About a year and a half ago, I heard the somewhat disturbing This American Life episode about how a well-known activist named Brandon Darby, who had made a name for himself during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had become a government informant
to turn over two young men who the government claimed were domestic terrorists, intent on bombing the Republican National Convention. It was an interesting story, but I didn't follow it too closely over the past 18 months. However, at SXSW I saw that there was going to be a screening of the new documentary Better This World
, which was about that same story, and decided to check it out. There has been some criticism of the documentary as being "one-sided," but I actually felt it does a pretty good job of portraying the highly complex and nuanced issues at play in the case, but your viewpoint may differ depending on a variety of factors. If you're unfamiliar with it, two guys -- David McKay and Bradley Crowder -- were arrested while demonstrating against the Republican National Convention, and it was later determined that the two had created molotov cocktails back where they were staying.
There is no denying the two guys made the bombs, and that's extremely troubling. The big question in the case really became whether or not they were entrapped. Specifically, the question was whether or not Brandon Darby, in his role as an informant "encouraged" McKay and Crowder to make the bombs. I'm not going to argue the specific facts of the case, which many people feel passionate about on both sides of the issue. There's simply no way to suggest that the two men were "innocent" in their actions. No matter how much someone encourages (if, indeed, that's what happened here -- and it's disputed) you to do something, you still have to take responsibility for your own actions -- especially when it reaches the point of building bombs.
That said, the documentary really highlights the ridiculous nature of government prosecutions in cases such as this. In the last few months, we've seen multiple stories, that have a familiar ring to them, involving the FBI busting up
"bomb plots" that appear as if they would not have existed
if the FBI had not become involved. In other words, multiple cases where it appears that the FBI found people who would have had no capability to actually do any damage, and then were enabled by the FBI
or partners to put those people in a position where they could be arrested for preparing to do "acts" that they otherwise would not have been able to do. Is that entrapment? It certainly comes close to the borderline.
The part of the documentary that I found to be most powerful and disturbing, was how the government agents -- both the federal prosecutor and the FBI agents -- almost seemed to gleefully abuse their power to pressure the two arrested individuals to confess to things that both insisted were not true. It certainly raises serious questions about the upcoming prosecutions and/or plea bargains in these other cases. It appears that the feds are not at all interested in determining the truth, but just in getting high profile convictions they can use to claim "wins" against terrorism. The movie is both disturbing and powerful in highlighting just what little chance anyone has to push back against the government if they believe they've been brought up on charges unfairly (again, whether or not the charges really were unfair is a separate question -- but either way, these two had no real chance to get their side heard, and were pressured into corners that left them little choice in how to respond to government pressure). It's a troubling movie for those who would like to believe that the trial system is designed to be fair and get at the truth behind a situation.
In somewhat related news, just days before the film was screened, Brendan Darby (who was the only major player who did not participate in the film, but appears in some older videos that the filmmakers got from other sources) sued the NY Times for defamation
, for claiming in an article that he "encouraged" the two men to make their bombs. This question, of Darby's exact role, was clearly a key question in the movie, and also a key point in the plea bargains offered by the government (i.e., in signing the plea bargains, they had to admit that Darby had not encouraged them). Of course, this new lawsuit raises some interesting possibilities, since the NY Times could potentially argue that it's not defamation because it's "true," though they'd have to actually prove that (which could be quite difficult).
Either way, the documentary is worth viewing, especially if you want some insight into the way the government handles prosecutions such as these, and if you'd like to believe in the idea of a fair trial. It also provides much greater insight into why many other countries do not allow "plea bargain" deals, and even find them morally questionable. The opportunity for abuse seems very real, even in cases where people may be guilty.