Tag Archives: terrorism

Beyond Belief

This emotional documentary tracks the lives of two white American women who both lose husbands on planes that crash in New York City on September 11th, 2001. The women eventually discover each other—both live relatively near-by in Massachusetts—and both happen to be pregnant at the time of their husbands’ deaths. The two women meet each other and find ways to deal with their grief.

Beyond Belief‘s main contribution is the focus upon how these women translate their victim-hood into a proactive cause for good in the world, as opposed to violent demands for revenge (like much of the US was snookered-into following 9/11 by the media). They form a non-profit organization that provides aid to women in Afghanistan who are also victims of the even longer war happening there. The process they pursue in dealing with loss—by channeling their energies into raising money for Afghani women—is both saddening and inspiring. The emptiness of their familial lives is matched only by the sadness they feel once they get the chance to meet Afghani women who have experienced comparable loss, although theirs is far more structural in nature.

Despite how moving Beyond Belief is, there were many things in it that were left unspoken and that may make viewers uncomfortable. First, the privilege these women have is irrefutable. Of course, they’ve experienced incredible tragedy, but the resources they possess make it manageable, compared to the most others who reside in poverty. From the houses they live in, the cars they drive, and the degree of freedom from want, it is clear they have ample financial resources (especially clear in light of their husbands’ occupations). But, the film never mentions the substantial monetary gift from the government to 9/11 widows (which is important to note, as no other widowed individuals receive such financial assistance, although many could use it). They do remark upon their economic privilege once they get to Afghanistan, but that trip alone is indicative of privilege—who has the financial resources to take weeks out of their lives, purchase expensive tickets, to travel across the world? They also have impressive family support: loved ones watch their kids while they raise money, have meetings, and travel to Afghanistan.

Initially, they are a bit naïve about what role they should have on the lives of Afghani women; they want to “do good”, but they possess political ignorance about what life is like in Afghanistan. In fact, the NGO they create appears to have little on-the-ground coordination or even consent from Afghan widows themselves, although another NGO named CARE does help out with this a bit. (In a dramatic plot-twist, an Italian aid worker that the women learn from early on is later captured in Afghanistan, which scares the women greatly and delays their trip to Afghanistan.) Although it is not emphasized, close attention to the documentary’s timeline shows that the women create their NGO after the Iraq War begins, not before it. This follows the pattern of people opposing US militarism only after the rabid, ultra-nationalism following 9/11 dies down and the far-less popular Iraq War begins.

Viewers who are knowledgeable of Orientalism, will notice some “othering” of Afghani women and the burqas, which was also common in the mainstream media at the time. There is some background given for why conditions in Afghanistan are so bad (and why there are so many widows), but like many American recountings of Afghanistan’s history, Beyond Belief also leaves out the crucial US participation. While it is a historically debatable as to whether the US coaxed the Soviet Union into a trap in Afghanistan (some US political leaders have claimed to do this), it is quite undebatable that the US funneled untold millions into efforts that helped to destroy the country, by funding Islamicist fighters to drive the USSR out of Afghanistan. These efforts—which, again, far too many Americans seek to gloss-over—contributed directly to the 9/11 attacks, as the mujahideen fighters eventually became the Taliban and the base support for al Qaeda. In other words, the US had an obligation to aid Afghani war widows many years before the 9/11 attacks and the [formal] US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

These criticisms of geopolitics, and liberal fund-raising and aid aside, Beyond Belief is a quite wonderful personal story about people overcoming great loss, finding purpose, and avoiding the easy trap of blaming “others” for bad things that happen. Over the course of the documentary, these two women reclaim their lives and contribute (on the whole) towards doing more good than bad for people in Afghanistan—something that few Americans can claim.

Topics: gender, family, terrorism, war, death/dying

The Weather Underground

After watching The Weather Underground for the fifth time, I realized that it is more sophisticated and balanced than I had remembered from the first four times. Those who oppose the actions of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) probably consider the film to be apologist, while those supportive likely think it to be too critical. But, I think it actually frames perfectly the group’s opposition to state and corporate violence, while also showing the moral ambiguity of their bombing actions. For younger generations of viewers, the Weather Underground was a radical spin-off of the broadly-based Students for a Democratic Society, which was the key student organization of the 1960s. The Weathermen (as they were called, patriarchally, before they went underground) played an infamous (and less than laudable) part of SDS’s disintegration.

One of the strange, but entertaining aspects of the documentary is how it portrays interviewees in ways that clash with expectations. For example, perhaps the most level-headed and rational person in the film is David Gilbert, the film’s only interviewee residing [still] in prison for his role in a botched armed robbery after the WUO disbanded. On the other hand, someone who would otherwise be considered the most legitimate and prestigious—Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin—literally froths at the mouth as he describes, scornfully, how the WUO engaged in “organizational piracy” and “ran-off with the student Left”. Then, there is maybe the most widely recognized person during this post-Obama-election era: the infamous Bill Ayers, who the right-wing laughably tried to associate with Obama, due to their mutual presence in the same circles in Chicago for years. Finally, a former FBI agent who helped to track the WUO appears, too, and even speaks admirably of how the group was “serious” and able to intelligently avoid capture (after the film was released, this ex-agent shared a stage with a former WUO member, to discuss this time period).

The WUO—and American Left radicals, generally—proposed an important question, that has tended to make many people very uncomfortable. Whose violence is worse: state violence or citizen violence against the state? Or, more specifically (as framed by Naomi Jaffe), is it better to accept the violence of the US as it murders millions in Vietnam, while doing nothing to resist it (which she frames as itself violence), or to fight back in order to stop the US’s violence (as the WUO argued)? The problem is, as Mark Rudd puts it, that Americans are encouraged to view all non-state violence (especially that done by groups like the WUO) as criminal and mentally-ill. (One can discard the fact that the bombing attacks harmed no one except property, so their “violence” is debatable.) But, it’s worth responding to this hegemonic argument, by asking what should movements do when their efforts to change society (progressively, for the better) are stymied at every turn? When movements invariably become more radical due to state resistance and do not seem to succeed at pulling more people toward revolution, then what? What do people really expect? JFK seemed to know, when he said “those who make peaceful revolution impossible only make violent revolution inevitable”.

Mixed in with these serious questions about ethical action, there is ample comedy, goofiness, and absurdity. And, things that contemporaries audiences will just shake their heads at it in confusion and disbelief. A pro-drug organization/cult hires the WUO to break the incarcerated LSD-guru Timothy Leary out of prison—which they do. He is brought to Algeria where he makes wide-eyed statements about supporting revolution. Before going underground, the Weatherman branch-out across the US and move into working class neighborhoods. Their goal is to convince working class youth (who they suspect, often incorrectly, will be more radical than they are) that they are serious revolutionaries who those youth should join up with to fight the system. The Weatherman try to do this, incredulously, by picking street fights. And, something sure to raise the eyebrows of audiences is the Weathermen’s “smash monogamy” ideology. In the interests of creating stronger emotional bonds between comrades, people were discourages from “pairing up”, but to instead engage in wide, promiscuous sexual activity with each other, with either sex, including group sex. A diary is read (by the female narrator Lili Taylor, although the words of a male author) which describes a van driving on a highway while a dozen people lay on the floor of the van, naked, engaged in group sex. Of course, we don’t hear this male author critique the usual interpretation of the “sexual revolution” and how it offered far more to men (namely, easier access to sex with women) than it did to women (who were expected to “put out”, without the same mutual commitments as before).

A couple of notable oversights exist, for those familiar with Weather-history. The history of SDS is a bit brief and incomplete. While the Weather-faction—often called the Revolutionary Youth Movement—was sizable, so was Progressive Labor (more “old left” than New Left). And another faction, rarely discussed in most SDS histories was the Radical Decentralization Project (initiated by the radical ecologist Murray Bookchin) which was anarchist in orientation. Also missing in this incomplete picture is all the other things that radical Leftists were doing during this time period: founding cooperatives, initiating the anti-nuke movement, and the Movement for a New Society, to list a few. Even though the very end of the film hints at internal disagreements and power-sharing issues (including gendered inequalities), the dictatorial politics of the Maoism and Third World Marxism to which the WUO subscribed, is left unaddressed. Gitlin makes an early, flip comment that is actually fairly accurate: Weather had a vanguardist attitude, that thought that their isolated actions of property destruction could embolden resistance (as opposed to helping to bring the wrath of the state down upon the movement and to alienate marginally sympathetic individuals). As he puts it, the Weathermen told the rest of the student left: “Join us or fuck you”. This machismo seems a bit strange, considering how reflective (and often apologetic) many interviewed ex-Weathermen are in the documentary. Many came from middle-class or more privileged backgrounds (which most do not discuss), which helped provide access to money that allowed them to stay underground for so long.

The soundtrack is spooky and often atonal. Some of the original music is composed by band members of Garland of Hours and Fugazi, which is a treat for indie rock fans. The combination of present-day interviews, alongside old footage of the much younger activists spouting revolutionary rhetoric is quite compelling. The film provides an abbreviated list of WUO targeted property destruction, with the reasons for each bombing. These targets include the NYPD headquarters, California Department of Corrections, US Capitol building, the Harvard Center for International Affairs, the ITT headquarters, the Presidio Army Base, and others. An early incident that causes the WUO to engage in only property destruction and avoid taking human life, is an accidental explosion that kills three WUO members in New York (where we see a young Dustin Hoffman gawking at the smoldering townhouse). The bomb was intended for an officer’s ball and the explosion would likely have killed hundreds of people, including the wives of the officers (clearly “non-combatants” by any definition). Realizing how a desperate logic and a maddening war had driven them to that decision, the remaining WUO members re-direct their efforts to symbolic destruction that avoids harming human life (for which they succeed).

There are many lessons to draw from The Weather Underground, but just as many open questions for radical social movements. The shocking reality is that little has changed with the society that the WUO critiqued and fought against. The names of the countries attacked by the US have changed (and the death tolls are slightly lower), but the same dynamics remain. Police brutality and racial discrimination run rampant still. Corporations continue to call most of the shots and American culture is even more dominated by their propaganda. The documentary does not suggest that a new armed struggle, clandestine group is needed today, but it does demand that the left take a serious look at its past to try to figure out some way forward and through the modern day madness.

Topics: social movements, revolution, militarism, racism, morality, terrorism