Know Your Enemy

Much hullabaloo is being made over the upcoming release of the new thriller about the search for bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.  Most pundits are keying in on what the movie said about torture, and I can't blame them.  In the last decade, popular media has been saturated with the type of 24-style terrordramas that feature ticking time-bombs that can only be stopped if the ex-marine superhero is willing to torture someone for the information he needs to do so.  Thanks to the sheer popularity of these programs - and the willingness of torture advocates to accept any arguments in favor of their repulsive position, no matter how flawed - this ridiculous logic pervades public discourse on the subject.

But, irregardless of what the movie says (or doesn't say) about torture, it was destined from the start to be nothing more than a propaganda film, fitting the standard US-government-led narrative of the war on terror.  That fate was sealed the moment it came out that the Obama administration was allowing the screenwriter intimate access to those involved in the "greatest manhunt in history" - access which is expressly barred from journalists, of course.

And how do you get this kind of play?

Well, you start by making The Hurt Locker.  Gotta shore up your credentials with a parochial war-is-hell-but-we're-not-blaming-anyone (and if we are, it's those dirty terrorist Arabs who use children as human bombs) adrenaline fest.  Once you've got that on your resume, and it's clear you're going to be no real threat to power - in actuality you're filling space where someone might make a truly critical piece - then you're on your way.  Follow that up by making it clear that your new movie is simply going to be about America trying to get the bad guy.  A limited timeline with no unsavory history.  Just 9/11 to Seal Team Six.

And that's surely what we're going to be fed, given a glance at the rave reviews that have come out already.  I mean, no one is doubting the cinematic prowess of those involved.  I'm sure that - just like The Hurt Locker - it's an extremely well-made film.  The problem is the industry churns out these type of well-made films that say nothing at an increasingly rapid pace.  They strive to make the type of film that at face value appears to titillate, but in actuality just reinforces the stereotypical view of the world we're all fed from day one.  So, even if Zero Dark Thirty does give its viewers a so-so view of torture, in the end it's still a celebratory "we got our guy!" whitewash.  It will do far more for jingoism than it will for self-reflection.

But there is a bigger issue here, and it is the question of: "What is acceptable discourse?"

Let's say I were to create a movie telling the story of bin Laden (that's what the idea here is, right?).  So, I start from the training of the mujahideen, show the extent of his money and influence, talk about US bases in the Middle East and the situation with Israel and Palestine and why that upsets the Muslim world. I eventually work through it all, and include the embassy bombings, 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, and finally the events surrounding his death.  Immediately, it would be labelled terrorist propaganda.  It would be utterly shunned by all but the most activist sectors of the film industry.  The government wouldn't cooperate with details and events, they would put me on a watch list and work on doing their best to discredit me.  And yet I would only be showing the same history told by ultra-radical Wikipedia.

Contrast this with how Zero Dark Thirty is received.  Director Kathryn Bigelow says the film "doesn't have an agenda".  Really, no agenda?  With all things considered, that statement may fly in the face of reason, but what it really means is that the movie adheres completely to the official history of events - as dictated by the US government.  And that's the difference here.  Challenge the standard dialogue - factually, and fairly - and you're an enemy of the state; play to it, and you "have no agenda" and become a celebrated director.  This same scenario plays out in all walks of life, and it's hard to blame people for submitting.  You just can't build a career unless you sell out.  And American society teaches us to sell out, hard and fast.

The predictable result is that we've become a citizenry which is more than happy to regurgitate our government's foreign policy talking points and call them objective.  And we get really upset if anyone dares to break our fantasy.  Greater America has become a "don't make me think!" zone, and it's gotten to the point where we can't even stomach legitimate discussion on domestic policy.  Don't talk to me about gun culture, Bob Costas, I just want to watch my football game!  Don't talk to me about racism, Kanye, just read from the script!  When you take people out of their comfort zone, all the sudden you have an agenda, and that's bad.

"But I still don't see the problem.  Shouldn't we celebrate bin Laden's death?  Haven't we made the world a better place?"

No.  The entire episode is symptomatic of the problems inherent in the war on terror.  We do not seek to enact justice; we only continue to perpetuate a gross cycle of revenge, without ever once looking in the mirror.  The American Empire is incredibly harmful to most of the world's population, and our support for it is nearly as religiously closed-minded as that of the very same terrorists we deride.  The idea that killing bin Laden was going to change anything was rooted in pure fantasy.  We've spent years radicalizing Muslims to the same cause.  We're constantly warned that by killing, and killing, and killing, we're creating thousands of new 'bin Ladens' to take his place.

So how do you deal with a someone like Osama bin Laden?  Well, you first realize that he has nothing if affected Muslims around the world cannot relate to his words.  So you embrace the majority of scholars who do not treat Islam as radically as he does, and thus marginalize his views.  You also make an effort to stop stepping on Arabs all over the world, as opposed to denying you're doing so.  I'm reminded of something William Blum wrote in early 2002:

If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few
days. Permanently. I would first apologize to all the widows and orphans, the tortured
and impoverished, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism.
Then I would announce, in all sincerity, to every corner of the world, that America's
global interventions have come to an end, and inform Israel that it is no longer the 51st state of the USA but henceforth—oddly enough—a foreign country. I would then reduce the military budget by at least 90% and use the savings to pay reparations to the victims. There would be more than enough money. One year's military budget of $330 billion is equal to more than $18,000 an hour for every hour since Jesus Christ was born.
That's what I'd do on my first three days in the White House. On the fourth day, I'd be
But of course none of this would ever happen.  We refuse to even admit that our strategy of bombing and more bombing might actually be counterproductive.

Bin Laden was also never marginalized.  Quite the opposite, in fact - the US government continually acted just as he criticized them for (and make no mistake, he was hardly the first or last to say these things).  Rather than shrink, al Qaeda and similar groups have grown.  Every Iraqi and Afghan knows their message, and has experienced part of it firsthand.  And now the people of Pakistan, Yemen, and the other predominantly Muslim countries we have drones flying around, are doing the same.

Maybe if we thought about these issues a little bit more, we wouldn't be so callous.  Maybe in the end we would find out bin Laden really did care about the issues he claimed to, and wasn't just some madman hellbent on watching the world burn.  Maybe he even turns himself in.  Maybe if you start this process in the 1990s events like 9/11 never happen.

Of course, now we'll never know.


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