In 2001, two things occurred that led, however indirectly, to a movie that I saw last night at the TriBeCa Film Festival. Enjoying a short stay in New York, my wife and I decided to check out TriBeCa, one of the country's more storied film festivals. And the film we saw was a documentary titled “The Newburgh Sting.”
So what were the two things that occurred in 2001? One was the obvious: the events that occurred on Sept. 11. The other was the release of a documentary titled “Southern Comfort,” a study of transgendered people living in, of all place, rural Georgia. “Southern Comfort,” which was directed by Kate Davis, remains one of the most powerful, eye-opening cultural studies I've even seen.
And the tie to TriBeCa? Davis codirected, with David Heilbroner, “The Newburgh Sting,” which is a study of four men who were arrested in 2009 and convicted — of terrorism. All New Yorkers, poor and black, the men had been recruited by an FBI informant. They willingly cooperated with the informant in what was a plot to bomb a Jewish center in Riverdale, New York. But here's the thing: They were promised $250,000 to do so (which is more money than any of the four had seen in their lives); the informant provided the so-called weapons (a Stinger missile and two “bombs,” none of which was armed); and the informant drove the car they used to get from Newburgh (a town 60 miles from New York City) to pick up the “weapons” in Connecticut (which, not coincidentally, made the crime a federal offense and ensured the incident would attract headlines).
I'm no lawyer, but the machinations of the informant would seem to suggest the men were entrapped. But they were convicted anyway, mainly — the documentary argues — because the media didn't ask any real questions of the government. They bought, for example, the FBI's story that the defendants were revolutionary Jihadists who had met while in prison. False and falser; only one of the four had even visited a Newburgh-based mosque. Meanwhile, the government entities — federal and local — fell over themselves to take credit for breaking up a “terrorist ring.”
“The Newburgh Sting” is a horror story, one that shows just how easy it is to target and scapegoat America's poor. Meanwhile, the vast majority of those who have committed — and contintue to commit — economic terrorism on the world economy walk free. I'm no raging anarchist, and I don't want to occupy anything, but after seeing Davis and Heilbroner's movie, I'm feeling more than a bit angry. What's worse, I'm afraid.
We all should be.