Better This World, an engrossing, emotional documentary about the post-9/11 role of FBI informants in domestic terrorism cases, airs Tuesday, September 6 on PBS.
The documentary tells the story of David McKay and Brad Crowder, two young friends from George W. Bush's hometown of Midland, Texas who went to St. Paul, Minnesota in 2008 to protest the Republican National Convention and were arrested for making eight Molotov cocktails. The film chronicles the resulting multiple domestic terrorism charges and a "high stakes entrapment defense."
The genius of the documentary lies in the fact that the viewer starts out naturally unsympathetic to two young men misguided enough to feel they could "better this world" by using homemade explosives to make a "dramatic statement of property destruction" at the RNC. But as filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega reveal the course of events leading up to McKay and Crowder's road trip to St. Paul, the viewer comes to see the young men as impressionable youth profoundly influenced by a dynamic FBI informant 10 years their senior who not only encouraged them to go with him to St. Paul to protest the RNC, but who had been speaking to them for over a year about the necessity of extreme forms of activism.
Spoiler Alert: readers planning to watch the film might not want to read further until after viewing.
The film depicts Crowder and McKay as idealist activists eager to affect change. At the anarchist Austin bookstore MonkeyWrench Books (named after Edward Abbey's classic novel of violent resistance) the two friends met Brandon Darby, a seasoned hero-activist. Darby, well known for his role in creating Common Ground, a group that helped to feed and shelter thousands of New Orleanians after Katrina, asked to meet privately with the two youth. At that meeting Darby asked them if they were going to be idealistic hippies who merely talked the talk, or if they were willing to make sacrifices for what they believed in.
The film makes anyone enchanted in their young adulthood by books such as Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang wonder what misguided actions they may have been led to had they had a handsome, dynamic activist-leader encouraging them to risk everything for their beliefs.
Historically, FBI informants were only allowed to watch and listen to potential criminals, but now they are also allowed to encourage radical thinking in people the FBI sees as potential domestic terrorists. As 35-year veteran of the FBI James Wedick says in the film, "Before 9/11 your informant was not allowed to do anything but listen and record. Eyes and ears. Today it's eyes, ears, and the informant's mouth."
The film begs certain questions: Is the government preventing crime, or creating potential criminals they can then convict of domestic terrorism? And why are FBI informants egging activists on to believe that extreme action is warranted and even necessary? And, perhaps most importantly, is this tactic really helping to keep Americans safe from domestic terrorism?
The film also illustrates how the new nature of FBI informants rarely comes to light during criminal trials; the majority of people charged with domestic terrorism take plea bargains to avoid trials, which result in a 90 percent conviction rate, along with lengthy sentences.
The question of entrapment by FBI informants comes down to: Would the defendants have been in that situation if it hadn't been for the informant?
And in the case of Crowder and McKay, it's hard to answer that question with a resounding "Yes."
Download the PBS app and stream the film on your computer or phone for free.