Documentary Review: ‘Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma’

In the years since September 11th, the government has developed a massive domestic spying program that employs thousands of agents and sweeps up incalculable amounts of data. This surveillance apparatus has overwhelmingly targeted Muslims, but most Americans have only the vaguest sense of what this spying program entails and how it affects the lives of millions of Muslim Americans. Director Greg Barker’s “Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma” teases out some of the thorny moral issues of the counter-terror system through two parallel stories: Nidal Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 people in a mass shooting at Ft. Hood, and Shifa Sadequee, a young Muslim man convicted on terrorism charges. Why did Hasan evade all detection, while Sadequee was convicted on very limited evidence? Could the Fort Hood shooting have been prevented? Was it really necessary for the security of the country to arrest Sadequee? Was it just?

“Homegrown” does not attempt to resolve these issues. Perhaps it is a cliche to say of a documentary that it raises more questions than it answers—most docs do, after all—but it is particularly apt for “Homegrown,” which actually closes with a direct question, posed by Philip Mudd, former deputy director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, to Sadequee’s family: “If we switched roles, what would you do? Would you let him go?” The answer, of course, depends on one’s point of view, but it is a greatest strength of “Homegrown” that no one will come away with an absolutely clear moral perspective on that question.

As Mudd explains at one point, the job of counter-terror is not to minimize threats but to “eliminate” them. From that perspective, Sadequee clearly had to be neutralized. But such aggressive counter-terror measures have consequences, which in Sadequee’s case meant extensive spying on a teenager, arresting him in a foreign country just two weeks after getting married, holding him in solitary confinement three years before he was even charged, and eventually sending him to prison for 17 years. And even if one agrees that Sadequee was a genuine threat, what about the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Americans who are regularly spied upon and treated with suspicion?

“Homegrown”’s best feature is that it foregrounds the experiences of Muslims whose lives have been disrupted by their government’s aggressive pursuit of Islamic terrorists. We see a support group for the families of people who have been convicted of terrorism, a Muslim professor who has made it his mission to deradicalize young Muslim men, and Nader Hasan, a conservative criminal lawyer whose cousin Nidal committed the Fort Hood attack. Too often in documentaries and journalism about national security, Muslims’ lived experiences are sidelined in favor of counter-terror “experts,” so it is refreshing to see a documentary attempt to explore issues of domestic terrorism through the eyes of Muslims.

At times, “Homegrown” can seem a bit disjointed, and the talking heads are occasionally difficult to keep track of. I also wish the film had foregrounded America’s huge double standard when it comes to mass violence committed by Muslims vs. mass violence committed by white men. Peter Bergen makes this point briefly, but it seems particularly relevant to point out that, since 9/11, more people in the U.S. have been killed in attacks by right-wing extremists than by Islamic extremists. If this is the case, why is so much of our security apparatus trained on Muslims? Still, the film is an excellent starting point for the conversation about the inherent tradeoffs in America’s bloated counter-terror system.

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