Again I saw all the oppressions that are practised
under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—
with no one to comfort them! On the side of their
oppressors there was power—with no one to
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Isaiah 5:20 (RSV)
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Does the end justify the means? Is it all right to torture a suspected terrorist if you believe that he has information about a bombing that could lead to saving the lives of others? It is according to a policy followed by our State Department and CIA. Although the current administration has been castigated over this, the policy known as “extreme rendition” actually began during with its predecessor, so no matter which side you come down on, both parties are responsible. South African-born director Gavin Hood, whose Tsotsi won last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, puts a human face on the issue in this fictional story of a businessman snatched from his routine business world and sent into the limbo of torture in a North African nation—on the basis of some phone calls that might have been made by terrorists to his cell phone, or to those of someone with his common name.
In North Africa a suicide bomber turns a city square into a jumbled mass of debris and prostrate bodies when (as we learn later) he tries to assassinate Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), an interrogator for the government intelligence agency. At the other end of the continent businessman Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) calls his wife on his cell phone to inform her that he is on his way to the airport and will see her soon. His wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), at their home in Washington, DC, is expecting their second child and busy with the usual chores of a mother. Unknown to either of them the CIA, having traced phone calls from the terrorists responsible for the bombing to El-Ibrahimi’s phone, have issued a rendition order targeting him. As soon as he gets off the plane in Washington, agents seize and hustle him onto a plane heading to the country where the bombing took place. No response is made to his questions.
Isabella and her young son wait vainly for the appearance of El-Ibrahimi. She is told that he had not been on the plane. Earlier the CIA had deleted his name on the passenger list. She becomes extremely worried when she checks with his associates in South Africa, who assure her that he had left for the airport. Meanwhile, in a dark dungeon in North Africa Abasi and neophyte CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) confront the man both are convinced is a terrorist who can lead them to his fellow terrorists. Douglas has never taken part in an “extreme rendition,” and has been assigned to be the liaison only because the more senior agent had been killed in the blast, with Douglas sitting right next to him in the car when the bomb exploded. The camera also switches often to still another of the film’s subplots—of Abasi’s daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach), who is romantically involved with fellow university student Khalid (Moa Khouas). Knowing that her strong-willed father would not approve of her lover, she has resisted his pleas to meet him. Only later through an unexpected plot twist will we learn why he is so persistent in this request, and also what it is that puzzles the investigators who obtain and watch a fuzzy video of the scene made on a cell phone.
Isabella, finding no help when she contacts the State Department, goes to the office of an old flame from her days in college, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard). Now an aide for Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin), Alan promises to see what he can do, though he offers little hope. He is right in his assumption that the State Department will not admit to any knowledge of what has happened. Even when the agent who ordered the pick up, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), is confronted, she smoothly reiterates what she had asserted over the telephone, that she knows nothing about the missing husband. When Alan tries to pressure her to divulge information, she strikes back with a threat that could damage his career. His remaining hope is to convince the Senator to look into the matter.
In North Africa Abasi’s initial kindness toward the prisoner soon changes to an icy professional demeanor as he employs the torturer’s bag of tricks—stripping the victim of all clothing, depriving him of sleep, slapping and beating him, water boarding, and shocking him with electricity. Abasi justifies this to the discomforted Douglas by explaining that the information they will obtain will save many more lives. El-Ibrahimi pleads with them, claiming to know nothing about the terrorists. Convinced of his prisoner’s guilt, Abasi keeps throwing at him the evidence—that the terrorists made several calls to his cell phone. Douglas is not so certain, especially following one development when the victim finally cracks and spews forth a list of Egyptians.
Although some critics have labeled the film as “uninvolving” and propagandist, I found it very moving, and certainly a cautionary tale of what can happen when a government resorts to harsh and extralegal means to do what it thinks is right. It is also a good study of people under pressure having to make a decision, one that calls for courage because the consequences could derail their careers. As the plucky Isabella keeps pressing to obtain some word concerning her husband’s fate, we wonder what Alan or Douglas or Senator Hawkins will do, as well as how Fatima’s relationship with her lover and her father will turn out. Above all, we are led to consider Isaiah’s charge concerning the moral blindness of the leaders of his people: what might he say today to our time of moral ambiguity when desperate men seek to kill in the name of their god, and equally desperate men seek to prevent them?
There are spoilers in the following.
1) During a group discussion of the film the leader should beware of any tendency to turn it from a discussion of ethics and morality into a political one. You might at the beginning warn the members of this, and also point out that although the current administration has been using “extreme rendition,” it was the former one that initiated (and used) it as a means of getting around the restrictions of US laws.
2) From the lecture given at the fundamentalist Islamic school. and from Abasi’s conversations with Douglas, how is it apparent that both sides seek to justify their deeds on moral grounds? How can religion and national security be dangerous to the moral health of a person?
3) What do you think of Corrine Whitman’s statement?
“Honey, this is nasty business. There are upwards of 7,000 people in central London alive tonight, because of information that we elicited just this way. So maybe you can put your head on your pillow and feel proud for saving one man while 7,000 perish, but I got grandkids in London, so I’m glad I’m doing this job… and you’re not.” What price has she paid to be able to stonewall Isabella in the way she does?
4) What are the costs to the characters wrestling with a decision as to what they should do? A good hymn to check out (unfortunately not included in most modern hymnals!) is James Russell Lowell’s “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Below are the first two verses: for the third, with its promise of a brighter future, go get an older hymnal: Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side; Some great cause, some new decision, Offering each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by forever ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble, When we share her wretched crust, Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ’tis prosperous to be just; Then it is the brave man chooses While the coward stands aside, Till the multitude make virtue Of the faith they had denied.
5) Who is the one whom Jesus might “bless” ? What do you think will happen to the person who made the costly decision? What about the others? Have you been faced with having to decide something which could threaten your career or relationships? What did you do, and what helped you reach a decision?
6) How is Douglas’ question to Abasi: “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.” What do most interrogation experts say in regard to the efficacy of torture, compared to skillful questioning? How does El-Ibrahimi’s list of co-conspirators bear out Douglas’ doubts and concerns?
7)The story of El-Ibrahimi isn’t just in the fictional category: Khaled Masri, a German citizen whose roots are in Lebanon, while vacationing in Macedonia in 2003, was snatched by the CIA and then sent to Afghanistan, where in a secret prison he claims that he was tortured for five months. The CIA did discover that they had the wrong man, so they blindfolded and deposited him in a rural area of Albania. No money; no papers; and no apology. He has tried to secure justice, but to no avail, recently the US Supreme Court deciding not to review his case because it might expose state secrets. Once more national security trumps human rights and justice. His situation is clouded by his arrest for arson: he was angry when the store refused to take back an iPod that failed just a week after he bought it.