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Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) & American Exceptionalism

Zero Dark ThirtyZD30 is the film narrative that tells the dramatic story of the special forces operation that on May 2, 2011 located and killed Osama Bin Laden in a compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, which is not far from Islamabad. It is directed by the prominent director, Kathryn Bigelow, who had won big Hollywood awards (2009 Oscar for best movie and  best director) for her brilliant film, Hurt Locker, focused on the work of a bomb squad in Iraq, and its impact on the lives of the American soldiers taking part. She knows her craft, and ZD30 is captivates an audience due to its screenplay, virtuoso acting, taut plot, vividly contoured characters, insight into the mentality of CIA operatives and their bosses, and the evidently realistic portrayal of grisly torture scenes. These filmic virtues have been displaced by a raging controversy as to whether ZD30 endorses torture as a valued and effective tool against extremist enemies of the United States and conveys the message that torture was instrumental in the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

Certainly President Obama claimed and received much credit in the United States for executing this mission, and it has received very little critical scrutiny. It is hard to calculate the impact of this strike that killed Bin Laden on the 2012 election, but it many believe it made a crucial difference, at least psychologically, and particularly in relation to the outcome in swing states and with respect to the last minute decisions reached by independent voters. Such a success against Al Qaeda was registered as a major victory despite the absence of evidence that Bin Laden has been playing any significant role in Al Qaeda activities during recent years, including that of their so-called affiliates, in such countries as Yemen, Iraq, and Mali, and he was so removed from the scene of the conflict that there was serious speculation that he had died or was incapacitated long before 2011. As it did with the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government fans the flames of suspicion by refusing to disclose the evidence relied upon to identify that the person killed at the compound in Abbottabad was indeed Bin Laden and by the related refusal even to allow journalists or others to see the body before it was unceremoniously dumped at sea (although after administering Muslim burial rituals and obtaining a quiet approval from the Saudi government, his birthplace).

The deeper questions, of course, are the conduct of such a military mission without the permission, or even the knowledge, of the territorial sovereign; indeed there were American military units standing by in case Pakistan found out while the operation was underway and used its own military capabilities to abort it. Also, was it legally and morally appropriate to kill Osama Bin Laden despite his being unarmed when confronted in the compound and at that point in the raid there was no resistance? It would seem clear that it would not be acceptable to the U.S. Government for other governments to carry out such an extra-judicial killing to eliminate an enemy leader living in a distant country. Would not many governments have a comparable security argument if faced with real or imagined overseas enemies? Arguably, the immensity of the 9/11 crimes and the grandiosity of Osama Bin Laden’s self-declared war against ‘the crusader’ forces of the West set him apart to some extent. Bigelow makes this connection by opening the film with a blank screen while engaging the audience with voice recordings of frightened persons trapped in the Trade Center buildings on that fateful day, presumably conditioning us to be indulgent toward responses on ‘the dark side’ that were somehow commensurate with the immensity of the crime attributed to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Yet, it would still seem that the particulars of this Operation Neptune Spear (the US Government code name) are ventures that only the United States, and possibly Israel, would undertake, and that their unabashed victory claim, is a notorious instance of American Exceptionalism, namely, an assertion that the United States can do what others must not dare to do, and can even provide for itself a legal rationale with the arrogant label ‘not for use by others,’ as has been the implicit message of the American debate, such as it is, about the legality of attack drones. With a posture of post-colonial insensitivity the United States is currently openly discussing ‘establishing’ a sixth military base for drone aircraft in Africa (Morocco, Senegal, Bukino Faso, Uganda, Djibouti, and now Niger) as if such a decision could be made solely in Washington without regard for the precedent being set or the regional attitudes toward the reassertion of a Western military presence. On formal level these African governments have given their formal consent to what might be called ‘drone colonialism,’ but can such moves be reconciled with political independence and genuine self-determination?

The discussion generated by the movie is misleadingly framed as a kind of quarrel between those who insist on ‘political correctness’ when it comes to torture and militarism and those who champion freedom of speech and the amoral conscience of the artist. Matt Taibbi ends an otherwise stellar, provocative review in Rolling Stone of ZD30 with what he must regard as an ironic closing line that speculates on how Dick Cheney would respond, as if that clinches the anti-Bigelow arguments: “Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?” Bigelow doesn’t do much to unmuddy the waters by declaring herself to be “a lifelong pacifist’ and then in the same LA Times op/ed (Jan. 15, 2013) ending with what sounds to me like a ringing statement of approval of what the film depicts, including its torture sequences. In Bigelow’s words, “Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”

Besides being quite a stark departure from pacifism this observation contradicts her earlier dismissal of moral criticism: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. It fit was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.” Such a posture is adopted by ZD30 at its outset with the moviegoer informed, “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” These words can only be understood asa filmmaker’s insistence that what is about to be seen is ‘reality’ and not ‘a reality show.’

In fact, Maya, the lead CIA operative whose quiet heroism consisted of an obsessive dedication to the search for Bin Laden, is portrayed as a new kind of governmental superhero who shuts down emotions in the line of duty until the mission is successfully completed. Such feminization of macho character traits is a feature of the film that has received searing commentary from Zilah Eisenstein in Al Jazeera English (21 January 2013). Bigelow’s gift for self-contradiction is unmatched: she celebrates Maya’s achievement, who is finally allowed to cry only at the end on her flight home, reminded by the crew that she must be important to have a military plane all to herself, while claiming that the demanding work of protecting the security of the country is being done by ‘ordinary Americans.’ Maybe Bigelow’s Hindu gift as an artist to live in comfortable proximity to stark contradiction!

In the abstract, there can be no quibble with such a blending of antagonist sentiments, but this does not imply a suspension of moral and political judgment. Let’s suppose that Picasso had coupled the unveiling of his Guernica with a statement of glowing praise for what Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pilots had accomplished by their attack on a Spanish village in 1937, and went on to insist that the bombing of a defenseless village was a display of courage and patriotic resolve by these bombers who risked everything in the defense of Franco’s Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War! By Bigelow’s double insistence on being both an amoral filmmaker that depict ‘reality’ and an American patriot who loves her country, she evidently wants to please everyone, but ends up satisfying almost no one, least of all someone trying to decipher her true beliefs about the real meaning of the film. Silence would have served her better.

Despite purporting to be non-committal, seeking only to tell the true story of the struggle to catch Bin Laden, the film comes down quite strongly in support of those who have long contended that torture works. On the one side the movie better than any other film I have seen, makes the undertaking of torture a distasteful enterprise in the extreme that sullies the torturer along with the victim (although the film suppresses any recognition of this blowback).  At the same time ZD30 normalizes torture as part of the daily routine of anti-terrorist warfare, and it scandalizes the torturers in the manner of Abu Ghraib, by merging brutality toward those who are helpless with humiliation that disgusts: forcing the Muslim victim to expose his genitals in the presence of females and leading the prisoners around with a dog collar and leash in the manner given global notoriety by Lynndie England in an Iraq prison.

Anyone who sees ZD30 will at least no longer be able to take refuge behind the euphemisms of the Bush Era that denied ‘torture’ ever took place as torture is contrary to government policy and American values. During the earlier period the authorized practice of torture was called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ a pattern then falsely alleged to be fully consistent with international humanitarian law. Of course, Obama’s refusal to look back to assess whether accountability should be imposed for such crimes while declaring his pledge to act in accord with international law is another one of those convenient contradictions that Bigelow throws in our direction.

The film handles well the intense bureaucratic pressures on CIA field operatives from higher up to find some ‘actionable intelligence’ and making reliance on torture part of the job description. ZD30 also conveys the atmosphere within government, or at least the CIA, as one that takes it for granted that torture elicits reliable and valuable intelligence. There is no strong countervailing pressures evident except an oblique appreciation that after Bush the new man in the White House, namely Obama, has officially repudiated torture, and is unwilling to sweep the issue under the rug of mystification by calling torture enhanced interrogation techniques. There is a derisive implication in the movie that to the extent the governmental wind is blowing in a slightly different direction in Washington the ongoing global work of imperial America will grow more difficult. There is no suggestion in ZD30 or in other contexts that Obama seeks to dismantle the American overseas empire or even to revise the role of military power in the grand strategy of the first country in history to invest in the enormous capabilities needed to become and remain a ‘global state,’ that is a state whose sovereignty is non-territorial is scope, extending to the global commons (oceans, space) and overriding the sovereign of ‘normal’ states whose claims of sovereignty extend no further than their territorial boundaries.

The question of torture has been much discussed in the United States over the course of the last decade. It is usually defended by invoking an extreme situation, saving a city from a ‘ticking bomb’ or to locate someone about to massacre a school full of children, implying that torture will only be used when confronted by situations of exceptional and imminent danger. But the practice of torture becomes much more generalized once the red line of prohibition is crossed. As soon as exceptions are made, as always in dealing with violent crime and politics, there is the possibility, however remote that torture might yield access to information that could avert human disaster. Yet the taint of torture is not removable, and spreads; for this reason, only an unconditional prohibition, as written into international human rights law and reinforced by rigorous accountability mechanisms, is worthy of our moral, and political, respect. To reclaim this high moral ground should be the shared goal of any anti-torture campaign worthy of support.

For me more disturbing even than the indirect whitewashing of torture is the nationalization of worldview that pervades the film (as well as the media and the political culture, given populist credibility by such TV serials as 24 and Homeland). There is no sense whatsoever that those who are killed or tortured might be innocent or have had major long unheeded grievances or that the American response to 9/11 was killing and wounding many more thousands than had been killed by Al Qaeda, a set of responses in which whole societies were torn asunder for little or no gain in American security, in effect, massive forms of collective punishment, fueled by national orgies of fear and calls for vengeance. There is a monumental insensitivity in this country to the sovereign rights of other states, most obviously Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The American military and the intelligence world are professionally oriented toward maximizing operational effectiveness, but it is less understandable that the country’s political leaders remain oblivious to the rights and wellbeing of others in a world that is increasingly globalized. Implicitly, in the film and in American statecraft the lives of others are simply stage props on the geopolitical stage of political violence where the grand narrative of global statehood is being narrated.

In this primary sense, objectively considered, the killing of Bin Laden seems little more than a costly and risky venture in vengeance that glorifies a militarist conception of security that can only bring massive doses of grief to societies around the world, and does great harm to the many young Americans being asked to put their mental and physical health in mortal jeopardy for very questionable purposes that are only marginally related to the defense and security of the country. The historically high suicide, crime, and social dislocation among war veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan should be heeded as a scream from the depths of the political culture rather than be treated as an awkward embarrassment that should not even factored into discussions of the costs of war. Such screams were briefly heard in the aftermath of Vietnam (derided by the leadership as the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’), but soon ignored as the dirty work of managing an empire went forward. What ZD30 does, without malice but in the obedient spirit of complicity, is to glorify this dirty work.

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