on parade. Omar’s conservative brother, his co-worker at a security firm, Barry’s ditzy neighbor, are all head-bashingly oblivious to what he’s up to. Indeed, even as the group’s big operation gets underway, the police are grossly ineffective at stopping them.

A little frustratingly, the only characters not to come in for audience scorn are the ancillary jihadists: Omar’s smart wife is the sharpest character in the movie, and fully aware of her husband’s plans. And a group of Pakistani terrorists, who end up kicking Omar and Waj out of their training camp for being so useless, are the straight men in their section of the film. Ordinarily this would not be worth mention, since the Taliban are generally understood to be the bad guys. But Bagram and Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, whom director Chris Morris consulted so as not to offend Muslims (what kind of satire sets out not to offend?), doesn’t share that understanding.

But I digress. What does all this have to do with the TSA’s groping and lurid photography?

More than any particular goal or character motivation, the driving force of the movie’s episodic story is the complete ineptness of its characters, who lurch from scheme to scheme as their plans sometimes literally go up in smoke. Though work on Four Lions began several years ago, its subject matter has a useful analogue in Umar Farouk Abulmutallab, who last Christmas failed to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner when he attempted to light on a fire a bomb in his underwear. (He also invited Moazzam Begg to speak at University College London’s 2007 Islamic Awareness conference…) Abdulmutallab’s terror fail invites mockery, but it also prompted the new TSA procedures, which would detect any crotch fire potential and prevent such an attack from occurring.

The scanners and pat-downs are a convenient dodge for the fact that Abdulmutallab would never have boarded his flight had intelligence agencies acted on his dubious profile and the tip-off given by his father. Other recent terror plots and incidents either stemmed from similar failure to act on reasonable suspicion, such as Nidal Malik Hasan’s massacre of troops at Ft. Hood, or had nothing to do with airport security, such as Faisal Shazhad’s Times Square bombing attempt this past spring.

Abdulmutallab and Shazhad are most pertinent to discussing anti-terror measures because they were successes in spite of the utter failure of their plots. Even though they were caught and no one was injured, influential swaths of the country still lost their collective minds anyway. The TSA, of course, implemented its new invasive measures. Meanwhile the conservative intelligentsia demanded Abdulmutallab be tortured in spite of his cooperation with authorities, and wanted to revoke Shazhad’s Miranda rights. Only on Wall Street can failure reap such benefits.

All of this is done in the name of fighting a shadowy terrorist threat that, with a little light shone on it, loses a lot of its capacity to inspire, well, terror. Four Lions’ depiction of domestic terrorists as bumbling fools then, while imperfect, provides a necessary corrective to the constant scare-mongering that often seems to do the terrorists' work for them. Sometimes the best response to the lions’ roar, is to roar back, in laughter.

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