Arlington Road's Politics of Paranoia and Conformity
a review by Ari Armstrong
As a movie of the thriller genre, Arlington Road serves well enough. The lead is caught in a web of violence and lies in which people and events are not as they seem. From a technical standpoint, the film is excellent.
Unfortunately, the politics of the movie are grossly distorting. Here's the plot: a college teacher in Washington, D.C. who researches terrorism and "right wing extremist" groups begins to find disturbing anomalies about his neighbor's behavior and history. Perhaps the teacher is just being paranoid, letting the recent, violent death of his wife and his intense work on terrorism get inside his head. Or, perhaps his neighbor is planning to bomb a government building.
So far, the plot works well for the movie, so long as one remembers that many elements of the story stray far from reality. But the film's political subtext attempts to teach lessons that are simply false and themselves dangerous.
Let us explore the messages of the film. The only good and proper way to affect political change, suggests the movie, is to be a good boy, vote, and write your representatives with letters of complaint. In other words, conform to the modern power structure and don't make waves.
Those who become disillusioned with voting are dangerous, according to the film. The protagonist tells his students in a class that literally millions of people have stopped voting and have joined a "resistance," a more extreme version of Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy." The bad guy affirms this state of affairs, claiming that, again, millions of people are on the brink of becoming terrorists. The ending of the film breaks with traditional thriller format, driving home the point that American terrorists are more prevalent and organized than anyone would imagine. In other words, the film projects extreme paranoia.
But the real danger of the film is that it conflates healthy political resistance with terrorist activity. The movie sees a world divided into the true political believers, the activist "Republicrats," and the dangerous subversives who have no compunctions about blowing up innocent children. But of course this classification is ridiculous.
The truth of the matter is that the large majority of the population is disillusioned with modern American politics. This is evidenced by the fact that, typically, only around half of those registered to vote bother to do so, and only about 80% of those eligible to register even bother to do that. In other words, in a typical election, only about 40% of the eligible population will vote. And of course only about 20% of the population will vote for politicians and policies of which they approve, given our majority rule system. So it's pretty safe to say that over half the population is politically disillusioned.
However, only the tiniest fraction of the population would even consider terrorist activity, and many fewer still will actually attempt to implement such plans. So what gives with this movie, Arlington Road? In postulating a pervasive terrorist movement, is the writer just trying to add to the paranoidal tension of the film, or does he honestly believe domestic terrorism is a greater threat than most of us think? Either way, the message of the film is flat wrong and dangerously irresponsible in its advocacy of blind conformity.
Nonconformity, or civil disobedience, enjoys a long and noble tradition in American politics. Who can forget that Martin Luther King changed the face of American politics by challenging an immoral law and supporting the willful disobedience of that law? After World War II, the United States actually set international legal precedent that civil disobedience is required in extreme circumstances. That's why the German soldiers who unquestioningly followed orders to annihilate Jews were held accountable. The attitude of our greatest political thinkers is that an unjust law is no law at all. Indeed, our very nation was founded on civil disobedience.
So political nonconformity must not be equated with terrorism. Indeed, many nonconformists are more ardently opposed to terrorism than the political insiders. Those in the broad libertarian movement criticize the likes of Timothy McVeigh more harshly than anyone. Indeed, libertarians disallow any use of force against innocent persons. That's why anything Bill Clinton has to say about terrorism rings hollow in libertarian ears, given that he's slaughtered hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians in Yugoslavia with U.S. bombs. Similarly, anything Janet Reno might say against terrorism is offset by the fact that FBI and ATF agents under her command themselves terrorized and horribly murdered innocent men, women, and children in Waco, Texas.
And yet, what were the "left wing" politicos calling for after the Waco massacre? More blind conformity. Government knows best. Mind your own damned business and don't ask questions. In other words, the Arlington Road approach to politics.
Does it follow, as Arlington Road suggests, that if we become angry with government, that if we come to believe our vote is meaningless, that if we exercise civil disobedience, that we are in danger of falling into terrorist organizations? The suggestion is absurd and offensive.
That the film errs in lumping together honorable reformers with terrorists is morally disgusting, but the even worse offense is the suggestion that those terrorists who work for the Federal government are excusable. The protagonist at one point explains that the government is fallible, that it can make mistakes, and that these mistakes are part and parcel of democracy. The implication is that if government agents do bad things, well, that's to be expected once in a while and the way to complain is to cast a vote and write letters. C'est la vie.
I must give the film credit for fairly representing the abuses possible to government. In one case, the State by bureaucratic fiat stole the water supply from a farm. Things like this happen with some regularity, such as when the EPA declares a farmer's land off-limits to farming because, say, a particular species of mouse lives there. The film also portrays a botched FBI raid in which the agents open fire on innocent women and children, even though no crime had been committed. However, again the protagonist chalks the murders up to accident, saying that the FBI agents too were "innocent" and merely victims bad planning.
Such an attitude gives government agents free reign to do anything whatsoever without repercussions or accountability. Again, the message is blind conformity to government. What are the implications of this mind-set?
On June 7, 1971, ATF tax agents busted into the home of Kenyan Ballew and planted a .380 bullet in his brain, leaving him a vegetable to this day. Ballew had committed no crime. According to Arlington Road, the appropriate response to this shooting is something like, "Gee willakers, what a terrible accident! I feel really bad for the ATF agents for having fallen into such an unfortunate predicament."
On August 22, 1992 FBI agents shot and killed Randy Weaver's 14 year old son on the Weaver's property in Idaho. Later, sniper Lon Horiuchi blew Vicki Weaver brains out as she retreated into her home carrying her 10-month-old baby. Randy Weaver's alleged crime? He had sold a shot-gun the wood stock of which was 3/8 inch too short, all without paying the appropriate $5 tax on it. My reaction is that Horiuchi should be tried and convicted of murder to face life in prison or the death penalty. Certainly I'm not willing to "forgive and forget" what the Federal agents did. But that's precisely the sentiment of Arlington Road. "Gosh darn! What a depressing accident! I'm really going to write a spirited letter, now!" Obviously, one can be angry with the FBI's actions and critical of government generally without endangering the safety of innocent people, a possibility the film ignores.
On April 19, 1993 ATF tax agents, joined by the FBI, pumped the Branch Davidians'' Waco building full of poisonous gas, and, as evidenced from infrared video taken from an airplane above the scene, torched the building while firing rifle bullets into the structure. The toll: 81 people dead, including more than a dozen children. Mass murder on this scale is no "accident," and it is not excusable.
It would seem clear that, if we want to worry about terrorist acts, we should worry most about out-of-control Federal agents. There are also politically motivated, independent terrorists such as Tim McVeigh and the Unabomber, but these acts are isolated and unrelated. The serious social critic will condemn rights abuses wherever and however they occur. The blind conformists will only open the door to more terrorist acts, not to mention general tyranny.