2011, Movies, Politics, Society

Better This World (2011, Kelly Duane, Katie Galloway)

This is an important film that is really, really worth your time. What starts off seemingly as a portrait of some well-intentioned youths that got into some bad shit – and feels, perhaps, like an apology for such behaviour – soon reveals itself to be the story of something so much worse.

Though it’s weird to say this about a documentary, I’ll do it anyway. If you haven’t read the plot description or heard about this movie, SPOILER ALERT

If you read Glenn Greenwald or The Intercept, or you follow news sources that actually do in-depth reporting, you are probably aware of the FBI’s use of entrapment as a means of “preventing domestic” terrorism post-911. It has been well-documented (particularly by The Intercept) and is apparently a major part of the “anti-terrorism” strategy employed by the FBI. And it’s one of the situations where all the people who claim the “mainstream” media are failing American citizens are actually correct as the TV news channels have paid very little attention to it. What’s extremely alarming about this is that multiple judges have actually condemned the FBI’s practices in their decisions that still find the “terrorists” guilty.

At the same time, you may be aware that local, regional and national police forces throughout The West have been using agent provocateurs within mass protests to incite protesters to violence (or actually commit violence) in order to justify police retaliations against demonstrations that the authorities disapprove of. This has also been well-documented, though it receives even less attention than what the FBI has been up to in the “domestic terrorism” sector.

This film is about two young men from Texas who were charged with various terrorism-related offenses because they built homemade bombs (which they did not use) and because one of them supposedly planned to throw a molotov cocktail at an empty parking lot.

Now, whether or not either of those crimes – had they actually been committed – constitute an act of terrorism, I won’t get into at the moment, but the interesting thing about this case is that both these men claim they were heartily encouraged to do both of these things by an activist who became famous for his work during Katrina, Brandon Darby. And the more interesting thing is that Brandon Darby had gone from helping people during Katrina – and, on camera, discussing armed resistance against the US government – to being an “informant” for the FBI. (I use quotes around the word “informant” because I think the use of the term by the FBI is disingenuous.)

Now, I should mention I have not yet seen The Informant, the film that tells Darby’s side of the story. So everything I say here is not the full story and biased by this admittedly biased film. And this story has, somewhat understandably, caused a lot of controversy and mud-slinging in the USA. (As has Darby’s hilarious and predictable transition to a conservative blogger… How unbelievably unprincipled do you have to be to go from a “social justice warrior” to “conservative blogger” in less than a decade? Incredible.)

But I want to address something I’ve noticed in reading information about this story, and reviews of both of these movies. This is not a political story that has, unfortunately, been made political by both the extreme politicization of The United States at this moment, and by the plain fact that the two men charged with these crimes were protesting at the 2008 RNC Convention. But this is not a political issue. It is a civil liberties issue and, if people weren’t so damned partisan, nobody would find what this film depicts acceptable.


Well, that’s because entrapment is never, ever acceptable.

Why is Entrapment Used?

I can think of a few reasons entrapment might be seen by the authorities and society as useful or necessary. There are no doubt others, but these are the reasons I can come up with now:

  • The future criminals would have committed the crimes anyway. (I refuse to call these people terrorists.): This is an idea is patently false, for many reasons, but the simplest is merely that the arrow time goes in one direction and no one – absolutely nobody – can predict the future, ever. Nobody can accurately claim that anyone is going to do something, especially well before they are in a position to do that thing. Sure, if a man is sitting on top of a building with a rifle, and he is in range of a President, you can say there’s probable cause to stop him. But it’s a different situation when you’re arresting the man in his apartment making ammunition, or what have you. Now, the belief that people will inevitably commit crimes is based in a belief that people are either good or bad, a belief that is, again, patently false, but which is one that is pretty natural for an extremely religious country such as The United States. (And I shouldn’t throw stones: tons of Canadians believe this too.) But it’s not true – there’s a reason there’s a debate called ‘nature vs. nurture’ and it’s worth noting that much contemporary science favours “nature extremely modified by nurture,” where nurture is usually the more powerful of the two. That flies in the face of the simplistic belief that people are bad or good. But it’s worth noting that this belief is necessary because if people are bad or good, then it’s possible that an “informant” can be good (and a hero) and the “terrorists” can be bad and there’s no possibility that the “informant” prodded others into committing (or in this case, ostensibly planning to commit) crimes.
  • Entrapment is necessary: This is one I cannot really wrap my head around and I will get to the reasons below. But I do believe many people within the Law Enforcement community, in the Justice System in the US (and in Canada) and in society believe it to be true. I know of no good defense for this belief and I suppose it is merely bread of paranoia, and of pressure to meet quotas – in the case of government employees.
  • Entrapment, in the defeat of terrorism, is justified :Another thing I don’t get. The idea is that we need to act sooner to prevent terrorism than regular crime – meanwhile, governments and media are conflating everyday crimes with terrorism, witness the knife attack in Toronto recently that has been labeled “terrorist” by many. This idea doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. If people can’t be prodded into regular crimes by governments, why is it okay to prod them into terrorism? Shouldn’t that be even less acceptable? The underlying assumptions include that the authorities can somehow predict future acts of terrorism better than normal crimes and that the threat of terrorism is so severe that regular civil liberties cannot be maintained. Either way, I call bullshit.

Why is Entrapment Never Acceptable?

There are lots of moral gray areas within criminal law. But entrapment isn’t one of them. Entrapment is either acceptable or it’s not. A government can encourage people to commit crimes or it cannot. And I have a hard time understanding why some people think entrapment is defensible depending on the circumstances or the crime. It’s not. Here’s why:

  • Nobody can predict the future. Let’s just accept that.
  • One of the reasons we accept the authority of governments is that they supposedly protect us from crime. It is assumed (I believe correctly) that human beings are likely to treat each other worse without some kind of supposedly neutral authority dealing with “justice.” However, entrapment is in direct contravention of this “contract” – if we pretend, for a moment, that there is indeed a “social contract” and it’s not just a liberal myth – as the government is actively encouraging people to break the law. Now, governments who practice entrapment will tell you that they are doing it to prevent worse crimes, but this is bullshit. Governments have the authority to punish criminals but they should not have the authority to encourage people to commit crimes so that they can punish those criminals. That doesn’t make any sense. They are, in essence, creating criminals, perhaps in an effort to justify their existence…
  • Entrapment opens a can of worms. Slippery slope alert! If entrapment is okay, what kinds of other behaviour is acceptable in the prevention of “terrorism”? Yes, unfortunately we – and I don’t really include Canada in this – need to devote resources to preventing terrorism. But focusing on political dissidents, provoking them to commit violence and then arresting them before they do is not preventing terrorism. And it’s a small step from this kind of “prevention” to targeting non-violent political dissidents for being “terrorists.” And if you think that’s a leap of logic, well, in Canada we’re already there…
  • Entrapment is a huge waste of resources. At least one of the FBI agents in Better This World admits to months of surveillance of this group of young American men. Various police agencies – in the US, in Canada, and in Europe – are spending huge amount of resources infiltrating various groups that have no history of violence or, if they have a history of violence, it’s misdemeanour-level property destruction. This is your tax dollars at work. Despite the fact that there are terrorists out there trying to harm us, these agencies think huge amounts of their resources should be devoted to monitoring people who are not remotely interested in committing terrorist attacks. That is, until they meet FBI “informants.” So there’s a triple waste here: first, they are wasting resources monitoring these groups, but then they are wasting resources radicalizing these groups – both by the raids they commit and by using people like Brandon Darby to provoke actions they claim are “terrorist” – thereby resulting in the need to then respond to these “terrorist threats.” What the fuck? If they just left these people alone, there wouldn’t be any issue. And far more money and manpower could be spent actually attempting to prevent things like the Paris attacks. Ugh.

Remember, the two guys at the centre of this film built bombs which they did not use and one of them spoke about throwing a molotov cocktail at an empty parking lot. According to family and friends, neither of these two had ever thought about resorting to violence until they met Brandon Darby, the FBI informant, and neither of them actually committed any violent crimes! Not only is this entrapment, it’s thought-crime. And it’s incredibly alarming that, not only is this viewed as defensible by the authorities, but that a huge segment of society believes that this is okay. It is absolutely not.

This film is important to watch because it humanizes the victims of FBI entrapment policies better than a Glenn Greenwald article. Instead of just reading about these outrages, you can see the real human beings affected by this and listen to them speak. You can understand that this really is an issue, rather than something that just happens to other people.

I think that the people who think “informants” like Darby are somehow heroes, or that these kids deserved this because they’re on “the left” are suffering from both a severe case of the partisans. Whistleblowers are heroes. Agent provocateurs are not. Whistleblowers let the public know about information that can help us keep ourselves safe. Agent provocateurs incite people to violence. I cannot see how agent provocateurs can be viewed as heroes.

But people who think these kids deserved it also are suffering from an extreme lack of empathy. These could be your sons.

Movies like this remind us that we’re not as safe as we think we are.


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