Thursday, February 24, 2005


Dirty propaganda in a "Dirty War" (updated)

Last night by accident I watched most of PBS' showing of the HBO/BBC production of "Dirty War," first shown in the U.S. by HBO and offered to PBS for free. Before going any further, let me confess that I'm an absolute chump for any program that features a cast with British accents. And besides, I thought I was watching an episode of "Mystery" until I realized there was no mystery. By the time I had caught on that this was a program about... well, about Islamic terrorist cells, police brutality and public hysteria, Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe had already called it "a terror-era 'War of the Worlds.'"

Now my description will not likely accord with whatever else you may read about this show.

PBS says

DIRTY WAR ... tells the fictional story of a radiological "dirty bomb" attack on central London. [T]his HBO Films/BBC Films production is based on extensive research by the BBC factual department and asks the questions: Are our emergency services fully prepared for a nuclear attack? How much does the public have a right to know?

If these are the questions that the film asked, let me answer them straightaway. (1) No nation is "fully prepared" for a nuclear attack and never will be. (2) The public (that's you and me) has an unlimited right to know what its government is up to—period.

The post-program discussion

Perhaps in line with a new trend in PBS programming on "controversial" topics, a 30-minute panel discussion followed the broadcast in order to help us understand what we had seen. Previously taped at George Washington University, it was hosted by Jeff Greenfield of CNN. There was former Senator Warren Rudman; Raymond Kelly, NYC Police Commissioner Richard Falkenrath, Former Homeland Security Advisor to President Bush; and Dr. Margaret Hamburg, former Assistant Secretary of HHS. Chris Schneidmiller of Global Newswire has a good synopsis of the discussion. As you may imagine, there was a great deal of clucking about "more needing to be done."

There are a number of gaps in prevention and response that need to be filled, including securing radioactive materials, improving detection and preparing health care systems for an attack, said panelist Margaret Hamburg, vice president for biological programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Dirty War showed Londoners fleeing the fallout area, some avoiding emergency decontamination sites and many mobbing a hospital in search of care. Hospitals are not prepared to deal with a dirty bomb or other WMD event, Hamburg said.

This is all very true. But it would have been just as well to point out that our hospitals are not prepared to deal with an outbreak of a serious strain of the flu, which is far more likely than a dirty bomb and far more nationwide in impact. For that matter our hospitals are not prepared to deal with a serious outbreak of universal health care.

Missing from the panel were any participants who might have made such obvious points or who might have presented any perspective other than the "official" line. But after all, this is "public" television, which means more and more that it is a vehicle for official thought.

The program

"Dirty War" has garnered the greater portion of the press's attention because PBS decided to censor a scene that showed for a split second a naked woman being decontaminated. Someone at PBS apparently thought she resembled Janet Jackson. The film is done in the style of many recent BBC productions in which there is a sort of audio vérité—the sort of thing where you can't hear the dialog for the sound of a dishwasher or a jackhammer in the background. Fortunately the characters often spoke in Arabic so there were subtitles.

The plot is that the Brits learn that radioactive materials have been brought into the country and they race to learn what's become of them before something terrible happens. They fail. (More on that point later.) The result is that many people are contaminated and a significant area of London must be closed for 30 years.

The message

As PBS noted, the program was based on extensive research, but where the research really showed was in the area of high-tech spying and authoritarian behavior.

London has videocams everywhere, so you get to sit alongside the guy in a room with a gazillion monitors and actually see the van carrying the bomb explode. But wait--there's another van on the streets carrying a separate bomb. Thanks to those monitors it is possible to slaughter the drivers before they can reach their destination.

Unlike BBC productions of the past, which have been rather squeamish about showing violence and its aftermath, you see the bullet-riddled Islamic bodies up close. Of course, as an American I'm used to that sort of thing when it comes to entertainment, but I was a bit surprised by the Beeb. Perhaps HBO, their coproducer, insisted. In any case, you certainly can't walk away without concluding that cameras everywhere are a very good thing.

Then there are the "good guys," who include in their midst a "moderate" Muslim woman. The good guys are not above threatening to drown a Muslim in the bathtub if he doesn't talk. Or arresting another terrorist's wife who is uninvolved in the plot. They say his son is in an orphanage.

Perhaps the BBC's extensive research inadvertently produced another verisimilitude. There was actually a point in the plot where the tragedy could have been averted. The whereabouts of some of the group became known, but the authorities don't act quickly enough. They want to learn more.

In short, what this film is really about is a playing out of "The terrorist with an A-bomb" torture scenario in which you must decide if there aren't...well, after all...some circumstances in which torture is justified.

After watching "Dirty War," you will see and understand how vital unrestrained torture and killing are to the defense of the Homeland. You will have a newfound respect for the job the authorities do. And you will never again question their judgment.

The timing of the showing of this film indicates either that there is a malevolent God or that some PR is afoot. In a week when Tony Blair's efforts to turn Britain into a police state have had rough going in Parliament and George Bush is showing Europe just how offensive a "charm offensive" can be, it never hurts to put your best foot forward. And all indications are that most reviewers are either respectful or positively eating it up.

How perfect that on the very day of the showing of "Dirty War" Tony Blair should be quoted as having written—

We have to balance protection for the public from terrorism with safeguarding civil liberties. But there is no greater civil liberty than to live free from terrorist attack. It would be the gravest dereliction of duty to wait until we suffered a terrorist outrage here, and only then act.


The propaganda effort was apparently not wasted on one viewer (who, by the way, could be a plant to reinforce the message). Someone identified as maskirovka77 writes in a movie forum—

I also appreciated the scene that showed the Scotland Yard officer in essence torturing one of the terrorists in a desperate attempt to get information about follow-up attacks. I know that purists in the National Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, the Amnerican Civil Liberties Union would condemn such acts, but if something like this happened in real life in the USA, I would form a legal defense committee for the police officer and petition Congress to give him a medal.

The bottom line is that when the stakes are as high as shown in "Dirty War," the ends DO justify the means. I'm not happy about saying that, but if forcing a terrorist to talk would avert something so terrible, I'd enthusiastically support it. As someone once said, "The innocent have more rights than the guilty." On a final note, I did not have a problem with the "message" that there are "good Muslims" who despise al-Qaeda and everything Osama Bin Laden stands for (I just wish they'd be more outspoken). At least BBC and HBO had the guts to make a movie where the terrorists were actually cast out of reality as opposed to the fantasy neo-Nazis that Hollywood substituted for Islamic terrorists in "the Sum of All Fears."

3/1/05 Correction: "Janice Jackson" changed to "Janet Jackson." Apologies to Janice Jackson.

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