The Oscars are once again approaching. I typically ignore them and am usually surprised when I read the news on Monday and find out I missed them (again). But I cannot ignore this year's awards, because among the candidates for Best Picture is Zero Dark Thirty, a Hollywood blockbuster about the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden. Controversy has sprung up around the film's release, including graphic scenes of torture, which I personally find distasteful. Having deployed to Iran and Afghanistan, I cannot help but wonder if this controversy will provide justification for Islamic extremists to commit violent attacks in retaliation. But what does the film's nomination — and the subsequent criticism of it — tell the rest of the world about U.S. foreign policy?
This would not be the first time a Western film has ignited significant opposition among Muslims. Nor would it be the first time I have been overseas while controversy was brewing. During my first deployment to Iraq, Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders's short semi-documentary Fitna sparked protests all over Europe and even garnered some death threats against the filmmaker. The recent amateur film Innocence of Muslims struck a little closer to home, as it ignited significant controversy all around the world. The Taliban even blamed the film as partial justification when they claimed responsibility for the September 2012 attack against a U.S./British base in Afghanistan. I was on that base when it happened, and spent a sleepless night contemplating the wider implications of East versus West while hunkered down in a secured area.
As a former conservative, I am well familiar with how the right wing pundits typically and erroneously regard Muslim protests with derision. Sometimes they hold them up as proof of our nation’s just cause in the Middle East and around the world. But is that really the case? Do the film, and our society’s acceptance of it, speak to ignorance of how the government’s actions affect people around the world?
The problem lies with the film’s depiction of harsh interrogation techniques, which some decry as an attempt to condone torture. The tone of the film seems to suggest as much. A Western viewer might be outraged a graphic violence, but is likely blind to how this will be received by audiences around the world. It is entirely possible foreign audiences may infer that the U.S. military or intel spooks could at any time sweep one of them up and torture them for information, and that Americans condone such actions to the point that they make movies about it and then award the filmmakers. Would it truly be surprising then, if this movie provokes protests or violence?
Middle Eastern grievances against the U.S. are numerous. I heard about them all the time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the complaints center on how U.S. foreign policy seems to disregard the average citizen’s concerns in lieu of economic and military triumph.
Yet our nation’s leaders continue to insist on making their interests reality all over the globe. They display tone-deafness to the rising crescendo of backlash against foreign policy enforced at the point of a gun or drone-fired Hellfire missile. Even worse is the tacit approval Americans provide Washington by mindlessly consuming entertainment defending, glamorizing, and justifying such policies.
So the real question remains by and large unasked and unanswered: What does Zero Dark Thirty say about Washington’s policies overseas and our acceptance of it all? Washington should stop ignoring protests and instead begin examining its foreign policy in context of how it may be received around the world and whether its actions may be welcomed.