I thought about calling this post “Zero Dark Thirty and Why Bin Laden Won,” but after seeing the movie I realized I had more complicated feelings about where America is and where we’re going. I wanted to say Bin Laden won because in many ways Bin Laden was incredibly successful at turning our country into something many of us barely recognize, at least to those of us who are paying attention. We’ve become a nation of brutal torture, assassinations, cynical abuse of our principles and never-ending wars. We chase phantoms and bleed more and more treasure with each passing day. Yet, I find myself still believing in American resilience and resurrection. It wouldn’t be the first time we haven’t lived up to our ideals, but managed to rise like a Phoenix over the night sky.
The movie shows a dark time in our history boldly. It’s a great film because it inspires conversation. It begins with the desperate calls of 9/11 victims over a black screen. One of them stuck in my mind, a girl saying, “it’s so hot in here, the floor is all gone, I’m gonna die aren’t I?” “No, stay calm,” says the operator, before the connection is cut and operator whispers, “my God.” I remember being in New York City when it happened and watching the live footage, seeing tiny pieces of the building tumbling away, only to realize that it wasn’t pieces of the building, but people falling away to a hideous death. My lungs still hurt sometimes and I have little doubt that when I die the tiny particles of asbestos in the sinister white smoke that sprayed into the night for two months after that attack will probably have something to do with it.
The world is a dark and violent place, filled with the ignorant and the unenlightened, people who think God wants us to kill, to subjugate women mercilessly and that music, of all things, is evil and must be suppressed. I have no desire to live in a religious dictatorship. I’d feel no remorse if every member of the Taliban, young or old, woman or child were summarily executed in the stadiums that they used to execute so many in. When Bin Laden took a bullet to the skull I cheered, even as I also wondered whether they should have captured him and subjected him to a public trial. Perhaps we were afraid of what he would say and we just thought it best to silence him once and for all.
And yet, despite all this blood lust, and hunger for revenge, this is not our way. For me, as a writer, the stories from all times tell the same tales of warning. Get too close to the ways of the wicked and become corrupted. Any time we try to appropriate the methods of evil, we pay a price. Few have the mental, spiritual and emotional fortitude to stay above it. The monks of old China practiced Kung-Fu to return unwanted violence to the perpetrator, but how many have the same resolve, consistency and vigilance, the same moral character? The truth is most are corrupted by evil methods. Like the white sorcerer Sauramon in the Lord of the Rings, who studied the ways of Mordor too long, he eventually fell under its sway and we are in danger of this as well, right here, right now, in America.
A lot has already been written about the movie’s support of torture. As I watched the movie, I thought the scenes of torture would bother me. They really didn’t. I found myself not caring in the least about religious fanatics being captured and abused. As I said, it’s a dark world, filled with grey areas. The various reports that have come out from internal CIA accounts and oversight committees said torture did nothing to get us the intel we needed. The movie seems to say otherwise. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Nevertheless, I am only acknowledging the darkness in my own nature. I can’t stand behind the practice, and neither can we, because we clearly fucked up on so many occasions. We tortured and detained the wrong people. It’s the same reason I don’t support the death penalty. It’s not because people don’t deserve it, it’s because I can’t trust the average human to not make mistakes and kill the wrong guy. We’ve put countless innocent people to death, just as we’ve tortured a bunch of people who really had nothing to do with terrorism, as we now know. In other words, we made new terrorists. How does that make us any better than China and their systematic torture and illegal imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners?
In the movies, we always know who deserves it and who doesn’t. In real life, it ain’t so clear. And we can’t support Star Chambers, aka secret courts, and prosecution and arrest without any burden of proof. These are slippery slopes. They always have been. That’s why the founding fathers created the Constitution, because they saw bullshit like this in England. It’s not a huge jump to see journalists and bloggers end up in a secret prison somewhere, held indefinitely, confessing to crimes they didn’t commit, because they were waterboarded or beaten and had no access to lawyer. It seems like something out of Kafka when you think about it. Think it can’t happen to anyone but the bad guys? These laws have a way of spawning more bad laws. The people in power push and then they push a little more. They’ll get away with whatever we let them get away with and a lot more. One lost freedom leads to more lost freedoms. A supposed democracy like England has already passed laws saying you can’t say things considered offensive to others. Just about anything can be considered offensive to others. It’s not hard to find someone who would oppose every single thing you said. Already in England, multiple average, everyday people have gone to prison for Twitter and Facebook posts against Scientology or Islam, two religions that seem to take offense to every word in the English language. As you subvert your principles, it’s a long slow slide that corrodes and subverts the rest of your freedoms. Right now, free speech is still unassailable in America, but for how long? How long before you hear someone say, “do we really need to be able to say that?” When you hear that phrase for the first time, I hope your heart drops, because it’s the beginning of something sinister, even if the person saying it has good intentions. I hear they paved the road to Hell with those some years back.
The movie seems to suggest that we got rid of the “detainee” program, aka we got rid of torture. I doubt it. In many ways, as much as I hate to say it, Barrack Obama has been worse than Bush. I say this as someone who voted for him, enthusiastically the first time and with regret the second time. The second time around I voted for him because it was obvious Romney was a snake who would take any position if he thought that’s what people wanted to hear, which is not behavior that anyone can trust. It’s the behavior of a sociopath, in fact. And yet, has Obama proved any more truthful? He codified many of the policies that Bush set in motion. He extended the Patriot Act and expanded the powers under it. He never closed Gitmo. The CIA Black Sites just moved, but they weren’t shut down. After an initial feeling of positivity from the Arab world and a ridiculously premature Noble Prize, our standing is little better in the Arab worlds or anywhere else. We’re still fighting perpetual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and we fought a short war in Libya. Syria and Iran loom on the horizon. We continue to spend our way into more and more debt, like a fat woman that keeps going out to dinner every night when she already has her credit cards maxed. Cutting military spending is verboten in both parties. Even worse, we’ve now authorized the indefinite detention of Americans without trial, which not even Bush would have sanctioned. And Obama did all of this while saying he wouldn’t. At least, Bush didn’t lie about it.
Yet even with this blatant and shameful corruption of our principles, a liar in the Whitehouse and a congress that cynically passes laws that buck the Constitution, the movie seems to offer a choice, if only at the end. When you see the film you can’t help but wonder if we have a chance to wake up, to put this all behind us and go in a new direction? In the final line of the movie the hero, a CIA agent named Maya, who’s spent ten years hunting Bin Laden, gets on a plane. The pilot asks her, “Where are you going?” She never answers as the camera focuses in on her face. It’s because like America she’s at a crossroads. She’s spent the last decade looking for revenge and now she and the rest of us have to ask, “what now?”
So how can we turn the corner? We can start by reversing some of the insidious legislation we passed as the panic and terror of 9/11 swept the country. We passed an anti-American law euphemistically called the Patriot Act that allows warrantless spying on American citizens and indefinite detention without charges of anyone we decide to call an unlawful combatant, in a cynical attempt to do an end run around the Geneva convention. Laws like this have a way of being abused and getting used well beyond their original intentions. We know now that the Patriot Act has been used 1618 times against drug dealers, 122 times for fraud investigations and only 15 times for actual terrorism. This is hardly what the bill was intended for, or what it was sold to the American people as. Actually, a true cynic would say that the people in power are using the law for exactly what it was intended for. That’s usually the way it works in history. People grab as much power as they can and when they get it, they abuse it as much as possible until they get caught or killed or overthrown by the next power hungry psychopaths. As Herman Goering said during his Nuremburg Trial, “Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” When you are following the path outlined by Goring, you need to take some time to reflect.
After overturning the UnPatriot Act, we can follow that by reversing the blatantly unconstitutional provisions of the Defense Authorization Act of 2012 that allows indefinite detentions of American citizens without charges. This is 100% illegal and against the Constitution. There is no question about this. In case you were wondering, the Constitution supersedes any other law, no matter what those in power tell you, so you literally can’t make a law that says Americans can be held without charges without violating its absolute principles in the most vicious and cynical ways. This provision must be overturned and with prejudice. Anyone that attempts to pass or vote through another law like this needs to not only lose their jobs, but face a trial for passing laws that were meant for China’s Communists not Americans. Anyone who passed this law does not get a second chance. They don’t understand a single thing about what makes this country great.
We can follow that up by getting the hell out of the various wars we are in. We’ve spent trillions of dollars fighting multiple wars for more than a decade with not much to show for it and its time to wind these down. Fuck finishing the fight. The fight is over. The Russians fought in Afghanistan for about the same time before us. So after twenty years of trying to wipe out Islamic fascism we’re now negotiating with the Taliban, hardly the outcome we were looking for. Don’t tell me we need another ten years. If we had another 100 we would never root out those fanatics, who are harder to kill than cockroaches.
We’ve got a massive deficit both in terms of financial wealth and in how we’re viewed in the world. We need to close Gitmo and the black sites. We need to start paying down the debt now. As in starting today. For a long time we were seen as the light of the world, the way forward in a dark and violent universe, but now we are often seen as the terrorists. We need to be seen as saviors again. Otherwise, we face a long, slow bleed out of our character and treasure. You probably won’t see it in your lifetime but your children or their children will. Empires, despite what the paranoid tell you, rarely just collapse overnight. The Roman Empire took 400 years to die off. There is still time to turn it around.
It’s time to turn inward again and put a shameful decade behind us for good. Let’s get back to focusing on creating a free country, built on liberty, individual freedom and justice for all, rather than trying to ape the policies of the countries and people we are trying to kill. It doesn’t matter what anyone tells you, it’s not too late, but the zero hour is coming fast and we’re running out of time to change course.