Against “Zero Dark Thirty”

Some thoughts on this charming Christmas release…

I don’t care whether the film glorifies torture or not

Tom Carson argues that the film will actually make us grapple with hard truths, and insults Glenn Greenwald’s suggestion that positive reactions to the film are based on pro-torture sentiments in the general population:

No matter what Greenwald imagines in the recesses of his “Gee, maybe I should get out more often” gray matter, the point of Zero Dark Thirty isn’t to let us exult that we got bin Laden… the movie is all about the moral, psychological and even spiritual price we paid to do it.

If Zero Dark Thirty causes more Americans to know and understand the despicable things done in their name in the War of Terror™, and if more of them in turn question the proffered justifications for the National Security and Surveillance State© then I’ll be all for it. More likely, I think, is that the film will provide ballast for a pro-torture argument – that despite niceties about human rights, sometimes we need to operate “on the dark side”, as Dick Cheney put it – and in so doing, breathe new life into the “debate” this country has had with itself since Sept. 11, 2001, in which half or more of us pretend that the Geneva Accords aren’t really that serious.

It goes beyond torture. I realize I am in a small camp as someone who did not view the assassination of Osama Bin Laden as some great American moment to be proud of. I would have preferred if he had been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced, but I have no problem with his being killed in a firefight resisting arrest. I do have a problem with the body being dumped in the ocean under cover of darkness. Why exactly was that necessary?

Unfortunately, the killing of Bin Laden has become a heroic and glorious event because Americans have accepted the military lens as the only one through which anti-terror policy can be viewed. And that inherently promotes a pro-torture agenda: the war must be won.

I don’t care whether the film is factually accurate or not

This is art, not history. I am not against story-telling. So it’s not relevant, in my opinion, whether, as the movie apparently depicts, some tip produced by torture led to the killing of Bin Laden. But Carson says that “We don’t know who the filmmakers did and didn’t talk to while they were researching the story.” That is not entirely accurate.

We do know that one of director Kathryn Bigelow’s sources was the Pentagon. That’s not a huge deal: the Pentagon has a “Hollywood” department that liaises with studio filmmakers regularly, making sure that those Pearl Harbor planes and tankers look “just so.” But Bigelow, and screenwriter Mark Boal, met with a lot of other people at the White House and the CIA, including an actual SEAL Team Six operative. An organization called Judicial Watch obtained documents through a FOIA suit showing that multiple meetings had taken place, including one at the CIA’s “Vault”, or war room. In one of the emails, a PR flak at Defense wrote:

“[The Dept. of Defense] would like to shape the story to prevent any gross inaccuracies, but do not want to make it look like the commanders think it’s okay to talk to the media.” The email went on to say: “For the intelligence case, they are basically using the WH-approved talking points we used the night of the operation.” The talking points called the raid “a ‘Gutsy Decision’ by the POTUS,” adding that “WH involvement was critical.”

This same organization has been suing the Obama administration for access to documents from the Bin Laden raid, and the government’s lawyers have argued the case should be thrown out because it concerns national secrets. No one from Judicial Watch was invited to tour the Vault, or to meet a Navy SEAL. Obama goes on Jay Leno and makes jokes about drone assassination, but when presented with legal challenge to these policies, claims that they are too secret to be discussed in court. So, too secret for court (where policies might be challenged and effectively thwarted), but not too secret for the Tonight Show, where Obama can control the message, and knows it will be well received. And naturally not too secret for Bigelow and Boal, whom the White House and the CIA clearly believe will depict their actions (fictional or not) in a favorable light.

I care that Obama discloses nonpublic information to some, while harassing whistleblowers and dissidents

There is another filmmaker in this story, one who doesn’t have an Academy Award. He is in fact still a student, and his name is Muhammad Danish Qasim. His short film The Other Side shows up close the damage from drone strikes in his native Pakistan, and particularly how their surviving victims become susceptible to terrorist recruiters. The Other Side won an award at a Seattle festival for young filmmakers, but Qasim was denied a visa to attend the ceremony.

Similarly, an outspoken Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of U.S. drone strikes, Shahzad Akbar, failed to get a visa to speak at the International Drone Summit in Washington, DC earlier this year. Even the man who could be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, was removed from a plane by US immigration officials on his way to a fundraising lunch in New York, and “interrogated on [his] views on drones”.

Obama’s DOJ relentlessly pursued an ultimately unsuccessful prosecution of Thomas Drake, who exposed illegal spying activity and wasteful spending practices at the NSA, going so far as to charge Drake under the Espionage Act. Of course, Drake’s life was almost completely ruined by the prosecution, so from the government’s perspective, it wasn’t entirely unsuccessful.

And let us not forget PFC Bradley Manning, the alleged Wikileaker, who has been imprisoned nearly three years, including an astonishing nine months in solitary confinement, and whose procedure to trial is finally making some progress. Manning faces the very serious charge of “aiding the enemy” for (allegedly) giving us the State Dept cables and the battlefield logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, documents that portrayed U.S. policies and practices in a much less favorable light than what was shown to Bigelow and Boal.

My problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not with its content. I haven’t seen it and I don’t plan to (although I may eventually see it, when it’s on free tv). My problem with the film is that it’s a symbol of this double standard from the government. All presidents seek to manage their public image and spin the media. But Obama has pushed U.S. national security policy into targeted assassination, shielding it in secrecy from the courts (i.e. from the rule of law), and yet grandly promoting it through selective media filtering – and that is going farther than anyone before him. I stand against these policies, and as it is clear to me from his behavior that Obama views the film as a useful propaganda tool, I will not contribute to its financial success.

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