The film Zero Dark Thirty has sparked debate on its justification of torture, its misuse of facts, and its pro-CIA agenda. The main focus of the debate so far has been on whether torture was necessary to track Osama bin Laden and whether the film is pro or anti torture.
Criticism of the film has come from the highest levels of the political establishment. In a letter to the CIA, Diane Feinstein, Karl Levin and John McCain, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, fault the film for showing that the CIA obtained through torture the key lead that helped track down Osama bin Laden. The letter further blasts former CIA leaders for spreading such falsehoods in public statements.
Film director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who worked with the CIA in the making of this film, likely did not expect such push back since they seem to have got a green light from the White House.
In the face of these attacks, some have risen to the film makers’ defense such as Mark Bowden, the author of The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. Writing in the Atlantic, he argues that the film is not pro-torture because the first scene shows that torture could not stop an attack in Saudi Arabia, instead it was cleverness and cunning that produced results.
Far more commentators, however, in a range of mainstream media from the New York Times, to CNN and the Daily Beast, have stated that the film lied about torture. Taking their lead from Feinstein et al, numerous voices have condemned the film and insisted that bin Laden’s whereabouts were obtained through means other than torture.
It’s hard to say who is correct. The CIA clearly has an interest in promoting its version in order to win public support for its clandestine activities. The Democrats have an interest in distancing themselves from torture so as to separate themselves from the worst of the Bush era policies.
While much of the air is being sucked up by this debate, scant attention has been paid to the larger, and in my view, more significant message of this film: that extra judicial 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 all due diligence.
At a time when the key strategy in the “war on terror” has shifted from conventional warfare to extra judicial killing, here comes a film that normalizes and justifies this strategy. The controversy around this film will no doubt increase its box office success, but don’t expect mainstream debate on extra judicial killing. On this, there is bipartisan consent. Therefore the real scandal behind this Oscar nominated film -- its shameless propaganda for extra judicial murder -- will remain largely hidden.
Rebranding the killing machine
Zero Dark Thirty has very clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys.” The CIA characters, in particular Maya and Dan, are the heroes and 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 our doubts, justifying torture, and establishing his villainy.
In an interesting reversal (first established by the TV show 24) torture, a characteristic normally associated with villains, is now associated with heroes. This shift is acceptable because all the brown men tortured in the film are guilty and therefore worthy of such treatment. Maya soon learns to overcome her hesitation as she becomes a willing participant in the use 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. This is the scene 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 such murderous rage and brutal attacks in Pakistan.
Pakistan, the country in which the majority of the film is set, is presented as a hell hole. In one 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 in her car and at a hotel, a part of what seems to make Pakistan “fucked up” 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 do not wish to waste another $14 to watch the film again, and will wait till the film is out on DVD to confirm this term).
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 that is 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 that 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 whom 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 is no wonder then that when Pakistanis organize a protest outside the US embassy we see them with contempt and through the eyes of Maya, who is standing inside the embassy, and whose point of view we are asked to identify with.
For a film maker of Bigelow’s talent it is shocking to see such unambiguous “good guys” and “bad guys.” The only way to be brown and not to 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 pave the way for 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 comes 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 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 CIA as a killing machine in the following manner, he says “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.
It is a clever and strategic choice that the resolution of film’s narrative arc is the execution of Osama bin Laden. After all, who 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 extra judicial killings. Further, such killings can take place without public oversight. The film not only uses the moral unambiguity of assassinating bin Laden to sell us on the rightness and righteousness of extra judicial killing, 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 we identify with her when she says that she is a 100% sure that bin Laden is where she says he is. Yet, a system of checks and balances that involves scrupulous CIA heads, and 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 extra judicial killing 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 have 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 of extra judicial killing.
The New York Times expose on Obama’s “kill list,” revealed that this strategy is one presided over by the president himself. John Brennen, his top counterterrorism advisor, is one of its key authors and architects. Brennen’s nomination to head the CIA is a clear indication that this strategy will not only continue but that the spy agency will more openly become a paramilitary force that carries out assassinations through drone attacks and other means, with little or no public oversight.
Greg Miller’s piece in the Washington Post reveals that the Obama administration has been working on a “blueprint for pursuing terrorists” based on the creation of database known as the “disposition matrix.” The matrix developed by the National Counterterrorism Center brings together the 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 that will be used to “dispose” those on the list include capture operations, extradition, and drone strikes.
Miller notes that Brennen has played a key role in this 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 extra judicial killing is “likely to be extended at least another decade.” Brennan’s nomination to the CIA directorship no doubt will ensure such a result.
In short, at the exact point that a strategic shift has been made in the war on terror from conventional warfare 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 other competing Hollywood images of the institution as a clandestine and shady outfit. The reality, however, is that unlike the film’s morally upright characters Brennan is a liar and an unabashed torture advocate (except for waterboarding).
As Glenn Greenwald notes, 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 of year” Academy Award, 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. Journalist Naomi Wolf argues that the propaganda “amendment 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: the government has sought and won the power to indefinitely detain and to kill US citizens, all wrapped in cloud of secrecy, and to lie to us without any legal constraints.
The NDAA allows for indefinite detention, and a judge ruled that the Obama administration need not provide legal justification for extra judicial killings based on US 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.
[Deepa Kumar is the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. She originally wrote this review for Mondoweiss.]