Fear Itself: Spy Thrillers, Terrorism, and Civil Liberties
Note: This post will contain spoilers for The Honorable Woman and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, and maybe some other things. The Honorable Woman came out this summer on the BBC and the Sundance Channel. It has already been recapped in a spoiler-heavy manner by The Guardian. The Ghost Writer came out sometime around 2009-2010. The spoilers will come early.
One thing I remember clearly from Alan Moore’s Watchmen Graphic Novel was the mock far-right magazine that shows up in excerpts. One of the issues had a political cartoon which featured Uncle Sam in a boxing ring with one arm tied behind his back. Uncle Sam is surrounded by a series of much bigger unsavory characters labeled as stuff like drug dealers, Communists, organized crime, evil bankers (who are Jewish in the right-wing mind of course), and is getting a stern lecture on the importance of playing fair.
I thought of this cartoon after completing watching The Honorable Woman last night.
The Honorable Woman aired on the BBC and Sundance Channel over the summer and is now streaming on Netflix. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, the heir to an Anglo-Israeli Arms empire. Her father is murdered by Palestinian terrorists in front of her eyes as a child. She know heads the family empire and is trying to do good through non-profit charities and building a data network in the West Bank with Palestinian contractors. She is also trying to stay clean and not do business with anyone who can be associated with any terrorist organization. Things fall to chaos when her Palestinian business partner commits a suspicious looking suicide and her Palestinian friend’s child is kidnapped.
Things do not go well and here is where the spoilers come in. It turns out that Nessa Stein was kidnapped by terrorists 8 years ago when she snuck into Gaza after accidentally discovering that one of the Stein Foundation’s non-profits might have given 1.5 million dollars to Hamas. This money was secretly given to secure the release of an Israeli solider and it was done without the consent of the Israeli government. Nessa Stein’s kidnapping and rape was ordered by the same man who ordered the execution of her father (the child turns out to belong to Nessa Stein). The ultimate villain turns out to be an MI6 officer named Monica Chadwick. We only have her word for it but we are to believe that Monica Chadwick’s only desire is for peace and stability in the Middle East. She is willing to go to extremes to get it though including working with Palestinian and Israeli extremist groups. In the penultimate episode, she gets the Palestinians to commit a terrorist act in Hebron but orders a far-right Israeli group to claim credit for the attack. We never find out what she has over the far-right Israeli group because their leader is murdered shortly after the attack. The purpose of getting the far-right Israeli group to claim responsibility is to cause a strain in Israeli and American relations and get the Americans to get serious about making Israel get tough on their own terrorists.
The series ends with the United States announcing that they will no longer veto Palestinian bid’s for statehood at the United Nations but China and Russia revise their policies and now announce that they will possibly switch over to Israel’s side. We also see the head of MI6 talking with American Military Intelligence about “cleaning up” some lose ends. The “cleaning up” is an extra-judicial murder of Monica Chadwin that is made to look like a suicide.
I often find that most spy dramas are very well-made and tightly acted but often collapse under the weight on their own plot twists and turns. My questions about The Honorable Woman include: Why was Nessa Stein’s kidnapping kept under wraps for a year and from almost everyone? Wouldn’t a terrorist organization want to announce that they are holding such an important person hostage? How did Monica Chadwin get a far-right Israeli terrorist group to claim responsibility for something that would only make the Palestinians look good?
My main concern though is on the extra-judicial killing of Monica Chadwin. Spy thrillers are very concerned or like to show that Western Intelligence Agencies are engaged in all sorts of anti-democratic and extra-judicial actions. There is a reasonable basis for believing that our intelligence agencies can be up to no good and have always been up to no good.
The problem is that our Intelligence agencies don’t need to resort to secrecy to get away with stuff. We know about CIA authorized against radicalized and implaccable clerics urging never-ending Jihad.
There is enough evidence out there that Israel and the U.S. created Stuxnet. Mossad was alleged very quickly as committing the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh
almost as soon as it happened.
So why do we need to believe that intelligence agencies commit all these secret and way too competent killings when they do stuff almost completely openly? Do these extra-judicial killings on spy shows reflect a paranoia about what our intelligence agencies do and is this paranoia justified and accurate? I find the networks get too implausible but there are probably people who would accuse me of being as naive as Kay from the Godfather when she tells Michael Corleone that Senators don’t have people killed.
I have a theory that the creators of spy-thrillers are trying to show the audience that these extra-judicial killings and spycraft are generally bad things and as democratic countries, we should be more open and transparent and civil liberties loving. My main theory is that this largely backfires.
The real power of terrorism is not in the frequency of the attacks but in creating fear that an attack can happen. The images created by suicide bombings are horrific and it is easy to imagine and shudder about what it would be like to be horribly wounded by a suicide bomb going off and lying on the ground burnt, maimed, and in extreme pain. I happen to think that the critics of drone strikes are right and that murdering radical clerics without a warrant or trial probably only strokes the flames of terrorism stronger but perhaps most people secretly like the idea of our intelligence officers acting like ninjas in darkness and getting rid of really bad people. Civil Libertarian people complain about security theatre all the time but maybe the majority of people will agree with Pierce Brosnan’s Prime Minister in The Ghost Writer when he yells at Ewan McGregor about which plane would you put your kids on? One with a security checkpoints or ones without checkpoints and say checkpoints please.
Civil Libertarians love the alleged Ben Franklin quote of “Those who pick temporary security over liberty, deserve neither” (I say allegedly because I only heard this quote in the musical 1776 and can’t find any other source for the quotation.) But maybe people would really wonder about what is the point of liberty if you are going to be blown up to bits by suicide bomber. The chances of this are low but the idea of it is shudder inducing. The problem with many spy thrillers is that even if they acknowledge or criticize the actions of our Intelligence agencies, they acknowledge the realness of terrorist organizations and extremists. The Terrorist groups in The Honorable Woman are shown to be implacable and hardened and both unwilling to co-exist with their sworn enemy. The makers of the show try their hardest to show that this is a tragedy and one that probably happened because of British meddling in the Middle East. My worry is that most people watching just see the fictional acts of terrorism and think “Wow, these people are scary and I am glad that intelligence goes to get rid of them.” Recent events in France make this more likely.
Image from Google Images