Saturday, November 17, 2007

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

The Kingdom reveals the difficulties of winning "hearts and minds" even amongst our supposed allies

Saudi Arabia is officially considered an ally of the United States -- one of the few in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, as Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) discovers the hard way in The Kingdom, the official stance of a state doesn't necessarily reflect the sentiments of its people. Perhaps there is no better case study for this in the world today than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom opens with a brief history lesson in Saudi/American relations. In short: Saudi Arabia is established, oil is discovered, westerners are allowed to develop Saudi Arabia's oil reserves, OPEC, Gulf War, Osama bin Laden spurned by the Saudi royals in favour of the United States, 9/11.

Then, the film gets right down to business, as Saudi terrorists launch a brutal and merciless attack on a foreign housing bloc, where western oil companies accomodate their employees.

With the attack leaving well in excess of 100 people dead, Fleury (Fox) deploys an FBI investigative team to Rhiyadh, consisting of Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). Although they are placed under severe restrictions by their Saudi hosts, they manage to determine who planned the attacks, and essentially get the bad guys.

When worse comes to worst, however, Fleury and his team discover that while the Saudi state may be willing to accomodate them given the proper prodding (read: blackmail), the Saudi people (predominantly Wahabi muslims) really don't like them much, to the extent that Saudi men are prepared to cross-dress if it will give them an opportunity to kill them.

In the end, it all comes down to hearts and minds. While they manage to win the heart and mind of their Saudi bodyguard (read: babysitter), Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhorn), the families of the terrorists killed in the wake of their pursuit of justice certainly aren't so convinced.

Then again, they weren't convinced to begin with, and not likely to be.

The aforementioned (in a previous post) criminological perspective on terrorism often espouses the winning of hearts and minds as a measure of prevention in regards to terrorism.

Often, the programs of prevention suggested embody generous foreign aid programs. The idea is rather simple: if we placate the state while feeding the country's hungry and helping its sick, we can give them an incentive not to attack us. In a sense, it becomes a gentler form of coercion, whereby we can inflict great suffering on their oft-impoverished people by withdrawing that aid in the event of an attack.

Admittedly, this may not apply to Saudi Arabia as much as it applies to other Muslim countries.

Regardless, thinking such as this actually hits a very unpleasant dead-end.

It has recently been estimated that only 10-15% of Muslims actively support Jihad. This 10-15% conceptualizes the suffering of impoverished Muslims (actually, Muslims in general) than mere starvation or sickness.

In the case of Osama Bin Laden, his primary stated goal is to reestablish the Caliphate -- the spiritual post of leadership of all Muslims. As such, Bin Laden regards the association between Saudi Arabia and the United States, in particular, as a form of suffering worse than any worldly suffering any Muslim could endure. He regards it as collusion with ungodliness, and thus living in the absense of Allah's influence, and defiance of (in Bin Laden's mind) his word.

As such, no measure of material aid to Saudi Arabia, or any other Muslim country, could ever convince Bin Laden that the potential benefit (or, conversely, expense) to his people would justify the cessation of hostilities. He believes he's fighting for the welfare of his people in the next life, if not in this one.

As is the case with the perpetrators of the attack in the film.

The Kingdom offers a very profound and satisfying ending.

Unfortunately, this ending falls short in one regard: it tries to portray terrorists and those who pursue them as all too similar in regards to their motives. Simply put, it's suggested that both sides simply desire revenge, and this eternal mutual death struggle merely amounts to a form of post-cold-war MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine.

Of course, there is a difference.

Terrorists, by the virtue of the very tactics they choose, at least make their targets appear to be as random as possible. The polar opposite is what's actually true. In fact, because terrorism is never really aimed at its victims, the idea is to choose victims that are as symbolic as possible, so as to convey a message in support of that terrorist's goal.

The ultimate idea is to actually choose targets as carefully and intricately as possible, while still making it appear as if absolutely anyone can become a target.

Fear is a weapon not unlike any other: it must be aimed if it's to have its desired effect.

On the other hand, counter-terrorist operatives don't have the luxury of making their targets appear indiscriminate. They have a very specific set of targets to pursue. Although their activities may often cause the deaths of innocent civilians (something we all too often simply brush aside as "collateral damage"), those they pursue are themselves the perpetrators of militancy.

Aside from this particular conceptual snag, however, The Kingdom offers a very profound message. Think of it as Syriana without George Clooney's conspiracy theories.

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