Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) & American Exceptionalism (revised)

31 Jan

 (Note: What follows is a revised text of my post on the film published a few days ago; further reflection, feedback, and exposure to other points of view led me to feel that, given the sensitivity of the topic, I could do somewhat better in setting forth my assessments; I thank those readers who contributed comments, and apologize for this ‘new’ post that is mainly an ‘old’ one.)

            ZD30 is the film narrative that tells the dramatic story of the special forces operation that on May 2, 2011 located and killed Osama Bin Laden in a compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, which is not far from Islamabad. It is directed by the prominent director, Kathryn Bigelow, who had won big Hollywood awards (2009 Oscar for best movie and  best director) for her brilliant film, Hurt Locker, focused on the work of a bomb squad in Iraq, and its impact on the lives of the American soldiers taking part. She knows her craft, and ZD30 is captivates an audience due to its screenplay, virtuoso acting, taut plot, vividly contoured characters, insight into the mentality of CIA operatives and their bosses, and the evidently realistic portrayal of grisly torture scenes. These filmic virtues have been displaced by a raging controversy as to whether ZD30 endorses torture as a valued and effective tool against extremist enemies of the United States and conveys the message that torture was instrumental in the successful hunt for Bin Laden.


            Certainly President Obama claimed and received much credit in the United States for executing this mission, and it has received very little critical scrutiny. It is hard to calculate the impact of this strike that killed Bin Laden on the 2012 election, but it many believe it made a crucial difference, at least psychologically, and particularly in relation to the outcome in swing states and with respect to the last minute decisions reached by independent voters. Such a success against Al Qaeda was registered as a major victory despite the absence of evidence that Bin Laden has been playing any significant role in Al Qaeda activities during recent years, including that of their so-called affiliates, in such countries as Yemen, Iraq, and Mali, and he was so removed from the scene of the conflict that there was serious speculation that he had died or was incapacitated long before 2011. As it did with the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government fans the flames of suspicion by refusing to disclose the evidence relied upon to identify that the person killed at the compound in Abbottabad was indeed Bin Laden and by the related refusal even to allow journalists or others to see the body before it was unceremoniously dumped at sea (although after administering Muslim burial rituals and obtaining a quiet approval from the Saudi government, his birthplace).


            The deeper questions, of course, are the conduct of such a military mission without the permission, or even the knowledge, of the territorial sovereign; indeed there were American military units standing by in case Pakistan found out while the operation was underway and used its own military capabilities to abort it. Also, was it legally and morally appropriate to kill Osama Bin Laden despite his being unarmed when confronted in the compound and at that point in the raid there was no resistance? It would seem clear that it would not be acceptable to the U.S. Government for other governments to carry out such an extra-judicial killing to eliminate an enemy leader living in a distant country. Would not many governments have a comparable security argument if faced with real or imagined overseas enemies? Arguably, the immensity of the 9/11 crimes and the grandiosity of Osama Bin Laden’s self-declared war against ‘the crusader’ forces of the West set him apart to some extent. Bigelow makes this connection by opening the film with a blank screen while engaging the audience with voice recordings of frightened persons trapped in the Trade Center buildings on that fateful day, presumably conditioning us to be indulgent toward responses on ‘the dark side’ that were somehow commensurate with the immensity of the crime attributed to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.


            Yet, it would still seem that the particulars of this Operation Neptune Spear (the US Government code name) are ventures that only the United States, and possibly Israel, would undertake, and that their unabashed victory claim, is a notorious instance of American Exceptionalism, namely, an assertion that the United States can do what others must not dare to do, and can even provide for itself a legal rationale with the arrogant label ‘not for use by others,’ as has been the implicit message of the American debate, such as it is, about the legality of attack drones. With a posture of post-colonial insensitivity the United States is currently openly discussing ‘establishing’ a sixth military base for drone aircraft in Africa (Morocco, Senegal, Bukino Faso, Uganda, Djibouti, and now Niger) as if such a decision could be made solely in Washington without regard for the precedent being set or the regional attitudes toward the reassertion of a Western military presence. On formal level these African governments have given their formal consent to what might be called ‘drone colonialism,’ but can such moves be reconciled with political independence and genuine self-determination?


            The discussion generated by the movie is misleadingly framed as a kind of quarrel between those who insist on ‘political correctness’ when it comes to torture and militarism and those who champion freedom of speech and the amoral conscience of the artist. Matt Taibbi ends an otherwise stellar, provocative review in Rolling Stone of ZD30 with what he must regard as an ironic closing line that speculates on how Dick Cheney would respond, as if that clinches the anti-Bigelow arguments: “Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?” Bigelow doesn’t do much to unmuddy the waters by declaring herself to be “a lifelong pacifist’ and then in the same LA Times op/ed (Jan. 15, 2013) ending with what sounds to me like a ringing statement of approval of what the film depicts, including its torture sequences. In Bigelow’s words, “Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”


            Besides being quite a stark departure from pacifism this observation contradicts her earlier dismissal of moral criticism: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. It fit was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.” Such a posture is adopted by ZD30 at its outset with the moviegoer informed, “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” These words can only be understood asa filmmaker’s insistence that what is about to be seen is ‘reality’ and not ‘a reality show.’


            In fact, Maya, the lead CIA operative whose quiet heroism consisted of an obsessive dedication to the search for Bin Laden, is portrayed as a new kind of governmental superhero who shuts down emotions in the line of duty until the mission is successfully completed. Such feminization of macho character traits is a feature of the film that has received searing commentary from Zilah Eisenstein in Al Jazeera English (21 January 2013). Bigelow’s gift for self-contradiction is unmatched: she celebrates Maya’s achievement, who is finally allowed to cry only at the end on her flight home, reminded by the crew that she must be important to have a military plane all to herself, while claiming that the demanding work of protecting the security of the country is being done by ‘ordinary Americans.’ Maybe Bigelow’s Hindu gift as an artist to live in comfortable proximity to stark contradiction!


            In the abstract, there can be no quibble with such a blending of antagonist sentiments, but this does not imply a suspension of moral and political judgment. Let’s suppose that Picasso had coupled the unveiling of his Guernica with a statement of glowing praise for what Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pilots had accomplished by their attack on a Spanish village in 1937, and went on to insist that the bombing of a defenseless village was a display of courage and patriotic resolve by these bombers who risked everything in the defense of Franco’s Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War! By Bigelow’s double insistence on being both an amoral filmmaker that depict ‘reality’ and an American patriot who loves her country, she evidently wants to please everyone, but ends up satisfying almost no one, least of all someone trying to decipher her true beliefs about the real meaning of the film. Silence would have served her better.


            Despite purporting to be non-committal, seeking only to tell the true story of the struggle to catch Bin Laden, the film comes down quite strongly in support of those who have long contended that torture works. On the one side the movie better than any other film I have seen, makes the undertaking of torture a distasteful enterprise in the extreme that sullies the torturer along with the victim (although the film suppresses any recognition of this blowback).  At the same time ZD30 normalizes torture as part of the daily routine of anti-terrorist warfare, and it scandalizes the torturers in the manner of Abu Ghraib, by merging brutality toward those who are helpless with humiliation that disgusts: forcing the Muslim victim to expose his genitals in the presence of females and leading the prisoners around with a dog collar and leash in the manner given global notoriety by Lynndie England in an Iraq prison.


            Anyone who sees ZD30 will at least no longer be able to take refuge behind the euphemisms of the Bush Era that denied ‘torture’ ever took place as torture is contrary to government policy and American values. During the earlier period the authorized practice of torture was called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ a pattern then falsely alleged to be fully consistent with international humanitarian law. Of course, Obama’s refusal to look back to assess whether accountability should be imposed for such crimes while declaring his pledge to act in accord with international law is another one of those convenient contradictions that Bigelow throws in our direction.


            The film handles well the intense bureaucratic pressures on CIA field operatives from higher up to find some ‘actionable intelligence’ and making reliance on torture part of the job description. ZD30 also conveys the atmosphere within government, or at least the CIA, as one that takes it for granted that torture elicits reliable and valuable intelligence. There is no strong countervailing pressures evident except an oblique appreciation that after Bush the new man in the White House, namely Obama, has officially repudiated torture, and is unwilling to sweep the issue under the rug of mystification by calling torture enhanced interrogation techniques. There is a derisive implication in the movie that to the extent the governmental wind is blowing in a slightly different direction in Washington the ongoing global work of imperial America will grow more difficult. There is no suggestion in ZD30 or in other contexts that Obama seeks to dismantle the American overseas empire or even to revise the role of military power in the grand strategy of the first country in history to invest in the enormous capabilities needed to become and remain a ‘global state,’ that is a state whose sovereignty is non-territorial is scope, extending to the global commons (oceans, space) and overriding the sovereign of ‘normal’ states whose claims of sovereignty extend no further than their territorial boundaries.


            The question of torture has been much discussed in the United States over the course of the last decade. It is usually defended by invoking an extreme situation, saving a city from a ‘ticking bomb’ or to locate someone about to massacre a school full of children, implying that torture will only be used when confronted by situations of exceptional and imminent danger. But the practice of torture becomes much more generalized once the red line of prohibition is crossed. As soon as exceptions are made, as always in dealing with violent crime and politics, there is the possibility, however remote that torture might yield access to information that could avert human disaster. Yet the taint of torture is not removable, and spreads; for this reason, only an unconditional prohibition, as written into international human rights law and reinforced by rigorous accountability mechanisms, is worthy of our moral, and political, respect. To reclaim this high moral ground should be the shared goal of any anti-torture campaign worthy of support.


            For me more disturbing even than the indirect whitewashing of torture is the nationalization of worldview that pervades the film (as well as the media and the political culture, given populist credibility by such TV serials as 24 and Homeland). There is no sense whatsoever that those who are killed or tortured might be innocent or have had major long unheeded grievances or that the American response to 9/11 was killing and wounding many more thousands than had been killed by Al Qaeda, a set of responses in which whole societies were torn asunder for little or no gain in American security, in effect, massive forms of collective punishment, fueled by national orgies of fear and calls for vengeance. There is a monumental insensitivity in this country to the sovereign rights of other states, most obviously Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The American military and the intelligence world are professionally oriented toward maximizing operational effectiveness, but it is less understandable that the country’s political leaders remain oblivious to the rights and wellbeing of others in a world that is increasingly globalized. Implicitly, in the film and in American statecraft the lives of others are simply stage props on the geopolitical stage of political violence where the grand narrative of global statehood is being narrated.


            In this primary sense, objectively considered, the killing of Bin Laden seems little more than a costly and risky venture in vengeance that glorifies a militarist conception of security that can only bring massive doses of grief to societies around the world, and does great harm to the many young Americans being asked to put their mental and physical health in mortal jeopardy for very questionable purposes that are only marginally related to the defense and security of the country. The historically high suicide, crime, and social dislocation among war veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan should be heeded as a scream from the depths of the political culture rather than be treated as an awkward embarrassment that should not even factored into discussions of the costs of war. Such screams were briefly heard in the aftermath of Vietnam (derided by the leadership as the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’), but soon ignored as the dirty work of managing an empire went forward. What ZD30 does, without malice but in the obedient spirit of complicity, is to glorify this dirty work.

12 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) & American Exceptionalism (revised)”

  1. Albert Guilaume January 31, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    Like with any other story one reads in any media, including the internet, one should always approach the subject matter with a critical eye and especially, when politics or religion is the topic. After reading Dr. Falk`s column here, I could not get Daniel Estulin out of my head. He wrote “The True Story of the Bilderberg Group”. I have read quite a bit about that secretive ‘group’ over the years and after watching Aldous Huxley`s “Brave new world’, I got quite concerned, because the given propositions mesh very well with some of the news items one can run into in the general media. Having lived through the second worldwar in Europe, I may seem somewhat cynical at times, but the experiences I got during that period, influenced my personal philosophy on life in general and international politics in particular. Maybe I am way off the mark, but the history, especially of the last decade or so, does not bode well for the future, because everything seems to fall in place, when we consider the writings of those, who the mainstream media would rather write off as fringe conspiracy lunatics. Like Joseph Goebbels once said and what in a roundabout way Adolf Hitler wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’ ““The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it”. And this dictum still app-lies today, Hence my cynicism,especially where politics are concerned.Religion, as opposed to politics, one can liberate oneself from.

  2. Maggie Roberts January 31, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Thanks again Richard, a clear summary of the issues. The Bush era with its bastardization of the language ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and ‘collateral damage’, example of arrogance. The extra-judicial killing of Bin Laden shocked people around the world and now a film to sway the public that it is OK to ignore the law. Your analogy of Picasso and Guernica is entirely appropriate and illustrates how far we have drifted from what is right, moral and lawful. Obama recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace seems to me to be another example. Keep giving us your valuable thoughts Richard.

    • Richard Falk February 1, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

      Thanks, Maggie, for these gracious and encouraging words. Yes, we literally kill and maim with the language we choose to deploy..Greetings, Richard

  3. rehmat1 January 31, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    Another “Hollywood journalism” to sell official lies. Not long ago, we were sucked-in to believe the official lie about “Iranian hostage taking” and “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia.
    Amer Taheri, wrote in the New York Times Op-Ed (July 11, 2002): “Osama bin Laden is dead. The news first came from sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan almost six months ago: the fugitive died in December and was buried in the mountains of southeast Afghanistan. Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, echoed the information. The remnants of Osama’s gang, however, have mostly stayed silent, either to keep Osama’s ghost alive or because they have no means of communication”.
    Interestingly, even the Israelis who usually know everything – believe Osama Bin Laden is dead, as reported by Jane’s on December 27, 2002.
    Gen. Pervez Musharaf, in an interview he gave to CNN, had said: “I think now, frankly, he is dead for the reason he is a kidney patient. I don’t know if he has been getting all that treatment in Afghanistan now. And the photographs that have been shown of him on television show him extremely weak. I would give the first priority that he is dead”.
    “I don’t know where he is. I have no idea and I really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority,” said Dubya George Bush on March 13, 2002.

  4. pipistro February 1, 2013 at 3:38 am #

    The show must go on.

    I just copy and past my simplistic feeling…

    “Build the witch (recipe)
    Just wait the occasion. If it takes long, well, think of something. Then quickly choose the darkest character on the stock market. (Osama will fit.) Once built the personified evil, take him from the pay roll of CIA to the caves of Afghanistan and inject into the western brain. Wait, while you do whatever you want, cause it’s a jungle out there. If something cools down, add salt or anthrax. (At need, take even the fool of the village. I say, stuff like Zarqawi, in the meanwhile, a meteor.) When you’re done, cast the puppet into a cottage in Pakistan or elsewhere, kill and serve it hot. In pictures though, better if in writing. Well, I don’t know, make a film or something.
    Don’t forget to leave the remains of the witch into the rubbish bin – oops – into the realm of a foggy myth. Once she has egregiously done her job, she’s finished, fired, burned. Supper is over. Let her live, be submitted to trial or just show her corpse would be at least inappropriate. Think of what comes next.”

  5. fasttimesinpalestine February 1, 2013 at 7:10 am #

    I agree, it was an empty, poorly-written, facilely emotionally manipulative story about things as they didn’t actually happen. I didn’t care about any of the characters, the acting was weak and silly, and it told far less than half the story — inaccurately. When I finished watching it, I wanted to throw it out a window like Bradley Cooper threw his book in Silver Linings Playbook. Just a silly waste of a movie that insults the intelligence of the American people. (Silver Linings Playbook was awesome, though.)

    For that matter, “a silly waste that insults the intelligence of the American people” pretty well describes American foreign policy for many, many charred and brutalized years that bring peace and security to no one — except I guess Hollywood and journalistic hacks who get large paychecks to “explain” it all (i.e., completely obfuscate its true nature).

    And what did all that even accomplish, even if the events of the movie were accurately portrayed? All the money that was spent on those ninja helicopters and the mission and the researchers and the torture centers… and killing women and terrifying children all over the world. Imagine if that was spent on education and programs in sustainable development around the world (and in our own country!). Imagine if we let other countries use their own resources as they saw fit. Imagine if we simply stopped abetting Israel’s takeover of Palestinian land day by day.

    I guess that’s too radical a notion for a nation like ours steeped in a toxic combination of hubris and fear. This film is not helpful, and not even intelligent, nuanced, memorable, or enjoyable.

    • Richard Falk February 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks, Pamela, for these thoughtful comments on ZD30. I think you make be a trifle hard on the film and a bit too soft on the American people. Is it really an ‘insult’ to their intelligence, given the kind of pro-gun sentiments that seem to continue to have the upper hand in the debate. I believe many of the injustices we most deplore can be traced to the violent political culture that is the learning milieu for most young Americans. How you escaped is a kind of political miracle as I tried to express in relation to your wonderful book on Palestine. Warmly, Richard

      • fasttimesinpalestine February 9, 2013 at 9:42 am #

        I guess I tend to agree with Abraham Lincoln, who I believe said something like, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

        Our government and most of our media do not even attempt to give us the real facts and let us make informed decisions. Instead they tend to use skills of manipulation (“marketing” and “messaging”) against the population.

        That’s doesn’t absolve the American people from all responsibility, of course. But it puts them in a river of misinformation and scare tactics where it’s infinitely easier to go with the toxic flow than think for themselves.

        Even when I was in the Middle East the first time and seeing a different reality with my own eyes, the cognitive dissonance at first was extremely painful. How much worse must it be for people who don’t have the privilege of seeing these realities for themselves? Or who see them but whose careers depend on them not saying anything about it?

        (This is one reason why I was hesitant to follow any normal career path after I graduated. I could already see that there would come a time when I would have to either do something that went against my conscience or drop out — and why waste all that time and effort when I hoped that in that case I would drop out? People who do manage to have established careers and at the same time maintain their integrity have my utmost respect!)

      • Richard Falk February 9, 2013 at 3:57 pm #


        I have lost my confidence in Lincoln’s trust: I am thinking of gun culture, of the way the execution of Bin Laden was celebrated,
        of the defense of torture in high places, of drone warfare, of the greed of the 1%, of the torpor of the 99%.

        But I hope your trust will be vindicated, and my crisis of democratic faith will be overcome.

        Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.


  6. Mark Murata February 4, 2013 at 2:13 am #

    In case anyone wants to actually learn something about Al Qaeda, watch this video, which shows how the CIA created and controls the organization:



  7. szybki internet June 24, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Great delivery. Sound arguments. Keep up
    the good effort.

  8. Beau Oolayforos November 6, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

    Glorifying the dirty work seemed to me also the theme of ‘Hurt Locker’, glossed over with the nice guy hero who defuses bombs – ‘We’re the good guys’. We had a great chance to prove it with Bin Laden – could’ve brought him to NYC to stand trial in the bright sunlight of American justice – was it simple stupidity, blind arrogance or something darker that wrote this history?

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