All My Little Words

Zero Dark Thirty – Tortured Logic

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Media, Politics, Rage by nickchristian on February 19, 2013

After a couple of aborted attempts I finally managed to see Kathyn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty at the weekend. While perhaps not quite the equal of its Oscar-winning predecessor, The Hurt Locker, it’s nevertheless a remarkable piece of cinema, deftly depicting an extremely complicated chronology of the real life events which culminated in the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

One of the things I love most about Bigelow’s films – certainly these last two – is the way she presents location as a catalyst of tension: taking the focus off character scenes are frequently preluded with gloriously wide shots of the mountainous Khyber or tighter, lingering glances through a bustling Pakistani market; several seconds longer than others might dare and accompanied only by a natural background bustle. It’s not that something will happen, but that anything could; when the audience is so familiar with the nuts and bolts of the story this is quite a feat.

Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative at the centre of the hunt for America’s most wanted, is extremely plausible – certainly more so than Homeland’s Carrie, supposedly based on the same individual – as she doggedly, and arguably coldly, pursues her quarry. While her superiors might challenge Bin Laden’s strategic significance to the war on terror, Maya goes hard not home and it comes as no surprise when she get what she wants.

Nevertheless, as impressively as Bigelow presents the “where” and the “who”, this is a film driven by the “how”, and it is this “how” that has provoked the shitstorm of controversy. Amongst them Glenn Greenwald has said that Zero Dark Thirty “glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden” while philosopher Slavoj Žižek states that the film depicts the “normalization” of such methods, analogous with their endorsement. There are numerous others out there like them but these two seem to me to represent the main schools of objection to the film. Falling very much within my wheelhouse, having seen the film – unlike Greenwald before he had his say – I can’t help but engage with the critique.

In my view Zero Dark Thirty does:

Suggest that torture can elicit truthful information that sometimes amounts to useful intelligence.

At the same time however, the film does not:

Depict torture in a morally neutral way.

The first of these forms the basis for Greenwald’s objections. Unfortunately, as difficult and distasteful as it might be for many of its opponents to acknowledge, subjecting someone to torture in order to get them to reveal useful information will – sometimes – do just that. Reduce someone to a powerless, helpless, subhuman state and there’s a fair chance that, if they know something, they’ll give it up.

Sometimes they won’t, of course.

Sometimes, even if they don’t have what’s being demanded of them, they’ll likely want to say something – anything – that might make the pain stop. It might be a lie, deliberately delivered to mislead and misdirect, to waste time for and to buy it. It also might be the truth, but not a new truth as far as the intelligence agents are concerned, rather something that they’ve already picked up, or could pick up, somewhere, or from someone, else, in some other way. Because there is always some other way.

Some other way might require more patience, more energy, more money or more luck but it will not require that someone, as Žižek correctly characterizes it, “forsake his or her soul”. But what Žižek seems to conclude is that either no soul is shown to be sacrificed in the making of this movie or that only one is and that’s okay, because she gets her man in the end.

The truth is torture cannot be depicted in a neutral way and if it is, then what’s being depicted isn’t torture at all. Thankfully the interrogation scenes are brutal as they ought to be: no shot conceals; no cut is premature; every close-up is agony. We are also told nothing of who this man is or what he might have done to find himself in a CIA black site and see him only as helpless, hopeless, and terrified. The worst of the worst? Hardly.

For further evidence of the immoral weight of torture remember that the New York Times for a long while avoided using the term entirely, opting instead for such grim Orwellian euphemisms as “enhanced” or “intense” interrogation. Yet Mark Boal’s script twice reaches for the correct term – one instance of which sits atop this post – and does so pointedly enough to tell us what the film’s authors think about it. Make no bones about it, Slavoj, there’s nothing “normal” going on here.

Greenwald’s fear is that by showing torture as even loosely effective, Kathryn Bigelow serves to justify its practical utility. What he and Žižek both seem to forget is that morality is far more robust than that: if they allow the debate to become about the extent to which torture works – implying that it can be justified or supported if it works 100% of the time or a majority, or occasionally – then it’s the left that has made the moral concession, not the right. Just as murder is murder, torture is torture and Zero Dark Thirty is a very good film.

Droning On

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on June 17, 2012

Much has been made recently of the existence of Barack Obama’s “kill list” and his use of unmanned “drone” aircraft to eliminate America’s hard-to-reach enemies. “George W. Bush on steroids” was the label, coined by Aaron David Miller, to which The Guardian took a particular liking.

The idea that this seemingly smart, likeable, liberal (surely?), black* president should occasion to order the extra-judicial targeted killings of suspected terrorists by pilotless bomber planes flying at 50,000 feet is, to so many, a disturbing cognitive contradiction and represents, to the Guardianistas, a deep betrayal of the messianic expectation that they felt they had invested in him four years ago. Never mind the fact that it was all projection – they saw the word “change”, combined it with “black” and “democrat” and arrived at “utopia”.

What were they expecting?

Change means “different” and can also mean “better”, but “change” is not synonymous with “transformation” or with “immediate”; for while the position of president of the USA arguably makes the holder the most powerful individual in the world, it is not a role without constraints. The individual elected to the presidency, while he has the power to shape the office over time, is not afforded carte blanche over policy and does not get to start the job from scratch. As distasteful as a new president might find them, many of the policies bequeathed to him by his predecessor must be taken on and “owned”. For Obama this meant operational responsibility for the Global War On Terror.

Yes, that old favourite. While the term might have been rendered obsolete – legally it was always on shaky ground, not that that mattered much to the Bush administration – from a military and policy perspective, it is still very much being fought.

Because 9/11 really did change everything. That was what the hawkish right, as they thumped their war drums, insisted at the time and what many “intelligent” lefty doves decried as propaganda and opportunism. I myself wrote five years ago that the Bush administration was not confronted with a “new paradigm” but constructed one – that it could not be deconstructed upon Bush’s departure is a disappointment but should not be a surprise.

What Obama’s drones proves is that the right were right, even as their prophecies were self-fulfilling. While occupations can be ended and wars scaled back there could be no question of Obama deprioritizing the threat of Islamic fundamentalist extremism – from a domestic political standpoint this would have been tantamount to treason, while the amount of money at stake means defense industry lobby groups and their chosen congressional candidates would take up arms, so to speak, to resist anything more than a modest reduction in budget. For whomever occupies the Oval Office, now and for the foreseeable future, the number one foreign policy priority is and will be the prevention of another 9/11.

The only variable is what tactics the occupant chooses to employ.

And so, to the drones.

Airborne bombings are not nice – their purpose, as almost any tool of war, is to end life – but they are not radically worse than any other traditional projectile weapon and are, in fact, better than many. It’s true that a bomb dropped from eight miles high, on a house or camp in North West Pakistan does not discriminate between civilian and terrorist or between man, woman and child, but it is somewhat more targeted that any one of the thunderstorm of cruise missiles that constituted the shock and awe phase of attacks on Iraq in 2003. As a further comparator, the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia in 1999 caused the accidental deaths of at least five hundred civilians as (amongst other things) a bus, a Belgrade hospital and the Chinese embassy were all hit.

Those that charge that unmanned drones reduce warfare to a computer game, distancing the soldier from his target and from the consequences of the weapon he’s just fired, have obviously never seen a tank, a rifle, a bow and arrow, or a catapult. I bet they’ve never thrown a stone in anger either. Every advance in the technology of warfare has served the same purpose and drone aircraft, rather than marking a radical departure, represents just the latest.

Do I believe that Obama enjoys playing judge, jury and executioner over the fates of these men and their families? No. He does it because it’s part of the spec of the role he signed up for. That he has designated himself the principal signatory of the “kill list” is not, it seems to me, indicative of bloodlust but of a sense of sovereign responsibility – the same responsibility that Bush and his cronies refused to take as it denounced the few “bad apples” – and a will to safeguard and minimize the number of instances of such extralegal executions. Unlike Bush, I suspect causing the deaths of civilians, women and children does give Obama moral pause.

I do not want to act as an apologist for President Obama, to endorse or make excuses for him. I don’t think that drone attacks on the sovereign territory of another state are legal and they’re certainly not desirable, but they are different to and better, truly, than many of the alternatives. Obama would, I suspect, prefer to be able rely on the Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis (to name but three feeble or failed states) to apprehend terrorist suspects but that option is seldom available to him to any satisfactory degree. Until it is, “better” is the best we can hope for.

At full time in his presidency Bush had invaded two countries; was directly responsible for the overthrow of two sovereign governments; opened an island prison camp designed to be a “legal black hole”; instituted a program of the extraordinary abduction and systemic torture of terrorist suspects in CIA “black” sites. Under Obama’s administration one of those aforementioned invasions has ended, while the other is drawing down; extraordinary rendition has been paired back, if not abandoned entirely; CIA black sites have been closed and the torture policy ended. Although domestic politics ultimately stymied Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, signing the executive order to do so was indeed amongst his first acts upon entering the Oval Office.

How is this not different? How is it not better?


Andrew Sullivan, not someone I normally find myself agreeing with, has similarly come to the defence of drones:

 if you’d asked me – or anyone – in 2001 whether it would be better to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to defeat al Qaeda, or to use the most advanced technology to take out the worst Jihadists with zero US casualties, would anyone have dissented? And remember the scale of civilian casualties caused by the Iraq war and catastrophic occupation: tens of thousands of innocents killed under American responsibility for security. The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.

Of course, we need to be incredibly careful to limit civilian casualties even further. Counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out. We should see the real casualty numbers and adjust accordingly. But we also have to stop the Jihadist threat. It is real. And a president does not have the luxury of pretending it isn’t.

Washington’s Dignity Code

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on July 8, 2009

David Brooks’ column in yesterday’s NYT is well worth reading:

“The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.

Remnants of the dignity code lasted for decades. For most of American history, politicians did not publicly campaign for president. It was thought that the act of publicly promoting oneself was ruinously corrupting.”

With Him, Not At Him

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 22, 2009

There seems to have emerged amongst professional satirists, some concern that Obama may be an “untouchable”. Not in the sense that they “must not” or “should not” make jokes about him, but in the sense that they just don’t really have anywhere to go, at least not without sounding snide and petty.

Chris Rock on Making Fun of Barack Obama:

Chris Rock: He’s just one of those guys, you know, like Will Smith. There’s no Will Smith jokes. There’s no Brad Pitt jokes. You know, what are you going to say? “Ooh, you used to have sex with Jennifer Aniston. Now you have sex with Angelina Jolie. You’re such a loser.” What do you say? “Ooh, your movies are big. You make $20 million.” There’s nothing to say about Brad Pitt.

CNN: Why is Obama like that?

Rock: It’s like “Ooh, you’re young and virile and you’ve got a beautiful wife and kids. You’re the first African-American president.” You know, what do you say?

Jon Stewart gave it a go on Tuesday. In signature style the Daily Show spliced together clips from Obama’s inaugural address with similar lines from various speeches W has given over the years. It was a valiant effort at demonstrating The Daily Show to still be fit for purpose, that it can live on without Bush in the White House, but one that ultimately ended up lampooning itself rather than its subject.

Colbert will live on as his target is not “the establishment” as such, but the lunatic right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who will presumably have even more reason for rabid rants now the right has been reduced to the role of court jester. Speaking of whom….

But Jon Stewart, I suspect, may have to back off – for a while at least. Perhaps the show will revert to its pre-Bush format and be less political, more focused on ridiculing celebrity culture, possibly including the celebrity culture that surrounds the new president. Being pretty much the best thing on tv, I think he’ll ultimately be fine.

He isn’t of course, the only one struggling. This is the best the Onion could come up with: Inauguration Crowd Moves To White House Gates To Watch Presidency Happen which is pretty lame stuff compared to the prophetic piledriver it gave us upon Bush’s inauguration. Private Eye fared little better, its cover portraying Obama in conversation with Hillary Clinton. He is asking her “So can we still blame everything on Bush?”. She responds: “YES WE CAN!”

(Will post the image when I find it online.)

You Know What I Just Realised?

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 17, 2009

The world has one more weekend of Bush. From this:

To this:

Can’t wait!

Man Eats Burger – Makes Headlines

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 11, 2009

I know this isn’t really news (although the BBC seems to think it is) but I was a frequent visitor to Ben’s when I lived in DC and needed a pigout on my way back from a show at the 9:30 Club, so this clip is quite affecting.


Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 7, 2009

So Clinton’s former Chief of Staff Leon Panetta is Bam’s pick for CIA Director, and certain Dems aren’t too pleased.  Apparently the strike against him is his lack of direct intelligence experience but as far as I’m concerned the best case to be made for him is that he hasn’t been involved with the US intelligence community, the house of a thousand fuck-ups, for any one of the past eight years. Not to mention this reassuring quote that appeared in The Washington Times last year:  “We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

While I have argued, and will continue to do so, that when it comes to policy not enough attention is paid to nuance, that nothing is ever black and white, torture is one exception to that rule.

Meanwhile Sullivan tells Feinstein et al on the Senate’s Intelligence Oversight to stop being brats and take Panetta’s appointment as a wake-up call to start doing their bloody jobs properly.  And the intelligent right makes a good case for his confirmation as well.

Awards! Huh! What are they good for? Absolutely nothing. Part IV

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 1, 2009

The “I Was There” Award (AKA The “Forgive Me While I Go A Bit Overboard” Award)

Except of course, I wasn’t. Not Grant Park, Chicago nor Harlem, New York nor Washington, D.C. but Brighton, East Sussex, on TV at 4am. Nonetheless the emotional impact of this moment was not hindered by geography. I consider myself, and I think others would concur, to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, yet I still find myself referring to Barack Obama as ‘ma boy’. Here is a politician gifted with the ability to connect with the individual unlike any since Kennedy, if even Kennedy is comparable.

The manner in which he stepped toward the dais will live with me forever. His face read not power and glory but humility, exhaustion, relief and no small measure of fear. It was as clear then as it was throughout his campaign that he is not a man driven and consumed by ego as Bush, Reagan, LBJ and even Clinton, were.

His victory speech, equally, was far from victorious in its tone; ”change”, the campaign slogan, has not arrived but the opportunity for it has.

Speaking of War Criminals

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on December 22, 2008

torture…not to mention journalistic negligence, here’s another story that should have covered far more widely than it was.

Of course Bush has been labeled a war criminal before, but up to now it was largely by sign-wielding protesters on Pennsylvania Ave, East Coast academics and, oh I don’t know, bloggers. I.e. people who didn’t matter.

But this is different. It’s a governmental disavowal of the actions of the Bush administration and demonstrates a willingness to make amends and restore America’s standing. It would be foolishly optimistic to expect a full criminal investigation and charges to follow (although had the report emerged a year or two earlier it might be reasonable to expect axes to fall and/or impeachments to proceed) but that alone should not render it valueless. While Bush does the rounds in the media artificially embellishing his legacy with spurious claims that his presidency has made Americans safer, this investigation provides a powerful repudiation.

And Clinton got a blow-job.

Dishonest, Guv

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on December 15, 2008

There can be no question that the Illinois Governor is a revoltingly reptilian character, not to mention a total fucking moron. Nonetheless when measured against the usual Machiavellian methods of political actors, are his crimes really that far off the scale?

In Slate’s Political Podcast, Editor David Plotz argues that while Blagojevich’s corruptness sits toward the far end of it is still comparable with, say, Bill Clinton granting White House access to campaign contributors. Politics trades using the currency of favours  – “If I do this for you, what are you going to do for me?” – and power, as we know, corrupts.  Blagojevich might have simply lost sight of the line between legitimacy and corruption and assumed that what he was doing was an extension of the executive privilege of his office. He could not, after all, have simply sold Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder, merely to the highest bidder out of the modest pool of legitimate candidates.

Not that I’m by any means condoning his behaviour or giving him any benefit of the doubt. He is a sleaze and a scumbag to the Nth power but lest we forget, he’s a politician and that’s the breed.

Bill Maher Stole My Line

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on November 30, 2008

On last week’s comedy-cum-politics panel show Real Time, in the closing segment known as New Rules, host Bill Maher said this:

New Rule: Stop saying that we’ve overcome racism just because we’ve found a qualified black man and elected him president. Everybody knows we won’t have true equality until we elect a dumb, unqualified black man.

Bill, I’ve been saying that since November 5th and feel, in good faith, you ought to send me one joke’s worth of your fee.

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