9/11 and beyond

Last night I caught up with Zero Dark Thirty, the third of the Oscar contenders I’ve now viewed, and probably the best of them.

It’s a fascinating story if you like that sort of thing. Basically it’s a quest tale. One single-minded woman sets herself to track down Osama Bin Laden. Midway through her investigation she cottons onto a character she believes to be the key to solution. Not everyone agrees with her, but she continues regardless, becoming more driven, more obsessed, more curmudgeonly as she goes on. The story pieces together the fragments of clues and leads over a period of 10 years, until the moment they believe – but are never certain – that they have tracked down Bin Laden to his hideaway. The rest is history.

It’s a well made movie beautifully acted. Jessica Chastain seems to be in everything, but she’s very good. I was surprised at how good Jason Clarke is too, an Aussie actor who has a more prominent role than I realised. For what it’s worth a couple of other Aussies have leading roles as Navy Seals, Joel Edgerton as their leader, and Callan Mulvey – always a brooding presence – as the man who shot Bin Laden.

For someone sitting comfortably in bayside Melbourne I found the events portrayed a compelling insight into the murky world of intelligence, terrorism, and counter-terrorism. It’s not a pretty place, and everyone plays for keeps – but what else would you expect?

The innuendo is that some of the more confronting scenes in the movie – mostly those of torture on captured terrorists – was the reason that this movie would never win the big gong at the Oscar’s. Most Academy members would come from liberal America I would think, and frown upon such crudity and violence as a means to obtain information. You can argue that it’s just a movie Jan – the film makers committed no torture, and made no comment on it, they simply portrayed it as it was. Still, there’s guilt by association, and to vote a movie such as this as the best would be tantamount – so I believe they think – to condoning the methods that ultimately led to the death of Bin Laden.

I consider myself on the liberal side of the equation, and am no great advocate of torture, but nor would I ever abjure it altogether. No two ways, it’s ugly and borderline immoral (no border for some, either way), and to be regretted. Having said that, I think it boils down to a simple equation: if the torturing of one individual meant that the lives of innocents were spared, isn’t that worth it? Imagine before 9/11 if a terrorist was captured and under torture gave information revealing the plot to plow a couple of 747’s into the WTC, thus enabling the authorities to prevent it. Isn’t that worthwhile? For me it’s a no-brainer. Furthermore I think it’s reality of life that occasionally good men must do difficult things for the good of the many. You can’t turn from that, and the moment you do society will begin to rot from the inside.

That’s all in theory of course. In prrinciple torture must be the last resort, when all other methods have been exhausted and the risk of doing nothing is much greater than do something. The end doesn’t always justify the means, but it should be properly weighed.

The reality is that torture was used indiscriminately, and often ‘illegally’ (inverted commas because the legality of torture will always be a grey area). Clearly civil liberties were abused. That might be necessary in times of great peril, but once more only with the greatest prudence. Prudence seemed to have little part in many of the tales of abduction and torture we have been exposed to. In many instances – certainly in the awful transgressions at Abu Ghraib – torture was more about casual sadism and the abuse of power than it was about the quest for information. This is what happens without the appropriate checks and balances; and this is what happens when the individual becomes secondary to the state. Just look at any totalitarian society. Just look at Guantanamo Bay.

It’s difficult then. When and how do you permit torture? What I saw in the movie last night would certainly be permissible in my world view. But what of those hundreds of others we did not see, those picked up on a whim and without due process? Like everything else in a civilised society it must be predicated on the rule of law. We cannot afford as a society to have secret branches operate beyond the law, even given they might have laws separate unto themselves. The world has a lot of dark places, a lot of violence waiting to happen, much ill will towards many men. I’m under no illusions that occasionally we must be ruthless to do battle against them occasionally. We cannot be indiscriminate else we become like those we war against, and can’t allow for it to operate outside the rules of our society lest it be corrupted. I think at times that happened.

It was timely watching this movie because just a few days before I had finished a very good book on the lead-up to 9/11, Blow the House Down, by Robert Baer. Blow the House Down is a work of fiction, but Baer is a CIA veteran of many years standing who knows what he writes of – the George Clooney character in Syriana is based on him (and on other of his books). Baer uses real characters and refers to actual events in his book, many of which seem mysterious and unresolved to this day. Basically he posits a conspiracy involving Iran in partnership with powerful forces within the US.

It’s a great read in the old fashioned sense – I grew up on espionage novels. It’s fascinating to see the pieces fit together, to observe the intelligence community and their methods close-up and from the inside. Baer doesn’t say this is what happened, but rather that this could have happened, or something like this. Basically he raises the doubt. There is so much we don’t know, so much unexplained, so much seemingly disregarded or swept under the carpet. Revealed are the special interest groups, industrial, political, and economic, the splinter groups, the rivalries, the maverick operators.

Reading the book and then watching the movie makes very clear that outside of passionate and capable individuals, most of the intelligence services are only borderline competent. One may claim the death of Bin Laden as a triumph, but basically it took 10 years and the obsessive drive of one woman to make it so – in an age when billions of dollars are being spent, thousands of operatives are on the ground, and technology renders very little secret. If that’s the sense now, then it’s doubly so in the months and years leading up to 9/11, in what has been exposed as a monumental intelligence failing, particularly by the CIA. Bureaucracy, the lack of a coordinating authority, and a refusal to share information led to the death of 3,000 Americans in the WTC, and countless others of all nationalities since. It’s a different world now from then, and this movie and book go some way towards explaining how and why.

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