Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Traitor -- terrorism, tactics, and faith commitment

Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff, 2008

Almost a decade past 9/11 it is "safe" to make movies about terrorism. In the immediate aftermath, the wounds on the US national psyche left by the attacks were still fresh and open. But time heals some wounds, and we are ready to consider some deeper questions now. Traitor forces some of these upon us.

The film starts with Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) in Yemen. He is a US citizen born in Yemen, and is back there doing business. Only his business is selling detonators to the highest bidder. A war-mongerer and weapons-seller, he might be a terrorist and a traitor.

When his meet with a Yemeni is interrupted by state police with FBI agents Clayton (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Archer (Neal McDonough), who are trying to stop a terrorist group, he is captured and put in prison. The prison scenes, though important to show his developing friendship with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a radical Islamic terrorist, are slow and make the film seem longer than it is. Indeed, this is a not an action thriller in the vein of The Bourne Identity; it is more of a thoughtful drama with some action set-pieces akin to Rendition.

From an early flashback we realize that as a boy Samir witnessed his father being killed by a car bomb. There is clearly more to Samir than meets the eye. As a devout Moslem he fits in well with Omar and when they escape he becomes central to the cell group's mission to bring terror to mainland America. But is he merely a terrorist? Or is there something else?

This is one of the complaints about Traitor. It is hard to be sympathetic towards Samir, as we don't really know who he is. By the time the truth emerges, both he and we are conflicted.

Traitor takes us from Yemen to Marseilles, from London to Washington. As Agent Clayton, himself a religious man, doggedly searches for clues to the whereabouts of Samir and the terrorists, the sense of fatalism for Samir grows. He is locked in a plot from which he cannot emerge.

Traitor does give a key insight into terrorism. In one scene the terrorist leader waxes philosophical speech: "The art of asymmetrical warfare is less about inflating damage than provoking response. Terrorism . . . is theater. Theater is always performed for an audience. Ours is the American people. But they are dispersed across a large country. The question is, how to convince them that nowhere is safe." Terrorism is not about war; it is about security. It is about bringing terror to the hearts of civilians, not soldiers. It has the aim of bringing a government to its knees by a civilian outcry of fear.

Moreover, terrorism is not about numbers of deaths. In terms of fatalities, there were 2,819 people killed that awful day on 9/11. That compares to 4,367 American soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003, 58,236 killed in the Vietnam war, almost 500,000 in WW2 and almost 700,00 in the Civil War. Statistically, the casualties of the terrorist attacks in 2001 were small, but the attacks brought the possibility of imminent death to millions of Americans. We are still more likely to die in an automobile accident than as the result of a terrorist bomb but the former is mundane, the latter memorable.

In one scene, a stressed and pursued Samir is talking with an American intelligence operative, who tells him, "This is war! You do what it takes to win." This is the same message that the terrorist preached to him earlier. Both sides see this as war. And both sides are willing to take matters into their own hands. How different are they are? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Indeed, as a terrorist reminded Samir, "Once upon a time it was the Americans who were terrorists to the British." Black and white has mixed to form gray shades with dark shadows.

In traditional war, the enemy is a known quantity, a visible force. His whereabouts are usually localized. In terrorism the enemy is unknown, often within our midst. The enemy might be our next-door neighbor, or the barista we buy coffee from each morning. With a new kind of enemy comes new offensive strategies. When Samir tells Omar, "Tactics have changed, my friend," Omar simply replies, "Tactics have always changed. You don't defeat an empire by fighting by their rules."

As tactics change in war, tactics also change in living and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus we live in enemy territory. We are subject to attack by the forces of darkness (Eph. 6:11-12). This has been true for centuries. But our weapons are not of this world (2 Cor. 10:4). And our tactics change as we reach out to bring the life-changing gospel of Christ to a needy world. The apostle Paul said that "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). We change and our tactics change. What worked a generation ago will not work today. What worked in one country must be altered for another country. What was effective in a rural part of America may be ineffective in a cosmopolitan city. We adjust, we morph, we change tactics with the goal of winning some to Jesus.

Traitor bears comparison with Paradise Now, another film made since the Iraq war began. Whereas Traitor is an American Hollywood vision of terrorism, Paradise Now is Palestinian, bringing us into the heart of war-torn Israel. Both show terrorist suicide bombers building and donning suicide vests in preparation for attacks. Both let us consider the terrorists themselves. But where Paradise Now feels true, to its material Traitor seems trite and contrived. Although both do go below the surface to some degree, Paradise Now allows us a more holistic picture, seeing the impact on survivors as well as on the "soldiers."

For a Hollywood film, putting a Muslim as the hero of this story is a brave act. We remember 9/11 as being a Muslim ordered act of aggression. Of course, Traitor would not work as well if Samir were a Christian or an atheist merely playing a role. No, it is his commitment to his Islamic faith that makes him believable to us and to Omar.

Indeed, it is this faith commitment that causes Samir to point out, "If a man hasn't found something he's willing to die for, he isn't fit to live." Life and death are two sides of the same coin, in this sin-marred world we live in. More than this, though, "A man who is not afraid to die, can never be defeated." This is the implicit motto of the terrorist. The suicide bombers cannot be defeated because they are ready to die, and death ushers them into paradise, or so they think.

Followers of Jesus have something greater than this life and so can live apart from fear. Perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). Knowing that death is just a transition to life with Jesus himself, we can never be defeated. Paul said as much in his letter to the Romans, when he said we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:37).

Samir points to this same faith commitment when he says, "We answer to God." Though he is talking of Allah, the god of the Koran, this is actually true for all of us. According to the Bible, whoever we are, we will face a judgment with the almighty one day (2 Cor. 5:10, Rev. 20:11-15). We must live our lives so we are ready for that day. We don't know when it will arrive. If we have not yet reflected on faith, now is the time. Now is the time to ponder the message of the gospel (Rom. 3:23, 6:23, 10:9-10). "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." (2 Cor. 6:2). We might not have another day to procrastinate. Who knows if we might find ourselves caught in the middle of another 9/11.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. Great movie, i loved every minute of this suspenseful adventure. Samir Horn was ambigious as a terrorist as he displayed high personal values when surrounded by blood thirsty men.