It was a pleasure to attend the World Premiere of Better This World at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. This film tells the Kafkaesque story of how two young idealistic political activists from Texas – Brad Crowder and David McKay - were charged with domestic terrorism while protesting at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, MN. Better This World raises serious questions about the abuse of civil liberties in the post-9/11 "War on Terror." The two key issues that emerge are 1) The use of government informants to entrap people into committing criminal acts and the 2) The widespread practice of using plea bargaining to entice the criminally accused into admitting guilt and accepting a lighter sentence rather than risk a much longer sentence at trial. The use of informants is an issue that is rarely discussed, but seems to be increasingly common in recent years. The issue of plea bargaining has recently been spotlighted in several films about the events in Tulia, TX and the feature film American Violet.
Both practices raise serious questions about how far the police and prosecutors will bend the rules in order to make their cases. The film is well-made and compelling examination of how the justice system acted to tear apart the lives of two young men who never hurt anyone and seemed at worst to be guilty of poor judgment. There will always be a balance between protecting civil liberties and seeking to secure justice and protect public safety. In this case and too many others in recent years, it seems as if we've failed to protect the rights of the criminally accused. As Ben Franklin told us centuries ago, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty." If we sacrifice our civil liberties, we sacrifice our democracy. Films like Better This World force us to ask difficult questions about how our democracy functions.
Better This World is scheduled for broadcast on PBS's POV in the fall. It deserves to be widely seen as we seek "a more perfect union."
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