Sicario 2: this time there are no rules (or redeeming features)

Maybe I’m just looking for excuses to toddle off to the movies when I should be deep in the data, but there have been a number of seemingly research-relevant films screening in the cinemas of Mexico City lately. I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri not long after arriving here, which left me thinking all the thoughtsLa Libertad del Diablo came along soon afterwards, and it wasn’t even a stretch to call that a research-relevant documentary. Somewhat more of stretch, however, was this week’s trip to see Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I’ll put it out there right now: the film was terrible. This wasn’t really a surprise, given the entire film is pretty much there in the trailer, but there are a couple of considerations (beyond the flimsy plot and the shallow characters) that make the film particularly odious.

The first Sicario movie provided an awfully simplified account of Mexico, and of Ciudad Juárez. According to the movie, you only have to cross the border into Mexico – or even just look across the border really – to see machine gun fire and bodies swinging from overpasses and psychotic hitmen and corrupt cops. Violence, in this telling, starts right where Mexico begins.

The strength of the first movie, however, is its critique of US  instigation and exploitation of that violence. The movie follows a by-the-book FBI agent as she is recruited for a special task force created to engage in extralegal, extralethal operations on behalf of (but not too on behalf of – wink wink) the US government. Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is critical of the actions of the task force, while also largely helpless to do anything about them. If anything, she is complicit in their activities; no one comes out completely clean. While Mexico is full of brutal violence in the film, the real vicious, villainous antagonists are Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro’s US agents. In the tensest scenes of the film, when it seems like anything could happen, the results are always the same: a trail of blood and (mostly Mexican) bodies, and these US agents emerging unscathed.

In the second Sicario film, however, these villains have become the heroes. Blunt’s character has disappeared, and with her any moral compass or critical perspective on the extreme violence of Brolin and del Toro’s agents. Instead, it’s these two guys up against a Mexican kingpin and Mexican police and Mexican people smugglers and Middle Eastern terrorists and US bureaucracy.

For a minute, it seems as though the film might try to generate some complexity by pitting these two guys against each other. The narrative shies away from this, however, and instead cleaves to the idea that they are somehow on a noble path (it’s never clear quite what this path is, besides killing people and blowing things up). If anyone is to blame, it is an unnamed US president that isn’t sufficiently committed to using a whole lot of violence.

Worse still, the film digs up pernicious, baseless rumours about Mexican gangs smuggling terrorists from the Middle East into the US. One of the opening scenes of the film is jarringly racist, conflating prayer mats with terrorist threats. Furthermore, this whole myth about terrorists from other parts of the world working with Mexican gangs has no credible base, but is regularly dusted off by conservative politicians and scholars, eager to promote tougher border security. The use of this same old bogeyman as the pretext for all of the violence in the film is a familiar, Rumsfeldian logic. The movie even throws in a scene about waterboarding and drone strikes, to hammer this connection home.

Overall, then, this second Sicario installment (and there are going to be more…) forgets whatever attempts at critique of US policy were raised by the first film. In place of these, the sequel goes all-in on justifying a harder, less-accountable, and more cynically racist security policy, celebrating the worst excesses of US extralegal operations over the past 15 years.

Teaching terrorism

This semester I am teaching a course on Terrorism at Hunter College. It’s about as close to an ideal course topic as I can get (given that The Coffee and Doughnuts of New York City isn’t a widely recognised political science topic), and it made for an interesting end to the summer, as I put together a syllabus.

When I was first assigned the course, it was called ‘Terrorism and National Conflict’ – an old course listing, that I could dust off and revise. I was told that I needed to make sure the course didn’t overlap too much with other courses, including an International Relations course on Terrorism that the department offers. I took this as a chance to put together a course that was less focused on a terrorism/counter-terrorism, here-is-a-problem-how-do-we-solve-it perspective, and more focused on questioning some of the assumptions about how we define and categorise terrorism. A comparative, constructivist kind of approach to teaching terrorism.

Designing a course around a concept that you’re simultaneously trying to deconstruct has its challenges. The first couple of classes of the course will focus on picking apart our assumptions about who and what terrorism is, but most of the course is going to be dedicated to trying to reconstruct some semblance of scholarly knowledge. If we should be suspicious of the way that some people and groups are labelled as terrorist, then upon what can we ground the study of terrorism?

A partial answer might come by giving attention to those directly involved in terror and violence. Towards this end, I have dedicated one class to looking at justifications for violence, and a few classes to looking at why individuals participate in violence. Perhaps more importantly, I have included some first-person narratives from those most closely connected to violence, such as Che Guevara’s reflections of the inauspicious beginning of the Cuban Revolution, and Rigoberta Menchú’s account of state terror in Guatemala.

I finished up the syllabus for this course at about the same time as the protests in Charlottesville, during which a member of a white supremacist group ran down protestors, killing one and injuring more. After the attack, a huge amount of debate focused on whether the act would or should be called terrorism. Here was the kind of contention over interpretation and naming, that I was trying to examine in this course, but here also was a further challenge: having focused on the idea of deconstructing terrorism as a stable category, I now faced a situation in which I felt the use of the label was warranted. Was I still prepared to stand by the syllabus, and my whole approach to the topic of terrorism? I’m going to try, but I am also going to bring my uncertainty about this to the class discussions. If anything, I think this uncertainty means that we have a topic to which it is worth dedicating a semester.