Now that the chair Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw at his hostage-taker is headed to the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, I hope it isn’t too rude to note that numerous all-too-quickly-memory-holed questions remain about January’s crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Those unknowns all suggest the type of farce that ensues when supposedly crackerjack national spy agencies get tangled up in the comic-book plots of inept jihadis, who most likely would never have made it out their own basements if the aforementioned security agents hadn’t given them that final and just-as-often initial boost they needed to live out their dreams. Given the complexities involved, it should come as no surprise that this kind of elaborately witting-unwitting collusion can sometimes go horribly wrong. On one side of the equation are people who seem to be barely able to master the basics of what most of us understand to be everyday reality—perfect marks for those who believe themselves to be the protectors of that reality, a role they pursue with light oversight and fewer legal limits on their tactics and behavior than citizens in a democracy might hope for.
Consider the case of the pistol-toting, crack-brained Colleyville terrorist Malik Faisal Akram, who was on an MI5 terrorism watchlist as a “subject of interest” and yet was somehow allowed to leave his native Great Britain and enter the United States, a notably security-conscious country across whose vast territory he was permitted to freely travel. Great Britain is often said to be the United States’ closest security and intelligence partner among foreign governments. After arriving in the U.S. through New York two weeks before the attack, Akram immediately made several calls to a New York phone number—nothing to see here, unnamed law enforcement sources told The Washington Post, insisting this mysterious and still-as-yet unidentified individual had nothing to do with any of the events leading to the synagogue assault: Surely, he was an innocent friend of Akram, who had no involvement with either British or American law enforcement. Akram traveled long distances and obtained an illegal firearm in a country in which he was not a citizen, as part of an amateurish and scatterbrained attempt to free Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qaida operative and Brandeis University Ph.D. recipient held at a federal prison in Texas, thousands of miles from Akram’s north England home. Maybe Akram was always fixated on Siddiqui’s case, which is one of the minor causes in the world of international jihad, a seemingly doable project for an Englishman with narrow odds of ever blowing up an airplane or offing Bashar Assad. Or maybe someone fixated him on it.
For those whose memory stretches all the way back to January, it is possible to remember that an FBI spokesperson’s claim that the attack “was not specifically related to the Jewish community” came in for particular scorn. But what if the FBI flack was technically telling the truth? Maybe the plot didn’t originate solely with the world’s most ancient hatred. Is it so crazy to believe that the bureau or one of its confidential sources had a hand in it, too?
There is nothing but loose circumstantial evidence tying the Colleyville siege to any level of U.S. law enforcement, but the evidence is always only circumstantial until the truth comes out. A right-wing militant plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, one of the most politically salient of recent American terror cases, turned out to have been hatched by FBI agents and informants, greatly complicating the bureau’s investigation of an incident that broke just weeks before the 2020 election. Earlier this month, prosecutions against four of the alleged plotters resulted in two acquittals and two hung juries. There’s a long post-9/11 tradition of American sting operations carried to self-defeating extremes, ranging from the Liberty City Seven to the Fort Dix Five, to other fiascos with less memorable nicknames.
Of course, the most infamous of our recent FBI-concocted crises is the Russiagate fishing expedition, in which a cashiered British ex-spy based in London was used to front a series of ludicrous fever-dream claims that originated partly in the Russian intelligence services in order to create a legal-enough basis for surveilling an upstart American presidential campaign. In fact, Chris Steele was passing information to the FBI throughout 2016, and the bureau even offered to pay him for his trouble, at the same time Steele was getting paid with funds that came from Hillary Clinton’s lawyer. If the FBI is that willing, even eager, to get mixed up in a hallucinatory and partisan conspiracy theory meant to impact the results of a presidential election, only to then foment the attempted kidnapping of the governor of Michigan not long after, it doesn’t take much imagination to allow for the possibility that the same FBI might have also inadvertently placed an armed terrorist inside an American synagogue, especially when one considers the two decades of expertise that the bureau has developed in entrapping particularly idiotic-seeming young Muslim men in harebrained terror schemes.
Why does the FBI spend its time and resources playing these silly yet socially destructive games? Who knows. I’m not a spy, but perhaps spies have bills to pay, just like I do. And perhaps, as the English satirist and filmmaker Christopher Morris noted in a 2019 interview with Britain’s Channel 4, “The FBI have stumbled across the fact that it’s harder to find a real terrorist than it is to make up your own.”
Morris wrote and directed the greatest comedy ever made about FBI counterterror entrapment, The Day Shall Come, a film so bleak and withering that barely anyone in America saw it. Perhaps in mid-2019, with Trump still in office and the fizzled Mueller report a bitter recent memory, the time simply wasn’t right for a foreign independent film that made the FBI look like naked buffoons. Or maybe the movie, which is about a bureau agent who uses a fake ISIS sheikh to manipulate a harmless Black nationalist into purchasing fake uranium from fake Nazis, was too dark and too tonally muddled to generate the word-of-mouth interest that a limited release needs in order to break through to a larger audience. On the other hand, 2010’s Four Lions, Morris’ previous film, is rightly considered a modern classic—and it’s a comedy about a successful jihadist attack on the London Marathon.
It’s possible The Day Shall Come went unseen, with U.S. box office totals barely touching five figures, because it pressed on a rawer and more complicated source of anxiety than Four Lions, at least for American audiences. Riz Ahmed’s Omar, the jihadi protagonist of Four Lions, is a Raskolnikov-like amoral idealist caught between his own inner evils and the possibility of some ultimately redemptive acceptance of the cosmic order. Four Lions, with its reassuringly distant English accents and setting, probed the comedic absurdity of believing you’re ideologically obligated to commit mass murder.
Morris’ second film, set in the U.S., was instead about the possibility that the American national reality is being manufactured for us by idiots, a likelihood that is too terrifyingly real and immediate to serve as a basis for mass entertainment. Kendra Glack, the patriotic, well-meaning, and not entirely unconflicted FBI agent played by Anna Kendrick in The Day Shall Come, is someone we don’t really understand and would rather not even think about, someone whose existence in the real world might raise disquieting questions about what kind of country and society and world we really live in.
Christopher Morris’ big break into comedy was based on a simple and brilliant premise, namely that everything on TV could be treated as nonsense by virtue of it being on TV in the first place. On The Day Today, the groundbreaking news parody that a 32-year-old Morris co-produced with future Veep creator Armando Iannucci in 1994, Morris plied the inanity inherent in the language, content, and texture of TV news, a medium where the surrealism and the self-seriousness feed off one another—“NATO dissolved when delegate swallows treaty,” goes one typical and instantly memorable headline. Viewers got an in-depth report about a fist fight between then-British Prime Minister John Major and the queen, a fake event so convincing that it practically belongs to the historical record by now. As The Day Today’s chief anchor, Morris played it all disorientingly straight, collapsing the remaining distance between real news and parody.
The show reached an even more caustic and funnier level of critique through its repeated suggestions that, for reasons of laziness and entertainment value and the actual stupidity of the people in charge of news operations, much of what you see on a TV screen is basically being made up, including real-world events that are indisputably happening right in front of you. At one point, Morris’ news anchor conjures an armed conflict by asking a series of leading questions during a routine interview with a couple of trade policy bureaucrats. When I first saw The Day Today as a senior in high school, I thought one recurring bit, where Morris badgers the inept correspondent Peter O’Hanrahanrahan, was simply milking laughs out of a cartoonishly stupid character with a silly name. Now that I have a decade under my belt as a grown-up reporter, I understand these sketches—like the one where O’Hanrahanrahan fails to reenact a conversation in German, thus proving he’d simply invented quotes from Germany’s finance minister—to be some of the most deadly accurate pieces of media criticism ever made.
By the end of the seven-episode run of Brass Eye in 1997, an even more uproarious journey into television’s takeover of what was once considered “reality,” Morris’ on-screen career was mostly over. That Morris has worked almost exclusively behind the camera since the late ’90s is an incalculable loss for comedy, given his gift for rapid-fire shifts in facial expression, and his unmatched ability to deliver complex and bizarre punchlines with seemingly mortal seriousness. But Morris has always been picky about his projects, popping up to write and direct a scorching satire on the conceits of urban hipsters, in 2005’s Nathan Barley, or to assist Iannucci at various points during Veep’s successful run.
A comedy about jihadist terrorism was a natural next step for a humorist who’d played fast and loose with jokes about physical attacks on the queen and who once produced a wildly controversial half-hour Brass Eye special lampooning British neuroses related to pedophilia—which is as far as the envelope could go on mid-’90s U.K. television, and probably much further than it could go now. Still, if Morris cared only about provocation, his career would look a lot more like Sacha Baron Cohen’s, filled with disposable political comedy meant to mock the anonymous and flatter the powerful. Morris is Cohen’s tonal, moral and aesthetic opposite: He’s never made anything that’s forgettable, and his contempt for the powerful and sympathy for the overlooked never leads him to caricature or ridicule anyone.
When Four Lions came out in 2010, few noticed the possible thematic linkages between Morris’ fascination with the news media’s construction of reality and his project of understanding the worldview of religious extremists through satire. In The Day Today and Brass Eye, he had brutally satirized an elite-level epistemological system that had meaninglessness at its core and that had scrambled the rest of society’s experience of the so-called real world. But what about the little guy who had never gotten the memo, and who still insisted on living as nonsense-free a life as possible? What did he look like in the vacuous, desiccated 2010s? What might he want?
Where Four Lions furnished one especially chilling answer, it really furnished five. The shambolically extreme Azzam al-Britani is a convert who thinks he’s a world-historical figure: “If I don’t go with you to training camp in Pakistan, Islam’s finished,” he proclaims. Faisal is driven to terrorism by sexual rejection, hinting that darkly male urges lurk behind otherwise inexplicable outbursts of violence, as they have for all of human history. Hassan is a poseur campus radical titillated by extremes but unsold on jihad as such. Waj is too daft to really know what he wants. But he idolizes his cousin Omar, a mall security guard and terror cell leader who dreams of dying with a smile and on his face and who perhaps believes he’s fulfilling the legacy of another cousin who met a heroic end defending a mosque in Bosnia.
Delusions of self-importance, wounded pride, sincere ideological conviction, moral complacency, hollow intellectualism, and the mysteries of family obligation and male friendship are all both timeless comedic fodder and familiar prods to acts of evil. Importantly for Morris, they are also all too embedded in real life for anyone to ever have to fake them. Morris shows how murder and its motives fall within the realm of the recognizably and authentically human, all without conceding any approval for his protagonists’ actions.
It isn’t until toward the end of the film, as the authorities close in on our anti-heroes, that we see the recurrence of Day Today-type reality-building from above—except this time it’s being undertaken by gun-wielding agents of the state rather than hapless newsmen. In perhaps the darkest joke of the entire movie, and maybe the darkest funny joke in any movie, a pair of rooftop police snipers at the London Marathon are told by radio that one of the suspected bombers is in a bear costume. One of them immediately guns down a runner dressed as Chewbacca.
Is a wookie a bear? The two debate with sinister British dispassion and earnestness, immediately spinning an ex post facto justification for killing a faceless innocent while evincing zero remorse or horror at their actions. A lesser, more merciful satirist would have placed this back-and-forth before the fatal shot was fired, turning the snipers into deadly blunderers but leaving open the possibility for regret, perhaps even reform. Placed after the killing, the exchange makes an additional point about how even our own enlightened societies tend toward erasing their fatal mistakes from existence, indicating the ease with which nasty official acts eventually find their reasoning, however logically tortured and facially absurd. By the end of the movie, simple incompetence has already morphed into elaborate intentional dishonesty, as a British interrogator informs Omar’s pacifistic brother that for legal purposes, and because of the torture it’s implied he’s about to endure, he’s now on the sovereign territory of Egypt, despite being inside a shipping container inside of an air force hangar in England. There’s a tiny Egyptian flag on the inquisitor’s desk, making the lie true.
We meet another believer in The Day Shall Come: Moses Al Shabazz, Marchant Davis’ delusional Black separatist. Shabazz is an urban farmer raising a militia group that he believes will overthrow the white oppressors with toy crossbows and resurrected dinosaurs in a battle beginning on the film’s titular day of judgment.
Unlike the jihadists in Four Lions, however, Shabazz isn’t planning any specific atrocity. He preaches Black restraint and nonviolence right up until the dinosaurs arise. Falling into a rapidly escalating entrapment plot hatched on the fly by agent Glack, played by Anna Kendrick, Shabazz accepts money and guns from a fake ISIS leader—the bureau-sanctioned disguise of a potentially violent Syrian who Glack will deport back to his home country if he doesn’t cooperate with the FBI. The Syrian is introduced to Shabazz by a child porn enthusiast who the bureau is also blackmailing. As insane as these characters are, their equivalents, composed with even more extreme degrees of lunacy, are quite easy to find in the documentary aftermath of FBI entrapment operations, which gives the film a vertiginously human feel.
Shabazz, whose tiny sect is facing eviction from its modest compound in a gentrifying Miami slum, plans on pocketing the cash and burying the new ISIS guns in concrete. His extremism isn’t a danger to anyone, and the character reflects Morris’ belief that terrorism entrapment targets those who are naively idealistic and uncommonly credulous, traits that the truly dangerous usually don’t have. The FBI “preys on people who are on the fringe, who feel like they’re not normal,” Morris said in that 2019 Channel 4 interview.
The counterterror apparatus, which is absent until the very end of Four Lions, is the most compelling of The Day Shall Come’s comedic targets. Having humanized sincere extremist belief in both its violent and nonviolent forms, Morris aims his most withering satire at something he clearly considers to be larger and more immovable and more threatening to normal life than any terrorist. Morris knows that the terrorist threat isn’t fake, having made a renowned movie whose dark humor comes from just how not-fake it is. But he also recognizes how the reality of the threat lends credibility to official fantasies of towering preposterousness that can quickly submerge not only real-life dangers but also the rest of real life in their fantasias.
By the time the FBI and the National Guard surround Shabazz and his followers at a doughnut shop, the thwarted fake purchase of fake ISIS uranium by fake Nazis has triggered a nuclear emergency that the panicked and ambivalent FBI agent who declares the state of emergency herself knows to be fake.
“So,” Glack asks her supervisor, “to stop a nuclear emergency I have to declare a nuclear emergency?” “Yes,” the more senior agent replies. “The logic only works if you say it slowly and keep the contradictory elements apart.”
From the beginning, the Shabazz case is stage-managed by people who, in a democracy, should be considered hilariously unfit to wield absolute power over the life and death of their fellow citizens. This disjuncture is where much of the movie’s humor comes from. “You’re gonna pitch me the next 9/11,” eye-rolls one bureau lawyer, knowing he’s about to be sold on the field office’s latest ridiculous sting idea. One especially dicey entrapment tactic will only work in the Fourth Federal Circuit Court of Virginia: “You have to fly ‘em there and rearrest ‘em when the land,” the lawyer frets. “Sure, whatever, perfect!” an agent responds.
Morris’ two feature films amount to a damningly familiar picture of life in the 21st century. In Morris’ world, belief in anything beyond a narrow band of quasi-official opinion is relegated to social outcasts and lonely misfits, many of whom are bonkers and some of whom are genuinely dangerous. Meanwhile, reality is contingent on the whims of powerful idiots who lie as easily as they breathe, and whose handiwork has left most of us unable to tell the difference between invention and truth.
This is not an entirely fair picture of things, I admit. And in a time of actual crisis, Morris-type cynicism can curdle into a mindless acceptance of conspiracy theories and reflexive suspicion of everything that comes from any normative source of authority. But overstatement is one of comedy’s methods for upsetting an otherwise rigid sense of moral proportion, showing that nothing is so enormous that it can’t be reduced back to its pathetically, perhaps reassuringly human scope. The optimism in Morris’ work comes from the hope that comedy, and maybe comedy alone, is still equal to the task of exposing reality as it really is.
Perhaps things aren’t as exaggeratedly terrible as The Day Shall Come makes them out to be, but there’s enough similarity between the world of the movie and the one we actually live in to validate any nagging unease. Colleyville might be another one of contemporary America’s many permanent mysteries, but as Morris’ films show, any skepticism we might have about an illogical and plainly evasive official accounting of events isn’t just the result of paranoia. At worst, our doubts spring from the dark outer reaches of the human and American condition. At best, they’re a revolt against numb acceptance of obvious, deadening nonsense.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.