LOS ANGELES, JAN. 6 -- A TV producer's attempt to dramatize the strain that terrorism could put on the American judicial system has resulted in cries of outrage from a leading Arab American organization and new debate over the political content of television drama.
What began as a friendly -- and unusual -- effort by producer George Englund to seek input from Arab American activists about his three-hour TV movie, "Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami," before it was made, has ended in the very controversy he sought to avoid. Critics are charging that the film, which airs Sunday night on CBS, fails to mention Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians for fear of alienating American Jews, and further assures distortion of the Palestinian cause by using as a major legal consultant a supporter of Israel, Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz.
"It's absurd," said Faris Bouhafa, spokesman for the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and one of the film's chief critics. "I can't find any other word for it."
Bouhafa said his organization has encouraged its members to ask CBS affiliates to report their objections to the program, since the network has rejected his request for a one-hour live debate after the program is broadcast.
He said a Sacramento, Calif., station has agreed to interview local Palestinian Americans on their reactions to the show, and Washington's WUSA, Channel 9, has indicated it will cover the controversy. However, Channel 9 spokeswoman Diane Digit said she was not aware of any such commitment from the station.
"Terrorist on Trial" tells the story of a Palestinian captured overseas by U.S. agents after murdering American civilians, including a child, and brought back to the United States for trial. It was written by William Link and his late partner, Richard Levinson, who were also responsible for the hit series "Columbo" and the acclaimed TV film "The Execution of Private Slovik."
The movie stars Sam Waterston as the prosecutor, Robert Davi as the terrorist and Ron Leibman as the Jewish lawyer who defends him despite pressure from other Jews to drop the case.
According to a letter Englund wrote to Bouhafa Dec. 1, as their dispute began to grow bitter, Englund flew to Washington from his Los Angeles base in April to show Bouhafa the script and seek his advice. "I came to listen. I came with an open mind. And it took guts," Englund wrote. "Not everyone agreed that presenting our script to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee before production commenced was a sensible idea."
Bouhafa, who continues to compliment Englund for his unusual gesture, said he made comments that led to minor script changes, but nothing was done about his principal objections.
"The choice of Mr. Dershowitz to construct a hypothetical defense of a Palestinian terrorist virtually ensured that Palestinian outrage at U.S. supported Israeli abuses would not be a major focus of the script," Bouhafa wrote to CBS Entertainment President Kim LeMasters. "Alan Dershowitz is on record as an ardent supporter of Israel."
Bouhafa said the script, and as far as he knows the film, had the terrorist justify his acts on the grounds of previous U.S. atrocities, such as during the Vietnam war. He said there was little, if any, reference to Palestinians being pushed into violent retaliation because of Israeli raids on Palestinian villages and killings of Palestinian demonstrators.
Bouhafa said Englund later acknowledged in a telephone conversation that "there were 'restraints' as to how far one could go in portraying a negative image of Israel in a Hollywood production." In response to his complaint about the lack of focus on Israeli policy as a motive for the terrorist's actions, Bouhafa said Englund told him "people will read between the lines."
Englund and Dershowitz could not be reached for comment. A CBS spokeswoman cited a letter to Bouhafa from George Dessart, CBS vice president for program practices, that said "this particular program does not pretend to be about 'the Arab world,' nor is it about 'the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,' or about 'the realities of that tragic conflict,' as you put it. These questions are very real, most important, and as you saw, indeed tragic, but they are totally extraneous to this program."
Bouhafa also protested "the absence of any moderate Palestinian character to make the case against terrorism but for the national aspirations of the Palestinian movement." In response, Englund told him to "take a walk in the park, calm down, and see the movie."
Bouhafa acknowledged today that local stations may be eager to publicize his protest as a way to encourage viewers to stay tuned to their local news programs after the movie.