Jan 1 2008

Hollywood’s Media–and Washington’s

Rendition highlights the limits of torture discussion

“Guantánamo, a prison in no way ready to close, is at the heart of a conversation that almost no one seems willing to open.”

Since September 27, 2007, when Karen Greenberg closed an article on TomDispatch.com with that observation, a media conversation about torture has unexpectedly taken off. The New York Times (10/4/07) published a lengthy exposé about the long turmoil at the Department of Justice caused by the Bush White House’s insistence that “enhanced interrogation” was key to fighting its “war on terror.” PBS’s Frontline (10/16/07) explored how Dick Cheney’s office secretly pushed the idea that the president could do

MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann (11/5/07) rebuked Bush directly for torture–especially waterboarding, the practice of simulated drowning. ABC World News (11/2/07) reported that in 2004, acting assistant attorney general Daniel Levine was “forced out” of the Justice Department for opposing waterboarding after submitting himself to the experience.

On November 12, CNN‘s Anderson Cooper aired two long segments featuring Maher Arar, the Canadian victim of “extraordinary rendition”–the extrajudicial transfer of prisoners to countries, often so they can be tortured, as Arar was in Syria. Media audiences have now been shown graphic depictions, both real and fictional, of various types of torture, including 16th century woodcuts of waterboarding during the Spanish Inquisition.

Based on a true nightmare

In the midst of this, in mid-October, Gavin Hood’s feature film Rendition appeared on the big screen, and Roger Ebert (9/8/07) called it “a perfect film.” The story bears many similarities to Maher Arar’s nightmare, which began when he was snatched by INS agents at New York’s JFK airport while flying home to Canada from Zurich. Though details of the character’s identity and story are different, the film portrays the Kafkaesque journey of a wrongfully accused professional caught up in a world of international secrecy and unimaginable brutality.

The film’s Anwar El-Ibrahimi, played by Omar Metwally, is an NYU-trained chemical engineer who left Egypt at the age of 14 and speaks perfect English. He is married to Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), who is very pregnant with their second child. When his name appears on a list of suspected terrorists, he is seized by black-hooded figures and disappears into the cloak-and-dagger world of CIA dungeons somewhere in North Africa.

In the case of Maher Arar, Canadian police gave his name to U.S. officials in 2001, identifying him incorrectly as an Islamic extremist with links to Al-Qaeda. Arar, who holds a master’s degree in telecommunication and a doctorate in finance, was a software engineer. He is a citizen of both Syria and Canada with a Syrian-born wife and two small children. Even though, by the time of his arrest a year later, the Canadian police had found no proof of a terrorist connection and later admitted their error (Toronto Star, 8/10/07), U.S. officials still sent him to Syria, a country known to torture prisoners.

He spent 10 months and 10 days in a notorious prison, which, as author Stephen Grey describes in Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA’s Torture Program, “contained specially designed torture cells, where prisoners would be beaten with electric cables, scorched with cigarettes, placed in a device to produce paralysis called a ‘German chair,’ or threatened with submersion in a barrel of excrement.”

Horrible but not gratuitous

The film’s graphic torture sequences are horrible but not gratuitous, designed to encourage identification in the viewer. In this, Rendition is a welcome departure from other fictional fare, especially on television. From Fox’s 24, which mirrors the Bush administration’s terror logic, to shows like Law and Order, Without a Trace and CSI, hyper-violent brutalization is generally treated as voyeuristic entertainment.

As TV profits from fictional torture, the Bush administration continues to argue the merits of its use against real prisoners, in real jails. In September 2006, as Ray Bonner noted in the New York Review of Books (1/11/07), Bush claimed that information from the CIA’s secret detention programs yielded “proven, valuable intelligence for the global war on terror.” Bonner also quoted a Guantánamo commanding officer saying, “We are getting good and useful and interesting intelligence even after five years.” Yet proof of such claims, used cynically to deflect criticism, remains conveniently hidden in administration secrecy, as Jane Mayer detailed in the New Yorker (8/13/07).

Rendition calls into question the myth that torture results in actionable intelligence. As Anwar hangs naked in a dungeon ready to receive what could be a final deadly electric shock he “confesses” he was paid $40,000 to teach a terrorist how to make bombs more lethal. His tormentor demands more names, and he meekly writes them down. After his submission, he is rewarded with a bigger cell and allowed to wash.

The young American operative, after discovering the names are actually members of the 1990 Egyptian soccer team, argues quietly with one of the Arab “interrogators” about the reliability of information extracted under torture, citing Shakespeare: “I fear you speak upon the rake, where men enforced do speak anything.” Meanwhile, the film’s subplot moves forward to its deadly conclusion: While the torturers have been wasting time with Anwar, another terrorist plot has gone undiscovered.

‘Balance’ for torturers

But the film is not without a conventional sense of media “balance.” As scriptwriter Kelley Sane told PBS host Tavis Smiley (SHOW, 11/02/07), he put strong words in the mouth of one of America’s most accomplished actors. Meryl Streep plays the head of counter-intelligence, who justifies torture by claiming that 7,000 people, including her grandchildren, are still alive in London because of her willingness to carry out such policies. Her words mirror those of Condoleezza Rice, who was featured on CBS Evening News (12/5/05) responding to reports of secret torture prisons in Europe, “We share intelligence that has helped protect European countries from attack, helping save European lives.”

The balance offered in Rendition parallels the contradictory nature of news reporting on torture, such as CBS’s report (12/5/05): “The U.S. has been accused by human rights groups of transporting detainees to secret prison camps, including one in a remote Soviet-era air base in Romania. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while denying the torture, effectively confirmed that the camps do exist and that foreign governments know about and benefit from them.” Ending this brief 318-word story that both confirms and denies torture, CBS’s Mark Phillips gave the Bush administration the last word, reporting that it “says its treatment of detainees may be distasteful to some, but it’s not illegal, and they say it’s necessary.”

While the film challenges an executive branch that defies constitutional law and lies about it, America is portrayed as fundamentally respectful of civil liberties, where CIA whistleblowers free the innocent and the press is eager to print the stories of those who have been brutalized.

When Anwar is finally freed, his American liberator makes a cell phone call to the Washington Post. With lightening speed, Anwar’s vindication is shown as a front-page article, complete with a prominent photograph. Streep is shown being held accountable as she reads the paper and answers the phone she can no longer avoid. Injustice will be set right.

Back in the real world

The role of the press in Arar’s case bears virtually no similarities to this fictional account. While a few articles appeared within the first week of his deportation, stating he was a Syrian-born Canadian terrorist suspect (New York Times, 10/12/06; Boston Globe, 10/17/06), his exoneration was neither quick nor clear, despite a highly critical, 1,657-page judicial inquiry conducted by the Canadian government. After his release, U.S. and Canadian police and intelligence officials, as well as the press, continued to cast doubt on Arar’s innocence (Toronto Star, 12/16/06, 4/8/07, 10/25/07). While the Canadian government eventually awarded Arar substantial damages, and the former commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (who was forced to resign over Arar’s case) apologized, these attempts at restitution came years after Arar’s release (Ottawa Citizen, 10/7/06; Globe and Mail, 1/27/07, 1/6/07).

While some in the press have begun rallying behind Arar in recent months (New York Times, 11/19/07; L.A. Times, 10/11/07), the front-page story exonerating his name has yet to be seen. News media have been complicit in muddying, rather than clearing, Arar’s name. As Raymond Bonner noted in the New York Review of Books (1/11/07),

journalists were disturbingly willing to publish unverified claims that were damaging to Arar. Far too many reporters, including this one, have published allegations of terrorism, or of “links to Al-Qaeda,” based on assertions from officials who would not be named, and who turned out to be wrong.

Arar remains on a watch list that prevents him from entering the United States or from boarding Canadian flights that pass over American borders. While he was named one of Time‘s “100 Most Influential People,” Arar was banned from entering the country in May 2007 for the party (Ottawa Citizen, 4/4/07). Neither was he allowed to testify in person at hearings held by Congress about his case (Toronto Star, 10/19/07). While numerous members of Congress offered Arar apologies, no one from the U.S. government has been held to account; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused to say she was sorry, despite acknowledging that the case was “mishandled” (New York Times, 10/25/07).

Rendition was released a few weeks before Arar’s appeal was argued by David Cole in the Second Circuit Court in New York on November 9, 2007. His civil rights lawsuit against the United States was dismissed last year when a lower court refused to review it on national security grounds. Despite the active court case and Bonner’s admissions of past journalistic failure, reporting by the New York Times (11/10/07) was brief and fragmented, muting the horrors of Arar’s experience: “He said he was beaten and forced to make a false confession before his release in 2003.”

The one sentence that contains the word “torture” was written in the all-too-familiar passive legalese that denies U.S. culpability even while admitting it: “Terrorism suspects are sent abroad for interrogation in countries that often practice torture.” Torture is always something “they” do; it is not instigated or practiced by Americans. Or, as depicted in Rendition, when Americans do get their hands dirty, they atone.

And this is key to understanding the limits of the film, which stays within a position of American exceptionalism, leaving the dichotomy between Us and Them firmly intact. This is reinforced by a scene in which a religious Arab subjected to torture turns out to be guilty and reveals actionable intelligence. It is much easier to make a film about “extraordinary rendition” where Arabs, not Americans, do the dirty work, than it would be to make a film about Guantánamo (Michael Moore’s use of such ignominy notwithstanding).

No substitute for public debate

Of course, a commercial fiction film, no matter how compelling, is a pale substitute for coherent public debate or demands for policy change. Personality-based dramas offer few pathways for addressing the external forces that set the stage for the characters. Political, moral and constitutional arguments are hard to render solely in dialogue. What films can do, however, is provide an opening to launch such debates in the press–if the press wants to have such a debate.

The debate the nation currently finds itself in is not so much about the morality of state terror against individuals, but about whether a loophole can be found for waterboarding. The Bush administration’s secret assertions of unlimited power, and its claims that it can ignore domestic laws and international treaties, have left the nation with an ad hoc policy of torture that continues with no effective countervailing force to stop it. If Congress remains averse to establishing an independent investigation into interrogation and detention, media coverage is unlikely to change. The media have shown little interest in investigating and exposing the true nature of torture.

Ghost Plane’s Stephen Grey rightly observed the real reason for torture when he described the Palestinian Branch prison in Damascus where Arar was tortured: “Everything about it was designed to break the soul.” Torture is about Us and Them, designed to enforce conformity; it threatens not only enemies, but democracy itself. It is the ultimate incursion by the state into the psyche, an instrument of terror designed to keep the denizens of empire from objecting to the violence done in their name. This is the discussion about torture American media need to have, but are unwilling to open.

Robin Andersen is author of A Century of Media, a Century of War, winner of the 2007 Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award. Research assistance by Candice O’Grady.