Selling assassination on the silver screen

January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized for justifying torture--but it has other ugly messages, writes Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.

THE MOVIE Zero Dark Thirty has sparked widespread debate, mainly about whether it justifies torture by portraying savage interrogation techniques as necessary to extract information about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts so he could be assassinated.

Criticism of the film has come from the highest levels of the political establishment. In a letter to the CIA, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, fault the movie for suggesting that the CIA uncovered the key lead to track down bin Laden through torture.

Film director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who worked with the CIA in the making of this film, likely did not expect such pushback since they seem to have got a green light from the White House.

Some writers have risen to the filmmakers' defense, such as Mark Bowden, author of The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, who argued in the Atlantic that the film is not pro-torture because its first scene shows that torture could not stop an attack in Saudi Arabia.

Special Forces conduct an operation in Zero Dark Thirty
Special Forces conduct an operation in Zero Dark Thirty

However, many more commentators have stated that the film distorted the facts, insisting that bin Laden's whereabouts were discovered through means other than torture. Several actors, including well-known liberals Ed Asner and Martin Sheen, are campaigning to urge fellow members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote against giving Oscars to Zero Dark Thirty in any category.

Rebranding the Killing Machine

While much of the discussion of the film has focused on the question of torture, scant attention has been paid to a larger--and in my view, more significant--message of this film: that extrajudicial killing is good. The film teaches us that brown men can and should be targeted and killed with impunity, in violation of international law, and that we should trust the CIA to act with due diligence in pursuing them.

At a time when the key strategy in the "war on terror" has shifted from conventional operations to extrajudicial killing, here comes a film that normalizes and justifies this strategy. There may be a debate about torture regarding Zero Dark Thirty, but don't expect one about assassinations. On this, there is bipartisan consensus.

Review: Movies

Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Reda Kateb.

Zero Dark Thirty has very clear-cut "good guys" and "bad guys." The CIA characters, in particular Maya and Dan, are the heroes, and the brown men, be they Arab or South Asian, are the villains.

The first brown man we encounter, Omar, is brutally tortured by Dan, as Maya, the protagonist (played by Jessica Chastain), watches with discomfort and anxiety. We soon learn, however, that Omar and his brethren wanted "to kill all Americans," thereby dispelling all doubts, justifying torture and establishing his villainy.

In an interesting reversal (one established by the TV show 24), torture, a method normally associated with villains, is now associated with heroes, who are only doing what needs to be done. This shift is acceptable because all the brown men tortured in the film are guilty, and therefore deserve such treatment. Maya soon learns to overcome her doubts and becomes a willing participant in the use of torture. In the process, audiences are invited to advance with her from discomfort to acceptance.

A clear "us" versus "them" mentality is established, where "they" are portrayed as murderous villains, while "we" do what we need to in order to keep the world safe. One scene in particular captures "their" irrational rage against all Americans: when Maya is attacked by a barrage of machine-gun fire as she exits a safe house in her car. We are then told that her identity as a CIA agent is not public, and that in fact, all Americans are the targets of murderous rage and brutal attacks in Pakistan.

Pakistan, the country in which a majority of the film is set, is presented as a hellhole. In one of the early scenes, Maya, as a CIA freshman new to the area, is asked by a colleague what she thinks of Pakistan. She replies: "It's kind of fucked up."

Other than being the target of bombing attacks, what seems to make Pakistan "fucked up" to Maya is Islam. In one scene, she is disturbed late at night by the Muslim call to prayer sounding loud enough that it wakes her from her sleep. Disgusted by this, she grunts "oh God" and rolls back to sleep. Maya also uses the term "mullah crackadollah" to express her contempt for Muslim religious leaders (I have never heard this term before and hope that I transcribed it correctly. I certainly don't wish to waste another $14 to watch the film again, and will wait until it is out on DVD to confirm this).

What does not need re-viewing to confirm is the routine and constant use of the term "Paks" to refer to Pakistani people, a term similar to other racist epithets like "gooks" and "Japs." The film rests on the wholesale demonization of the Pakistani people. If we doubt that the "Paks" are a devious lot who can't be trusted, the film has a scene where Maya's colleague and friend is ambushed and blown to bits by a suicide bomber she expected to interrogate.

Even ordinary men standing by the road or at markets are suspicious characters who whip out cell phones to inform on and plot against the CIA. It's no wonder, then, that when Pakistanis organize a protest outside the U.S. embassy, we see the demonstrators with contempt and through the eyes of Maya, who is standing inside and whose point of view we are asked to identify with.

"Good Guys" Versus "Bad Guys"

For a filmmaker of Bigelow's talent, it's shocking to see such unambiguous "good guys" and "bad guys." The only way to be brown and not be a villain in her narrative is to be unflinchingly loyal to the Americans, as the translator working for the CIA is. The "good Muslim" does not question--he simply acts to protect and promote American interests.

Against the backdrop of this racist dehumanization of brown men, Maya and her colleagues routinely use the word "kill" without it seeming odd or out of place. After Maya has come to terms with the anguish of losing her friend in the suicide attack, she states: "I'm going to smoke everybody involved in this operation, and then I'm going to kill Osama bin Laden." When talking about a doctor who might be useful in getting to bin Laden, she says if he "doesn't give up the big man," then "we kill him."

At the start of the film, Maya refuses a disguise when she re-enters the cell in which Omar, the initial torture victim, is being held. She asks Dan if the man will ever get out and thereby reveal her identity--to which he replies "never," suggesting that Omar will either be held indefinitely or killed.

A top CIA official blasting a group of agents for not making more progress in the hunt for bin Laden sums up the role of the agency in the following manner: "Do your fucking jobs and bring me people to kill." By this point in the film, the demonization of brown men is so complete that this statement is neither surprising nor extraordinary.

The resolution of film's narrative arc is the execution of Osama bin Laden, and for the filmmakers, it's obvious they used this end point believing that no one could possibly object to the murder of this heinous person, other than the "do-good" lawyers who are chastised in the film for providing legal representation for terrorists.

Here then is the key message of the film: the law, due process and the idea of presenting evidence before a jury should be dispensed with in favor of extrajudicial killings. Further, such killings can take place without public oversight. The film not only uses the moral certainty of assassinating bin Laden to sell the audience on the righteousness of extrajudicial killing in general, but it also takes pains to show that this can be done in secret because of the checks and balances involved before a targeted assassination is carried out.

Maya is seen battling a male-dominated bureaucracy that constantly pushes her to provide evidence before it can order the strike. We feel her frustration at this process and identify with her when she says that she is "100 percent" sure that bin Laden is where she says he is. Yet a system of checks and balances that involves scrupulous CIA heads, plus a president who is "smart" and wants the facts, means that due diligence will not be compromised, even when we know we are right.

This, in my view, is the key propaganda accomplishment of the film: the selling of secret extrajudicial killings at a time when this has been designated the key strategy in the "war on terror" for the upcoming decade.

The Disposition Matrix

As I argued in my book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, the Obama administration has drawn the conclusion, after the failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, that conventional warfare should be ditched in favor of drone strikes, black operations and other such methods.

The New York Times exposé on Barack Obama's "kill list," published last year, revealed this strategy is one presided over by the president himself.

John Brennan, his top counterterrorism adviser, is one of its key authors and architects. Brennan's nomination to head the CIA is a clear indication that this strategy will not only continue, but that the spy agency will become a more openly paramilitary force that carries out assassinations through drone attacks and other means, with little or no public oversight.

As Greg Miller wrote in the in the Washington Post, the Obama administration has been working on a "blueprint for pursuing terrorists" based on the creation of a database known as the "disposition matrix." Developed by the National Counterterrorism Center, the matrix brings together separate but overlapping kill lists from the CIA and the Joint Operations Special Command into a master grid and allocates resources for "disposition." The resources to "dispose" of those on the list include capture operations, extradition and drone strikes.

Miller notes that Brennan has played a key role in the process of "codify[ing] the administration's approach to generating capture/kill lists." Based on extensive interviews with top Obama administration officials, Miller states that such extrajudicial killing is "likely to be extended at least another decade." Brennan's nomination to the CIA directorship no doubt will ensure this.

In other words, at the exact point that a strategic shift has been made in the "war on terror" from conventional operations to targeted killing, there comes a film that justifies this practice and asks us to trust the CIA with such incredible power.

No doubt the film had to remake the CIA brand, dispelling competing Hollywood images of the agency as a clandestine and shady outfit. The reality, however, is that unlike the film's morally upright characters, Brennan is a liar and unabashed torture advocate (except for waterboarding).

As Glenn Greenwald wrote at the Guardian, Brennen has "spouted complete though highly influential falsehoods to the world in the immediate aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing, including claiming that bin Laden 'engaged in a firefight' with Navy SEALS and had 'used his wife as a human shield.'"

Zero Dark Thirty, nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, is a harbinger of things to come. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law by Obama earlier this month includes an amendment, passed in the House last May, that legalizes the dissemination of propaganda to US citizens. This, writes left-wing author Naomi Klein, "legalizes something that has been illegal for decades: the direct funding of pro-government or pro-military messaging in media, without disclosure, aimed at American citizens."

We can therefore expect not only more such films, but also more misinformation on our TV screens, in our newspapers, on our radio stations and in social media websites. What used to be an informal arrangement whereby the State Department and the Pentagon manipulated the media has now been codified into law. Be ready to be propagandized to all the time, everywhere.

We live in an Orwellian world, where the government has sought and won the power to indefinitely detain and to kill U.S. citizens, all wrapped in a cloud of secrecy, and to lie to us without any legal constraints at all.

The NDAA allows for indefinite detention, and a judge has ruled that the Obama administration need not provide legal justification for extrajudicial killings under U.S. law--thereby granting carte blanche authority to the president to kill whoever he pleases with no legal or public oversight.

Such a system requires an equally powerful system of propaganda to convince the citizenry that they need not be alarmed, they need not speak out, they need not think critically--in fact, they need not even participate in the deliberative process except to pull a lever every couple of years in an elaborate charade of democracy. We are being asked, quite literally, to amuse ourselves to death.

A version of this article first appeared at Empire Bytes.

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