Monday, June 09, 2008

Rendering Rendition

I fear you speak upon the rack
Where men enforced,
Do speak anything.

(William Shakespeare,
The Merchant of Venice)

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows of the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion.
(Dick Cheney 16-Sep-01)

I finally got around to seeing this film, via NetFlix this weekend. Not exactly a great date movie, Trophy Wife and I agreed. But we both felt ennobled for having taken it up. It was part of our civic duty as Americans, I think we agreed.

Looking around the Internet afterwards was instructive. Conservative bloggers mentioned an aversion to even considering seeing it, much less admitting to having watched it, and even much less demonstrating a willingness to write much about it. And, it more or less received a ho-hum from liberal bloggers. One blogospheric observation sticks in my mind: the blogger noted that the shelves at his local video store were always overstocked with Rendition.

My good friends, the McKiernans, at Cinema Square were good enough to re-float their old review of Rendition from their archives. They wrote,
Critics seem to be crowing about Rendition's obvious, overbearing liberal outrage. On the contrary, it is the limp, procedural nature of the narrative that keeps the film from soaring. It is, in fact, not outraged enough. It is really a run-of-the-mill thriller with an overly-complicated structure…..
Which I think is a more or less just verdict on the substance of the film. I leave the issue of cinematic art - achieved or unachieved - to J & K McKiernan.

I needed to see this film because I have not written one word in these pages about Guantánamo. I needed a reason to get out of my chair and say something, but I guess I'll take that up in a comment below. However, I have always have been against torture. I have written about it here, here and especially here. My fellow Americans are against torture, too, I'm sure. Deep down, in the dead of night, they are. They know their government tortures and wish it didn't. Most feel they really don't need to know more about it or become engaged in the issue.

That is the reason that the movie has not been a barn-burner. I don't feel that the end product is a reflection on the cinematic skill of the producer-director team, as do the McKiernans. I believe that the public's response to the film is a reflection of the irresponsibility and cowardice of my fellow Americans. They simply won't play with the hand of cards that their criminal government has dealt them.
The fact of the matter is that this movie goes as far as it dares in abrasively irritating our American complacency and self-satisfaction. National, profit-driven film distributors would not risk releasing any film which might stab and twist a stiletto into flesh of our collective conscience.

Compared to what attentive readers of the Internet understand of rendition, Rendition-the-movie renders only torture-lite. Witholding visual pain-inflicting details for those who might yet see this film (recommended), there were a few exchanges which mainstream Americans would do well to absorb.

For instance, Jake Gyllenhaal's character (a young CIA analyst assigned to observe rendition rendered by a 3rd world Torquemada) apologizes to Meryl Streep's character (a CIA superior with a frozen Condi Rice smile),
This is my first torture.
Without skipping a beat, Streep responds
The United States does not torture. It saves lives.
So, lesson #1 for us Americans is no one's being tortured - but torturing these people saves other people's lives. Yigal Naor's character (the master Muslim torturer, Abasi), explains his philosophy and rational to Gyllenhall:
The work we do is sacred.

Beat your woman every day. If you don't know why - she does.
To which Gyllenhall responds by quoting Shakespeare (see heading) and,
In all the years you've been doing this, how often can you say that we've produced truly legitimate intelligence? Once? Twice? Ten times? Give me a statistic; give me a number. Give me a pie chart, I love pie charts. Anything, anything that outweighs the fact that if you torture one person you create ten, a hundred, a thousand new enemies.
In this film, we learn that the Clinton administration first coined the euphemism "extraordinary rendition" to describe American government-sanctioned kidnappings. That's the first known use of the word 'rendition' in this sense. It's not clear to me if 'extraordinary' implies a concession that this violates American Constitutional law and/or the Geneva Conventions, or whether it implies that such rendering is to be out-sourced from the U.S. in an extra-territorial sense.

And, here's where I draw a line. Capture, kidnapping, internment, and indefinite custody of suspected terrorists is one preventive measure which could have been understood in the wake of 9-11. I'm saying that I find thinkable a long-term, potentially indefinite, preventive detention of terror suspects without criminal charges or trial. But this would be a clean, hygienic, comfortable confinement. This type of preventive detention system would not be "off the books" and would be subject to unannounced Red Cross inspections. Obviously, such a system would be expensive to maintain. So extremely expensive that it would be self-limiting.

But detention is different from torture. Torture destroys the moral fiber of the practitioners and ennobles and martyrs the victims. I am convinced that its wide spread use by the French during their Algerian 'troubles' was corrosive to their professional army and would have led to a post-World War II Fascism, but for the intervention of Charles de Gaulle.

Potentially it can take a similar toll upon our democracy. And here is the crux of the import of this movie and its premise. If it weren't for the fact that Busheney exploited 9-11 to the hilt, and exercised a dogmatic contempt for the constitutionally derived rule of law and human rights, there would have been no reason for this film

Moreover, torture does not create actionable intelligence; rather, it mobilizes and motivates enemies. Both the U.S. Army's Counterinsurgency (COIN) Manual and the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) state that progress in asymmetrical warfare lies in reducing the replenishment of enemies, by dividing the terrorist from the mainstream Muslim audiences in play. Torture recruits terrorists.
Only indiscriminate bombing, in my opinion, is more effective in replenishing the ranks of our enemies.

In a healthy America, there should be a widespread outrage against both of these dysfunctional and self-defeating policies. Films like Rendition should be filling seats in theaters and emptying out shelves in video stores.