The Great White Camel
Zero Down and Dirty
But what you’re really wondering is: what does a scalawag, what does a completely unrepentant flame thrower and certified America-hater think about Zero Dark Thirty? Come, sit by me.
Zero Dark Thirty, like director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (which I reviewed and contrasted with Avatar here), is about the trials and tribulations of American occupiers, torturers, death squads and empire builders -- no Muslims need apply for any humanity, although they’re allowed to scream a lot and blow up shit. (In real life they scream a lot, too, because some party unknown to Bigelow keeps dropping bombs on them, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.)
First off, I think the critics of this movie are lost in minutia. They mistakenly credit Americans with a humanity which they don’t possess and assume that Americans will be unduly influenced by the movie’s depiction of torture when, in fact, more Americans support torture than are against it, according to this 2012 poll. More Americans support torture now than in 2007. Americans are a lost cause. Instead, let’s see the waterboard pitcher as half full and celebrate how the rest of the world might see this movie.
Two things stuck out for me about the movie, one at the very beginning and the other at the end. Watching the CIA torturers at work, waterboarding, beating, hanging a guy in stress positions, depriving him of sleep, confining him in a little box, the sexual humiliation, the blinding light and blaring music -- all of it called to mind George Bernard Shaw’s observation on animal experimentation: that a race of people who would use something as barbarous as animal experiments to “save” themselves would be a race of people not worth saving. No matter what the CIA, director Kathryn Bigelow (don’t overlook that comma!) and screenwriter Mark Boal intended, that’s the real message (subliminal only if you’re an American) of Zero Dark Thirty: America isn’t worth saving. Creative artists don’t always know the forces and influences that they’re working under or the ultimate import and meaning of what they’re creating. History, someday even written by the working class, will judge the meaning of this film.
The definition of torture is “the infliction of pain to elicit information.” That’s why I’ve never had a problem calling animal experimenters torturers. Torture isn’t in the mind or the intent of the torturer, it’s what they do. They cause pain to get information. So the torturers inZero Dark Thirty can go from being brutal to joking around in mere seconds. They aren’t foaming-at-the-mouth sadists 24/7 -- they’re the war criminals standing behind us in the grocery line. It’s Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.”
If the experiments/torture didn’t actually start out this way, in the end it always becomes about the sick fuck craziness of the torturers/experimenters themselves, their desire to be obeyed and take absolute power and control over a helpless being’s life, not the search for truth or “cures” or “protecting the American people.” (It’s perfect symmetry that the “learned helplessness” experiments of University of Pennsylvania dog shocker Dr. Martin Seligman formed the “intellectual” basis of the Bush torture program.) Zero Dark Thirty shows American torturers in action, which is good. In fact, I think it would be dishonest of Bigelow and Boal to toss in the one or two FBI agents who objected to the systematic torture of one of hundreds (thousands?) of people and the torture trail that went all the way up to Yoo, Bybee, Addington, Cheney and Rumsfeld for their recommendations on torture techniques. This fucking movie should go down hard in the craw of the world -- there was never any humanity or conscience or enough “good Americans” involved to even be worth noting. I don’t recall those FBI agents making any arrests of the torturers or raising hell in the press at the time they witnessed the torture.
(An aside on waterboarding: as awful as waterboarding is in the movie, I think this written description -- by a man who waterboarded himself -- conveys the suffering better. In media interviews, director Bigelow never calls waterboarding torture -- she always calls it “enhanced interrogation.” People who don’t call waterboarding torture are either: 1) misinformed 2) diabolical servants of the American empire or 3) the New York Times. Waterboarding has been known as torture since at least the Spanish Inquisition and the Reagan Justice Department recognized it as such when it prosecuted Texas sheriff James Parker and three deputies for doing it to prisoners to obtain confessions back in 1983.)
The other thing that struck me about Zero Dark Thirtywas no face to face confrontation with Osama bin Laden when the Navy SEALs are blowing up doors to his compound and proceeding up the different levels to his bedroom. Once there, everything gets even murkier, despite the night vision goggles worn by the SEALs. We don’t see the shot that fells bin Laden -- we see him after he’s shot and laying on the floor as a SEAL pushes away two of his wives and then another SEAL pumps his supine body with a couple more bullets.
In a movie where plenty of dramatic license is taken, why no face to face confrontation with the great terrorist mastermind, with the Navy SEAL gunslinger at high midnight delivering vengeance for the smoking ashes of the twin towers? Why no look into bin Laden’s face as he realizes he is about to die in the “belly of an eagle” (America) as he said he probably would? Why no cathartic righteous justice? It doesn’t matter that maybe in “real life” it really was dark and difficult to see and that the one-to-one look in bin Laden’s eyes didn’t happen. These filmmakers don’t give a damn about “real life” and context when it comes to vilifying Muslims. Without fail, they care about drama and maximum emotional impact, from the real life September 11 911 callers which lead directly to the waterboarding to the CIA agent who bakes a cake for the man she thinks has been turned into an informant only to have him detonate a suicide vest and kill her and several other agents. This movie is all about drama but only within the confines of CIA propaganda.
The filmmakers would no doubt consider showing bin Laden’s face to be “glorifying” him. If bin Laden was shown to be afraid, he might draw some sympathy as an unarmed man executed in his bedroom by a death squad. If he was defiant, this might rev up his followers. If he was calmly waiting and accepting of his imminent death, this might show bravery. (A Pakistani commission investigating the raid said bin Laden “advised his family members to pray during the raid.” This would go along with why he didn’t take the rifle from off the wall and defend himself.) So there must not be anything recognizably human about him. Code-named “Geronimo” by the American government, bin Laden must die like every indigenous person at the hands of cowboys and soldiers in American movies: just fall down dead like a cardboard cutout, incapable of expression, meaning or emotion. Only the White Man’s struggles are of any interest. Paradoxically, bin Laden remains a boogeyman who still holds so much power that even his death in a movie can’t be shown. Moby bin Laden’s dead and America, through Ahab Bigelow, is still afraid of him, a kind of Great White Camel, an obsession, a fiend, now buried in the sea, who played a very useful role for American warmongers, from terror alerts always sounded near key political and legislative moments to being the supposed inspiration for every zealot with a Kalashnikov that America must spend a fortune exterminating -- not a mere criminal who could have been easily been captured alive and tried in court.
America’s pursuit of the Great White Camel told us much more about ourselves than it did about him: we killed over one million Iraqis and wrecked their country which is still going on to this day, every day. We’ve now killed more Afghan civilians than Americans were killed on 9/11, and our drone strikes in Pakistan are making it a close second. The pursuit of the Great White Camel let the world see through a mirage: America isn’t a model to be emulated, it’s not a soaring eagle but a Chicken Little who scares easily and rushed to throw away every civil liberty and legal protection it had via the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act and the National Defense Authorization Act. A deluded cowardly and bullying country that will mainly fight you from 10,000 miles away and 20,000 feet above. A country whose dumb ass personality-cult liberals believe it’s a big improvement going from Bush capturing and torturing alleged “terrorists” to Barackus Obombus Caesar who captures no one and simply kills whoever he wants wherever he wants whenever he wants. It’s no coincidence that the CIA works with an Oscar-winning director on a film depicting torture now that its preferred modus operandi is extrajudicial assassination.
So why is this movie good for the world? Because it shows the ugly beast of America out of control, it comes to you bloody and crazed, so detached from reality that it believes its vices are virtues. It congratulates itself on its military prowess while the rest of the world sees sadistic torture, innocent people killed, nations’ sovereignty violated with impunity, international law and the Geneva Conventions jettisoned, lumbering death squads coming in the night from thousands of miles away to wreck your world, terrifying women and children and sometimes killing them. This movie’s message is: America makes the whole world insecure -- therefore: arm yourselves to the teeth, preferably with nuclear weapons.
Zero Dark Thirty shows America swaggering and bragging, torturing and killing and proud of it. Americans love this shit because they have no empathy -- they never imagine themselves on the receiving end of it. And they’re so damnably stupid and easy to manipulate that even when they are on the receiving end of it, as on 9/11, they don’t learn anything from it. Forget about any self-reflection as to why so many people in the world hate America. It was so easy for the ruling class to channel Americans’ bigotry onto Muslims and deflect away the normal healthy reaction of what should have been tremendous anger at the US government for not preventing 9/11 after all the trillions of dollars spent on “defense” and “security” and all the warnings from various other nations’ intelligence agencies. (Ralph Nader suggested four decades ago that cockpit doors on planes should be strengthened and locked. But what does he know compared to “bottom line” airline executives -- he only gave us seat belts.) Three thousand people dead, a nation shellshocked and yet no one in our vast political/intelligence/military/surveillance state lost a day’s pay or got a reprimand. No one on top pays for anything in America whether it’s torture, financial fraud, illegal eavesdropping or negligent homicide. Zero Dark Thirty shows the incredible resources available to kill and destroy while Americans live in cardboard boxes in New York City and tents next to off-ramps in San Diego. A country whose infrastructure is so dilapidated that it’s not even safe for people to live under its bridges. A moral and social wasteland where more of its “true believers,” its trumpeted soldiers, kill themselves each year than are killed by its enemies. A country so fucked up, from its rotting Obama drone-head on down, that an increasing number of alienated citizens make their final statement the mass killing of total strangers, especially children. One great day it will be unanimous: three hundred million Americans will hate America.
Now wasn’t this a better movie review than some reverent cinephile talking about camera angles and lighting and references to other movies that weren’t worth seeing in the first place? The only way that I could be wrong about all of this, and the S & M America-lovers could have the last laugh, is if the goal of the American government, through propaganda vehicles like Zero Dark Thirty, is to cause as much hatred and blowback to America as possible in order to justify ever more “defense” and “security” spending, as if the whole reason for the being of America was the wildly successful business of plunder and murder. I flame. You decide. Have it your way at Vegan King.
published 1/25/2013 at counterpunch.org