Monday, March 3, 2008

The power behind the Bauer

Scott Horton's Harper's article on how torture is treated in the media--entertainment as well as news--is imperfect but worth reading. There's a silly yet disturbing and telling aspect to the post-production issues of the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.

I worked with Alex Gibney, Sid Blumenthal and others in the preparation of “Taxi to the Dark Side” and I appear in the film. The objective of this exercise was to clarify in a definitive way how policies which were settled in the secretive inner sanctum of Washington defense and national security establishment were implemented in the field, and how the Administration attempted—largely through a series of rather staggering deceits—to cover this up. “Taxi” intentionally does not start with Abu Ghraib, but rather with the case of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who was falsely arrested, imprisoned and brutally tortured to death. His handling was start to finish in accordance with formally approved Bush Administration policies. The film then traces the flow of these practices to and from Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper and Guantánamo, and the flood of official disinformation about them. This film was prepared at the highest levels of objectivity and professionalism and the key figures who carry the dialogue are Bush Administration actors—Alberto Mora, Larry Wilkerson, John Yoo and the prison guards themselves, for instance. In one video segment, a senior U.S. officer in Afghanistan speaks candidly about the orders from the Pentagon to use the brutal techniques, and to mislead about their use. We also see how a fake death certificate was issued for Dilawar and then we slowly develop the actual course of events leading to his death. More than one hundred detainees have now died in U.S. captivity, and a large part of those deaths are linked to the use of torture and other brutal interrogation techniques.

When “Taxi” was done, it was shown to broad acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was recognized as best documentary. Discovery expressed a strong interest in the product and stepped up to acquire it. Then strange things started happening. The MPAA raised objections to the poster for the film because it showed a prisoner who was hooded, which is of course the standard practice for the US in transporting prisoners. MPAA said it had ethical reservations about showing a prisoner with a hood, that this suggested torture or abuse, and was inappropriate. Of course, that was the exact point. This was a documentary, not an entertainment piece. After weeks of wrangling the MPAA receded. Then we learned that Discovery, which had talked about transmission of the film in the spring, had decided to simply put it on the shelf. The film was “too controversial,” they said. What they meant was that the White House would take offense from it.

There was a loud public outcry over this act of censorship, and the film was flipped to HBO, which will now broadcast it. When this is transmitted, American audiences will see for the first time, comprehensively, how the Bush Administration consciously introduced torture techniques in American prisons—and how it consciously lied about what it did.

What's funny is the way that potential distrubutors walked on eggshells and backtracked from their own enthusiasm in order to avoid conflict with a president who struggles to maintain a late-era Ceaucescu level of popularity. Are they really worried about alienating the American people by contradicting a lame duck who's demonstably wrong about everything? Are they afraid, as was the case with dear old Nicolae, of the secret police? Or is it simple cronyism?

The latter seems most likely to me. The Discovery Channel is a business venture as much as (HA) an educational enterprise. In that respect, Dubya and the appointees who will outlast him can probably do more for them than a bunch of pointy-headed documentarians.

The rest of the article is largely given over to the brutaitainment phenomenon that is 24. This is, I feel, a mistake. If you're trying to demonstrate Hollywood's recent fondness for those FABOULOUS!!! enhanced interrogation techniques, why talk exclusively about the entertainment outlet which has the biggest mouth about it? XXIV creator Joel Surnow practically wears a nametag that reads "Hello, my name is Joel. Ask me about my fascism."
“24,” which last year won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, packs an improbable amount of intrigue into twenty-four hours, and its outlandishness marks it clearly as a fantasy, an heir to the baroque potboilers of Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn. Nevertheless, the show obviously plays off the anxieties that have beset the country since September 11th, and it sends a political message. The series, Surnow told me, is “ripped out of the Zeitgeist of what people’s fears are—their paranoia that we’re going to be attacked,” and it “makes people look at what we’re dealing with” in terms of threats to national security. “There are not a lot of measures short of extreme measures that will get it done,” he said, adding, “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot.”

His show could easily be dismissed as an outlier, if a popular one.

One example that might strengthen the case is the Denzel Washington action flick Man on Fire, partly because it isn't explicitly trying to make a political point. And yet... In 1990, when the first Darkman came out, the surest sign of Durant's (Larry Drake) depravity was his habit of chopping off the fingers of his captives. Fourteen years later, the same tactic is a perfectly legitimate way for the good guy to gather information, and do you want those scum to hurt Dakota Fanning?

Of course this new embrace of torture comes from an old blind spot. As with any interrogation shown onscreen, you can usually assume that the subject knows something. Take a suspect who doesn't want to talk. Smack him around enough times, and he gets a little more loquacious. Movies and TV depict the silence as a lie, the subsequent words as the truth.

But you don't know that. Or rather, they don't know that. Remember, most of us are more likely to be interrogateees than interrogators. But if you are running an interview, you need good information to begin with, to even determine if the new stuff is worth your time. A reliance on torture is liely to build you a house of torture-derived cards.

If you want to keep track of where the spurious messages on torture come from, there's a lot to be aware of.

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