I watched way too much television when I was in Saudi Arabia last year.
It wasn’t that there wasn’t anything else to do. I tried to walk around Jeddah whenever my work schedule at The Saudi Gazette — and the security concerns of my employer — allowed it. It wasn’t easy, because Jeddah is an even less pedestrian friendly city than your average American suburb, with its broad, traffic clogged and unsympathetic streets. There were still old sections of the city, with twisty, narrow alleys, but Jeddah in 2003 was not Dubai in the early 1990s, and I wasn’t as brave (or foolish) enough to dart into some of the darker corners of the city by myself the way I did in the Emirates a decade earlier.
However, big, fat Americans rarely walked around in Jeddah, and when I did get out (which was often enough), I regularly got mistaken for a Turk or a Syrian.
It didn’t help that I didn’t have a real bicycle to ride either. The one I bought, a Chinese-made Phoenix, was about three frame sizes too small and I didn’t have any way to keep the seat up.
Sometimes, after an 11 or 12-hour work day of editing copy and shepherding our reporters (Saudis and expatriates), it was all I could do to plop myself down in front of the teevee in the villa I shared with my four colleagues — two Jordanians and two other Americans — and wonder what was on Orbit that night. Click click click.
We had an okay selection to choose from. A couple of movie channels, including Showtime and TCM marketed for the Middle East; something called America Plus, which pulled together "the best" programs from the US networks for the Middle East audience (assuming you can call Veronica’s Closet or Witchblade the best of anything); Al-Jazeera; LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.); Saudi Channel 1; BBC World; Discovery; Pakistani teevee; a Hindi-language satellite channel and CNN International. I also seem to remember an Islamic channel called Iqraa’, Egyptian state television, and occasionally something from France.
Not great, but okay. Some people had satellite receivers with hundreds of channels. It’s what you were willing or able to pay for.
The alternatives to satellite teevee were not good. Saudi Channel 1 was fun in an absurdist sort-of way, especially the newscasts, but boring after a while, especially when cheesy children’s cartoons came on. (Channel 1 only got really interesting during Ramadan, when it ran Tash Ma Tash, a comedy show that gently lampooned just about everything in Saudi society, from the religious establishment to strict gender segregation to unemployment.) And while there was supposed to be a Channel 2 in English and French, I don’t recall ever seeing it. That was it for broadcast television. On the radio, there was the Saudi FM music station (which played Saudi and Arab pop music — yes, there is a Saudi pop music scene), the Qur’an recitation station on several frequencies, and the Armed Forces Network repeater in Jeddah, which played a lot of 1970s rock mixed with military public service announcements (do Saudis and Pakistanis really need to know what US service members ought to do in the event they get overseas deployment orders?) and National Public Radio in the evening. (The AFN station seemed to be favored by most Jeddah cab drivers, if that’s an indication of anything.)
Or for real fun, you could get out the shortwave and tune into Radio Vatican, Sudanese state radio, or the Hebrew-accented English-language number station on any one of the zillion frequencies it would appear on early in the morning and late evening. But that could get old quick too.
The five of us in Villa #35 did not always see eye to eye on what we wanted to watch, but we agreed often enough. Mostly we watched Showtime movies, since we usually got our fill of news during the day at the Gazette. Shaadi, one of my Jordanian roommates, a gifted photographer and the newspaper’s chief translator, was a big fan of the Discovery Channel, and could watch the half-hour features on automobile engineering, fighter jets, and tall buildings over and over again. Often, he would. Sometimes we teased him unmercifully about it, and I started calling Discovery "The Shaadi Channel."
Shaadi was amazing — he’d never even been close to the United States, yet his American-accented English was close to perfect (I asked him where in the US he’d gone to school), the result, he told me, of years of watching American films. His knowledge of American movies (and American cars, his other passion) was stunning in its breadth and depth. I was fooled, several times, into thinking he actually knew something about America. Occasionally, I would be reminded that his knowledge of us was limited entirely to what he’d seen on the screen.
One night, several of us were watching the latest installment of a feature about patrolling with US forces in Iraq on CNN International. For several days, CNN had been broadcasting video of American soldiers banging down doors, yelling at Iraqis, forcing people on the ground and rifling through homes in pursuit of resistance fighters and supporters. Not the same video, but the same technique, applied over and over again, at house after house.
"Have you ever seen anything like that?" Shaadi asked, visibly angry at the way the Americans treated the Iraqis.
Yes, actually, I have, I told him. This is like watching an episode of Cops. Only the video and audio are worse.
I had a hard time believing Fox never packaged one of its earliest hits for broadcast abroad — especially in the Middle East, where American pop culture is consumed so eagerly. So I explained it — a video crew wanders around with a police officer or two, records everything, and then neatly edits the presentable bits together into a half-hour long show. And based on what we were watching, I explained that what were seeing was fairly typical of American police techniques, although the soldiers are a little more intense. This busting into an Iraqi villa, this is little different than what American cops would do in any American city. And little different than what we’d see in the final edit.
Shaadi shook his head and laughed.
"You people are f****d up!"
The statement was so obviously true on the face of it, I never bothered to ask Shaadi what he meant. Did he mean the actual barging into houses with guns drawn, yelling and screaming was "f****d up?" If that’s the case, it’s a pity we’ll never get to see Cops in Amman or Cops in Cairo, where police busting down doors with guns blazing — as opposed to simply yelling and threatening — and getting themselves as well as a few bystanders killed is typical policing. It would be interesting, if gory, entertainment, and a good comparison with "more civilized" police techniques employed by American men and women in blue and black camouflage.
Or, was the fact that we didn’t hide these things, but instead cleaned them up for public entertainment suitable for children and adults alike, what was really "f****d up?" If so, then Shaadi really had something there.
Cops is the perfect morality tale for the evolving American police state. It truly is. I’m no expert in the program (I don’t even own a teevee right now), but over the years, I’ve watched more than my fair share of the show. So have you, I’m guessing.
The show really is brilliant. It’s well edited, the police officers crews ride along with are well chosen, and I suspect the most questionable material — smart or calm suspects, overly brutal police officers — is all left in the editing bay. Cops presents a simple world in which every police officer is good and noble — out to "serve the community" and "do good." They may not all be uniformly young and handsome, but almost all of the law enforcers appear to be dutiful, sympathetic, compassionate when they need to be, and tough when required.
Which is often, because the world of Cops is full of sad-sack, meth-cooking, child-neglecting, wife-beating white trash; poor, violent, drunken black folks; and a whole mess of other nasty and unsympathetic characters, none of whom merit much mercy and kindness — except, perhaps, out of a misguided sense of pity. The disclaimer may say "presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law," but you and I as viewers knows better. Nearly all persons questioned or taken into custody on the show are pathetically poor liars, and clearly guilty of whatever they’ve done ("is this yours?" the cop asks as he pulls the crack pipe out of the young man’s trousers, who responds "ain’t never seen it, honest…"). And much more too, probably.
They are unsalvagable human refuse living wretched, miserable lives. We tolerate them because, well, because we’re decent people, and getting rid of or reforming them would be far too much trouble. But we understand, and accept, that they need to be controlled for their own good and ours. And we’re willing to watch it as entertainment too.
And that’s what’s really important — the relationship created between the viewer and the show, and what it says about who we think we are as a people. The watcher of Cops gets to marvel at the stupidity of everyone detained, the pettiness of their crimes, and more importantly — the fact that we are watching, which means we aren’t being apprehended ourselves. In fact, we’re quite convinced we’re not the kind of people who would ever wind up on the wrong side of a loaded police officer, and can laugh and shake our heads at the pathetic folks who are.
It’s 30 minutes — minus commercials — of moral superiority and vicarious entertainment at the expense of people who won’t amount to much anyway.
The show’s narrative also implies — something too easily assumed by those for whom political and social power is generally wielded — that folks who get themselves chased, arrested, and detained generally deserve it.
Don’t want trouble with the police? Then don’t cause any. Don’t want to get bombed and invaded by America? Then do what it says.
It’s repugnant "law and order" Republicanism, and it always struck me as very similar to one of the principles of Soviet jurisprudence as explained by USSR supreme prosecutors Nicolai Krylenko and Andrei Vyshinsky in the first volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago — Arrest is the main proof of guilt, because the state would never arrest an innocent person.
That’s what was so interesting about watching what amounted to an episode of Cops in Samarra (through a green-tinted night scope) with a couple of Jordanians, people much more willing to sympathize with the angry and frightened Iraqis in the CNN International video, rather than the supposedly noble American soldiers simply "doing their duty." To Shaadi, at least, the Iraqis were not bad liars, not pathetic, not benighted people in need of aid and assistance.
Or, alternately, irredeemably evil people in need of good and regular beatings to keep them in line.
They were people like him who happened to find themselves on the unlucky business end of people like me, people who did not deserve their violent, humiliating and televised encounter with the most powerful army on earth.
Someday, I suspect, all this will eventually come home to us. What constitutes "trouble with the police," and how do you avoid it, if an act of conscience — refusing to vaccinate your children, send them to the public school, refuse to submit to what is a likely resumption of conscription, hiding those who refuse to be drafted, refusing to support the conflict of the moment, or whatever the future may hold in store for us — becomes, is becoming, "trouble?"
Will all that "trouble" be packaged for viewing pleasure in prime time? Will we still watch? And who will most of us cheer for?
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.