Monthly Archives: May 2009

Dick speaks

We promised an all-out effort to protect this country. We said we would marshal all elements of our nation’s power to fight this war and to win it. We said we would never forget what had happened on 9/11, even if the day came when many others did forget. We spoke of a war that would “include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” We followed through on all of this, and we stayed true to our word.

To the very end of our administration, we kept al-Qaeda terrorists busy with other problems. We focused on getting their secrets, instead of sharing ours with them. And on our watch, they never hit this country again. After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized. It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed.

The International and Foucault

“The new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the states and its apparatus.”                                   Michel Foucault

The real value of the conflict- the true value- is in the debt.”                   The International

As the torturers of the past administration defend the usefulness of their indiscretions and the present administration colludes with banks engage in creative manipulations of bailout cash, the cold post-modern confusion of the The International struck a chord with me when I watched it last night.

Against the slick grey backdrop of European cities, two investigators struggle to ensnare a violent weapons-hawking international bank. They have the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Interpol to back them up, though they soon realize that national and international law are malleable in the Great Game the bank is playing. As they uncover the bank’s designs- a shadowy plan to fund third world conflicts and lend small nations into debt- their leads are made to disappear and their superiors pressure them to stop asking dangerous questions. In the end, the bloodied Interpol agent crosses the line of the law and seeks justice Dirty Harry style, gunning down the bank’s chairman on an Istanbul rooftop, only to find that his death simply benefits other banks and weapons mongers.

Despite the overly slick styling of the film and the generally poor writing, The International plays with some interesting ideas and constructs a parable on banking that resonates too deeply to dismiss out of hand. The film portrays an international order in which the institutions that uphold law and order are hollow when put to the test and any number of appeals to justice, honor, or duty fall on deaf ears. The police badges in the various cities they visit are capable of little more than opening apartment doors and scaring minor witnesses into talking while the unheard back room phone calls kill entire investigations, murder politicians, and brush away damning evidence. The harried investigators continue to brandish and resignedly throw away their evidence files, while the film makes clear that other systems of power are at work.

The climax of The International is a massive shoot-out inside the Guggenheim Museum. On display is a collection of videos projected against the walls and onto large glass screens hanging in the rotunda. The videos show people engaged in everyday business, walking through city streets, smiling at the camera. The sterile modernism of the setting- smooth, bright, edgeless surfaces, cold functional sharpness of glass and metal, the calm hush of voices and the controlled presentation of humanity on the video screens- is broken by gunfire and blood. The smooth walls are pockmarked by bullet holes, shattered glass rains down on the museum goers, and the sedate video images project onto snarling bloodied goons with semiautomatics.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of Foucault. The symbolic destruction of the modernist Guggenheim and the apparent emptiness of the law echo Foucault’s assertion that:

We have been engaged for centuries in a type of society in which the juridicial is increasingly incapable of coding power, of serving as its system of representation.

The International playfully breaks apart our notion of a system controlled by law, and leaves in its place a murky, violent, but hardly anarchic, world of shifting power relations. The film ends abruptly, refusing to answer our questions or describe the new order, leaving us to discover it ourselves. As long as bankers continue playing with debt and politicos keep making war, we will have plenty of material to draw on.

A friend in Afghanistan

I spoke with a friend who has visited Afghanistan since 2002 as part of a project to build a new legal system. As we talked about the war, she said that after the Taliban were toppled, it felt like the nation would never turn toward them again.

“When I was in school, they wouldn’t let us outside if it was raining. And after the rains had stopped, we would all run out. That’s what it felt like [in the early days of the occupation]- everyone was so happy that the rain had finally stopped.”

She mentioned little things- a young man who had recently returned to the country walking down a  street with his grandfather, a girl wearing a ball cap over her headscarf- things that signaled to her that irreversible changes had come. The sings began to change in 2005-2006. Now she doesn’t travel to the country at all, for her safety and that of the Afghan lawyers with whom she worked.