FBI Briefings and “The Other” in Fiction

A story broke yesterday in a post by Wired’s Danger Room (@wired, @dangerroom) about the FBI teaching its counterterrorism agents that “’main stream’ [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a ‘cult leader’; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a ‘funding mechanism for combat.’”

Although they are not mandatory, the FBI briefings appeared to lack any subtlety or to distinguish between Muslims and criminals/terrorists who happen to be Muslim. The presentations state that the more devout a Muslim, the more violent he is likely to be. The presentations also imply that if a Muslim tries to become an American citizen or sues law enforcement for harassment, this is part and parcel of waging jihad against the U.S. The author of many of these briefings has been quoted as saying “The Prophet ‘Muhammad’s mindset is a source for terrorism,’ and that a key to fighting terrorism is to discredit Islam.”

I’ll try to keep off the soapbox during this post, but bear with me if you think I stray in that direction. There are several problems with this sort of teaching. By letting fear overcome fact, the FBI is teaching its special agents to be bad law enforcement officers: to think in an us vs. them mindset, to view Muslims as “the other” or as not “real” Americans, to think in generalizations instead of thinking critically.

We are already seeing the effects of this mindset. Claims are being raised about law enforcement targeting Islamic cultural centers and mosques not because they are a hotbed for violence, but simply because Muslims gather there. We are also seeing stories about the NYPD possibly targeting Muslim gathering places despite lack of evidence of wrongdoing. And this is playing into Al Qaeda’s hands. To think in terms of fighting against a religion instead of specific groups or individuals, the FBI is fulfilling one of Bin Laden’s goals.

So how does this apply to writing fiction? The idea of the enemy as “the other” or briefings that use broad, propaganda-like strokes is a familiar territory, especially in science fiction. Just think of the movie Starship Troopers or Ender’s Game. The flip side is also often explored: getting to know “the other” despite initial hatred, fear, or confusion. Recall the movie Enemy Mine or the later books in the Ender Saga.

Ultimately, these stories can go one of those two ways. The first way is to use these fear-filled, propaganda-like briefings as shortcut infodumps, making sure your audience hates the enemy, who are nothing more than caricatures or bland stand-ins. But it can keep things simple and binary: us vs. them, good vs. bad, hero vs. villain. This simplicity can be a benefit, if you’d like to keep the focus on your small group of heroes and get right to the action, or if the enemy is a “monster” who attacks your heroes instead of trying to communicate or engage in diplomacy with your heroes.

The second option is to have your protagonist gain knowledge and understanding, to overcome a simplistic mindset, and to gain one that is subtle and able to understand complexity. This sort of plot is more about character development. Although it didn’t have the rhetoric-filled speeches, a great and beautiful example of a person gaining an appreciation for subtlety and complexity among a group of “others” is Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

I don’t think either path is wrong; they are perhaps instead better suited for different purposes. Think carefully about what type of story you’d like to tell and write accordingly. Think about the consequences of making “the other” simple or complex. Perhaps the FBI should do this too.

What do you think?