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“Zero Dark Thirty”: US-Condoned Propaganda Promotes Extra-Judicial Killings of Brown Men

Zero Dark Thirty has sparked debate on its justification of torture, its misuse of facts and its pro-CIA agenda.

A scene from "Zero Dark Thirty." (Photo: Sony Pictures)

“Zero Dark Thirty” sells us on a strategic shift in the war on terror from conventional warfare to targeted killing. The new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) legalizes the dissemination of propaganda to US citizens, paving the way for more such films.

The film Zero Dark Thirty has sparked debate on its justification of torture, its misuse of facts and its pro-CIA agenda. The main focus of the debate so far has been on whether torture was necessary to track Osama bin Laden and whether the film is pro- or anti-torture.

This focus on torture, while important, has sidelined the larger and more significant message of this film: that extra judicial killing is good. The film teaches us that brown men can and should be targeted and killed with impunity, in violation of international law, and that we should trust the CIA to act with all due diligence.

Its main propaganda triumph, in my view, is that it sells targeted killing at a time when this has become the key strategy in the “war on terror,” with little or no pushback. We are being trained to amuse ourselves to death and not ask critical questions of our government.

Rebranding the Killing Machine

The film has very clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys.” The CIA characters, in particular Maya and Dan, are the heroes, and brown men are the villains.

The first brown man we encounter, Omar, is brutally tortured by Dan as Maya the protagonist (played by Jessica Chastain) watches with discomfort. We soon learn, however, that Omar and his brethren wanted “to kill all Americans” thereby dispelling our doubts, justifying torture and establishing his villainy.

A clear “us” vs. “them” mentality is established where “they” are portrayed as murderous villains while “we” do what we need to to keep the world safe.

Pakistan, the country in which the majority of the film is set, is presented as a hellhole where all Americans are the targets of violent attacks. In one of the early scenes, Maya is asked by a colleague what she thinks of Pakistan. She replies, “It’s kind of fucked up.”

Other than violent attacks, a part of what seems to make Pakistan “fucked up” is Islam. In one scene Maya is disturbed late at night from her sleep by the Muslim call to prayer. Disgusted, she grunts “oh God,” before rolling back to sleep.

The film rests on the wholesale demonization of the Pakistani people, who are constantly referred to as “Paks,” a term not dissimilar to previous racist epithets like “gooks” and “japs.” If we doubt that the “Paks” are a devious lot, the film has a scene where Maya’s colleague and friend is ambushed and blown to bits by a suicide bomber.

Even ordinary men standing by the road or at markets are suspicious characters who whip out cellphones to inform on the CIA. It is no wonder then that when Pakistanis organize a protest outside the US embassy, we view them with contempt through the eyes of Maya, from inside the embassy.

For a filmmaker of Bigelow’s talent, it is shocking to see such unambiguous “good guys” and “bad guys.” The only way to be brown and not to be a villain in her narrative is to be unflinchingly loyal to the Americans, as the translator working for the CIA is. The “good Muslim” does not question, he simply acts to pave the way for American interests.

The racist dehumanization of brown men allows Maya and her colleagues to routinely use the word “kill” without it seeming odd or out of place. After Maya has come to terms with the anguish of her friend’s death she states: “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this operation, and then I’m going to kill Osama bin Laden.” When talking about a doctor who might be useful in getting to bin Laden, she says that if he “doesn’t give up the big man . . . we kill him.”

A top CIA official blasting a group of agents for not making more progress sums up the role of the CIA as a killing machine: “Do your fucking jobs, and bring me people to kill.” By this point in the film, the demonization of brown men is so complete that this statement is neither surprising nor extraordinary.

It is a clever and strategic choice that the resolution of the film’s narrative arc is the execution of bin Laden. After all, who could possibly object to the murder of this heinous person other than the “do-good” lawyers who are chastised in the film for providing legal representation for terrorists.

Here then is the key message of the film: The law, due process and the idea of presenting evidence before a jury should be dispensed with in favor of extra-judicial killings. The film not only uses the moral unambiguity of assassinating bin Laden to sell us on the rightness and righteousness of extra-judicial killing, it also takes pains to show that this can be done in secret because of the checks and balances involved in targeted killings.

Maya is seen battling a male-dominated bureaucracy that constantly pushes her to provide evidence before it can order the strike. We feel her frustration at this process, and we identify with her when she says that she is a 100 percent sure about bin Laden’s location. Yet, a system of checks and balances that involves scrupulous CIA heads, and a president who is “smart” and wants the facts, means that due diligence will not be compromised.

This, in my view, is the key propaganda accomplishment of the film: the selling of secret extra-judicial killing at a time when this has been designated the key strategy in the “war on terror.”

The Disposition Matrix

As I have argued in my recent book, the Obama administration has drawn the conclusion, after the failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, that conventional warfare should be ditched in favor of drone strikes, black operations and other such methods of extra-judicial killing.

Greg Miller’s piece in The Washington Post outlines the systematization of extra-judicial killing through the development of a “disposition matrix.” The matrix brings together the separate but overlapping kill lists from the CIA and the Joint Operations Special Command into a master grid and allocates resources for “disposition.”

Miller notes that John Brennan has played a key role in this process of “codify[ing] the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists.” Based on extensive interviews with top Obama administration officials, Miller reports that such extra-judicial killing is “likely to be extended at least another decade.” Brennan’s nomination to the CIA directorship no doubt will ensure such a result.

In short, at the exact point that a strategic shift has been made in the war on terror from conventional warfare to targeted killing, there comes a film that justifies this practice and asks us to trust the CIA with such incredible power.

No doubt the film had to remake the CIA brand dispelling other competing Hollywood images of the institution as a clandestine and shady outfit. The reality, however, is that unlike the morally upright characters in the film, Brennan operates through lies and is a torture advocate (except for waterboarding). He spread the lie that bin Laden engaged in a firefight with the Navy Seals and used his wife as a “human shield.”

Zero Dark Thirty, nominated for the “best picture of the year” Oscar award, is a harbinger of things to come. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law by Obama earlier this month, includes an amendment that legalizes the dissemination of propaganda to US citizens.

We can therefore expect not only more such films, but also more misinformation on our TV screens, in our newspapers, on our radio stations and in social media websites. What used to be an informal arrangement, whereby the State Department and the Pentagon manipulated the media, has now been codified into law.

We live in an Orwellian world: The government has sought and won the power to indefinitely detain and kill US citizens, all wrapped in a cloud of secrecy, while it lies to us.

Propaganda is essential to such a system to convince the citizenry that they need not be alarmed, they need not speak out and they need not think critically. In fact, they need not even participate in the deliberative process essential to a democracy. We are being asked, quite literally, to amuse ourselves to death.

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