In many ways, Osama bin Laden has won his war, even though he is dead. His stated goal for many years was to engage the U.S. in so many wars in the MidEast that our economy fails (he understands economics and that there is no such thing as war-is-stimulus better than most tenured economists in America, it seems). We are well down that road. Economy aside, he is still winning. We are as a bear being stung that stomps around and ruins its own home in anger. Our civil rights are crumbling, and we are glorifying detestable behavior, all as exemplified in the movie Zero Dark Thirty:
Zero Dark Thirty is like a gorgeously-rendered monument to the fatal political miscalculation we made during the Bush years. It’s a cliché but it’s true: Bin Laden wanted us to make this mistake. He wanted America to respond to him by throwing off our carefully-crafted blanket of global respectability to reveal a brutal, repressive hypocrite underneath. He wanted us to stop pretending that we’re the country that handcuffs you and reads you your rights instead of extralegally drone-bombing you from the stratosphere, or putting one in your brain in an Egyptian basement somewhere.
The only way we were ever going to win the War on Terror was to win a long, slow, political battle, in which we proved bin Laden wrong, where we allowed people in the Middle East to assess us as a nation and decide we didn’t deserve to be mass-murdered. To use another cliché, we needed to win hearts and minds. We had to make lunatics like bin Laden pariahs among their own people, which in turn would make genuine terrorists easier to catch with the aid of genuinely sympathetic local populations.
Instead, we turned people like bin Laden into heroes. Just like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, there were a lot of people in the Middle East who were on the knife-edge about America after 9/11. Yes, we were hated for supporting Israel, but the number of people willing to suicide-bomb us was still a tiny minority.
The EIT program changed that. We tortured and humiliated thousands of people across the world. We did it on camera, in pictures that everyone in the Middle East can watch over and over again on the Internet. We became notorious for a vast kidnapping program we called by the harmless-sounding term “rendition,” and more lately for an endless campaign of extralegal drone attacks, through which 800 innocent people have died in Afghanistan alone in the last four years (the Guardian claims we’ve killed 168 children in that country in the last seven years).
Now we have this movie out that seems to celebrate the use of torture against Arabs, and we’re nominating it for Oscars. Bigelow can say that “depiction is not endorsement,” but how does she think audiences will receive it in the Middle East? Are they going to sell lots of popcorn in Riyadh and Kabul during the waterboarding scenes?
This film got nominated for Best Picture – it could even win. Has anyone thought about how Zero Dark Thirty winning Best Picture will be received in places like Kashmir and Waziristan and Saudi Arabia?
But forget about all of that. The real problem is what this movie says about us. When those Abu Ghraib pictures came out years ago, at least half of America was horrified. The national consensus (albeit by a frighteningly slim margin) was that this wasn’t who we, as a people, wanted to be. But now, four years later, Zero Dark Thirty comes out, and it seems that that we’ve become so blunted to the horror of what we did and/or are doing at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram and other places that we can accept it, provided we get a boffo movie out of it.
That’s pathetic. Bin Laden was maybe the most humorless person who ever lived, but he has to be laughing from the afterlife. We make an incredible movie that celebrates his death – a movie so good it’ll be seen everywhere in the world – and all it does is prove him right about us.
This bit also telling, in the editor’s note written after taking heat for the column:
Some wrote in and said that all Bigelow [the director] was doing was telling an “objective” story and leaving it to us to sort it out. That’s bullshit. All storytelling is a series of editorial decisions. You decide what to leave in, what to leave out. In doing so you reveal a point of view. They kept to a very narrow storyline that ended in the triumphant capture of bin Laden. The posters don’t say, “WE SOLD OUR SOULS TO GET HIM,” they read, “THE GREATEST MANHUNT IN HISTORY.” There’s no Das Boot-style shock-bummer ending where Maya steps off her transport plane and gets blown to hell.
My last comment is going to be this: To all the people defending the movie, what do you think Dick Cheney’s review is going to be? Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?
We have played this game so long and justified it so thoroughly in our educated American minds (that coincidentally render morality too complicated and boring for the average person to master) that we even justify killing kids to finish the job we started. But we will not finish. The War on Terror will never end. The definitions are so vague, the enforcement so useful to those in government (Never let a crisis go to waste!), that the “war” signals the end of America as we know it. Time is the only missing ingredient…