19 January 2013

A movie or two

I've taken a long hiatus from recording my thoughts here. They've mostly ended up in extended debates on social network forums where I've had them. And of course the vacuousness of the election cycle was very wearisome to any attempt to find thoughtful debates over actual issues.

Nevertheless, things are still happening, and I am still thinking about some of them.

1) I don't think we should be getting into Mali. The only justification for a national interest I can think of is that we have fucked up that country by previously fucking up another one (Libya). Which is a rather dumb way of saying "why don't we light something else on fire and see if that helps put out the flames".

2) I have followed the Newtown tragedy with my usual indifferent attitude. I'm extremely skeptical that most of the proposed ideas have much merit. I would endorse the following statements:
- We should study the epidemiology of our violence. What causes it. What steps could be taken to prevent it once we understand it. We have a lot of violence and murder even after it has decreased, far more than most developed countries. We also have a lot of misinformation, fear-mongering, and easily lifted off the shelf causes (ban violent video games! ban rap music! ban assault weapons! throw lots of people in jail or mental hospitals!) that I doubt would accomplish much but which suck up a huge portion of the oxygen in the wake of these events while excluding any pertinent discussion. Arming a few people with some facts would allow actual reasoned debates to occur somewhere and might allow prominent media outlets to book sane people rather than Alex Jones types
- Encourage mental health to reform and share information where necessary, but also to be less stigmatize socially. A handful of lunatics heavily armed have effectively made the lot of us scared of anyone who has the slightest case of depression or shows anxiety at work or school. And for the most part, the reality is that it is precisely the people who are "off" in that sense who are most vulnerable and most often violated in their person or property, assaulted, raped, etc, among us.
- Stop pretending there's a functional difference between semi-automatic rifles and other legal weapons. They just look scarier to people who don't like guns but in both cases they're designed and capable of spitting out little metal pullets at high speed into living tissue and causing damage and death, at close or long range. Actual machine guns or bazookas or tanks or land mines or surface to air missiles are generally illegal and heavily restricted (eg banned). There are people who disagree with some of those bans as well on moral or legal grounds, but by and large, these weapons at least have functional differences from a common hunting rifle, handgun, or shotgun that allow for legal distinctions to occur and which could apply to their function as weapons. "Assault rifles" do not.
- Gun rights advocates should not presume to the defence of liberty against tyranny as the first most accessible argument for the protected right of gun ownership in this country. Tyranny has many forms, and I'd much rather that a free society defend ALL of its rights and liberties against it, not just its right to be armed. Nevertheless, in defending that right, there are a number of sane sounding justifications for why someone would want a particular gun. Sport, discipline, hunting, and self-defence all spring to mind and would apply just as well to virtually any weapon which is presently legal. I find the macho-gun culture aspects of how some of these are marketed, presented, and used to be more than a little repellent personally, in that I find men should have quite enough confidence in their penis without needing a gun to represent something. But my personal sentiments are hardly a good basis for public policy. Neither are yours.

3) Movies. I've now seen 5 of the 9 nominees for best pictures. 4 of them were mediocre to decent in my mind (Lincoln and Django were okay to low end good, Zero was decent but not great, Les Miserables had a lot of people who couldn't sing in it but were determined to pretend otherwise). Argo was a good movie, but I wouldn't say it was "best picture" material (Affleck can direct though). I've heard good things about Beasts and will probably see it and Silver Linings at some point. I'm not sure that there were "Oscar" worthy films this year in that sense so much as a few good blockbusters (Avengers, Skyfall, and Dark Knight Rises. The first Hobbit movie wasn't that great, but had a few flashes of promise too).

Daniel Day Lewis was very good in Lincoln even though I thought the rest of the film was way too messy. I thought Denzel did well in Flight too as a functional alcoholic. I don't have critical opinions on the rest of the field.

The main reason to bring this up: Zero Dark Thirty. I think it was a touch too long. I think Chastain did rather well in it acting wise but I suspect her story or character was trumped up and condensed to make the CIA seem more sympathetic. I think it is deliberately ambiguous about the torture sequences in some ways. I think it's very direct that what we were doing was in fact TORTURE. In capital letters, even if no one refers to it as such, stress positions, blaring music, putting people in tiny boxes, water boarding, stripping men naked and cold (in front of women, a cultural affront on top of the physical) and so on. It's unpleasant even watching the violence afflicted by men wearing black masks upon their helpless captives even though in most cases these are men who plotted or participated in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. It messes with the people doing it, it's directly referred as hurting and pain, and so on. The ambiguous part is that people keep complaining that they cannot do it as though it must have offered them some perceived advantage but it never really demonstrates any such advantages in gathering intelligence about the war on terror efforts or learning any vital clues on the trail to Osama. The vital clues come from normal acts of intelligence gathering (tips, bribes in the "right" places, etc). Also the film seems to be blaming Obama for that change even though Bush was the one who ordered the halt, which I think is a mistake.

The important non-ambiguous part I got from watching it though was this: We went in there specifically to kill Osama. Period. There wasn't effective resistance. There was a calm and deliberate intention. The only reason we spent special forces on it instead of a drone or air strike was to a) be sure he was there and b) be sure he was killed. It had the secondary effect of limiting collateral damage by not killing a bunch of random civilians (and of course, wives and children of the people living in the compound). That's it. We can think of some justification for why he would be killed, perhaps he would shoot back or blow himself up, something. But none of those hold in the depiction of events, the planning involved, the questions surrounding the operation, the attitudes of people involved. We could say this is from fictionalized accounts. But we also get the strong impression that the film was crafted with the participation of the White House, the CIA, and the special forces community (including the team involved in the strike). If they had input, and they disagree with the notion that we went in there specifically to kill rather than collect him, I'd say someone should say so. Nobody seems all that intent on disagreeing with that notion even though they went to some effort to establish it as true before. Personally, I find that more than a little troubling. I don't particularly care that we sometimes use military force and drones strikes to kill people in foreign countries in theory. I'm not a pacifist, even though I'm far less belligerent than most Americans it seems. Still. I find it at least a little strange that we would send in a special forces team to assassinate someone who we could by sending that team have had hauled back, put on trial, and eventually have killed in a more ordinary and banal American way (the death penalty).

I think the idea that terrorism is more like a crime, perhaps a war crime at times but a crime nonetheless, is one of the more effective premises available in suppressing it. Giving it elevation as a proper military tactic, worthy of (always) the full military response is a) a waste of nation-state resources and treasure and military forces and b) an undeserved credit to a bunch of murderous thugs. People argue that putting these people on trial allows them access to media, undeserved legal protections, that we would have to disclose a good deal of intelligence gathering methods and sources. I'd argue that those legal protections are important because they help assure fairness in the legal system, and it thus ensures that our burdens of proof must be high to imprison and especially to kill other human beings. Accusations are not enough to have a man stripped of his freedom and thrown into prison, there is to be a due process of law executed to assert these accusations have merit and evidence backing them. We have already protections to allow for intelligence and secrecy in trials. And allowing people access allows them to display their full measure of disconnectedness or to articulate arguments that are disjointed from the usual notions of terrorism while all the time being afforded a proper legal and ethical treatment that is often believed unavailable or inaccessible to people persuaded by these foolish notions and the thugs who promote them. If we appear less the hypocrites, so much the better.
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