Maya is the name of the determined protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty who pursues Bin Laden to his death. Controversies generated by the film include whether torture was essential to the success of the mission, whether the producers were given special access to the CIA, and whether the film amounts to propaganda that excuses illegal methods of countering terrorism. Kathryn Bigelow has been accused of wanting the film to be seen as both documentary and fiction, not unlike the way Rush Limbaugh wants to be seen as both as a cultural power broker and mere entertainer.
Zero Dark Thirty, along with Ben Affleck’s film Argo, can generate some useful reflection upon American methods for achieving security in a dangerous world. Both films pander to crude stereotypes of malevolent, swarthy-skinned, bearded extremists. They intensify the “us and them” paradigm that suffuses our thinking about a region of the world going through paroxysmal changes. Argo begins with a brief montage that acknowledges the U.S. role in the creation of modern Iran: how the C.I.A. interfered in Iranian elections in the 1950s and installed the Shah, causing blowback equally as tragic as that which began with Osama being with us against the Soviets (during their Afghan War) before he was against us (leading to our Afghan War).
Argo’s reduction of Iranians to brutal thugs is countered by the supremely subtle and human Iranian 2011 film of director and writer Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, in which an Iranian couple must decide whether to move to another country to provide opportunities for their child, or stay in Iran to care for a family member with Alzheimer’s; a work vastly higher in quality than either Argo or Zero Dark Thirty. Ironic that a film of that title has the capacity to bring together Iranians and non-Iranians to share a poignant exploration of universal human themes.
The two American films celebrate our ingenuity, courage and perseverance against adversaries. But both films demand that we look more deeply into the dominant narrative that produced them. While these are “only” films, Zero Dark Thirty points us back to the painfulness of the events out of which it came, illuminating the questions: how and when can the “war on terror” come to an end, and how will we know when it does? Just as Argo points us to the question of how to prevent a war between us—or Israel—and Iran, a war that would resolve nothing.
Osama bin Laden was apparently motivated to attack “the West” out of revenge—the ancient paradigm of an eye for an eye. In an extensive 2002 letter to the American people printed in the British publication the Observer, Osama laid out his specific justifications for horrific violence against innocents.
He began by citing passages from the Koran that give permission to Islamists to fight “disbelievers.” Immediately this sets up a pathological context, because it contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: he proclaims Islam as a universal religion, but his vision is radically exclusivist. He believed that a universal God is on the side of pure Islam against impure or non-Islamists. Sadly, not a few Christians have been known to think along similar lines.
Osama goes on to say that he and his colleagues are fighting the U.S. because the U.S. supports Israel against Palestine. He is explicitly anti-Semitic: to him the creation of Israel is a crime, implying no willingness to accept a more inclusive, multi-ethnic vision of the region’s future.
When I spoke at a Rotary club in a large city a few years ago, I said that however horrific Osama’s crimes were, it was important to hear his rationalizations and understand his frame of reference; important to consider what effect actions of our own, like stationing troops on bases in Saudi Arabia, had upon extremists; and important to bring murderers to trial as ordinary criminals rather than to exterminate them. Not all of Osama’s justifications for violence were based in irrational fantasies of revenge. He raised issues, like the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq as the result of U.S. sanctions, or our double standards about whom we allow to have nuclear weapons and whom we do not, that have also been raised by patriotic and loyal Americans. A number of listeners to my talk stood up and walked out.
Our decision to assassinate Osama was not an act of restorative justice. Killing him would not have brought back to life those who perished on 9/11. It was an act of retributive, consciously decided, cold-minded payback. In the intent eyes of our heads of government as they followed the actions of the Navy Seals, eyes that included a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was possible to see the blindness of an eye for an eye that makes the whole world blind.
In the nuclear age, this lack of moral imagination becomes a great deal more important than the issue of how entertaining or truthful are the products of Hollywood. Our planetary misery and fear will never decrease by an endless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. A pathological level of revenge is built into the very deterrence that rationalizes the possession of massive nuclear arsenals—the mother of all performative contradictions: a revenge-cycle that could kill us all, as it very nearly did in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Shouldn’t any sane narrative of our response to terrorism include a few less drones that create more terrorists than they kill, and a few more initiatives of reconciliation between the West and Muslim regions? It is past time to set aside, from the trillions we spend on weapons and war, a few millions for a Department of Peace.
Otherwise we are fooling ourselves—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic. “Maya” is the Sanskrit word for illusion.