Monday, 7 March 2011


I commenced to write this on a train journey south Saturday 5th March 2011 having watched the night before a most controversial and challenging film, where I agree with one reviewer that much of the depiction of violence was gratuitous but that the issue of means and ends was an important one to be raised.

The USA and British Governments treat the use of torture against civilians as a crime against humanity or as a crime in itself when used against the servants of another state and ideology, or against those believed to have committed criminal acts. It has been proven that the information obtained through the use of torture is frequently unreliable and that once the torture has been established it is unlikely that a court will accept the evidence obtained so the culprit will walk free however culpable they are of the particular offence. This aspect was covered in the first episode of the Blue Bloods, now showing on Sky Atlantic.

In Unthinkable, with Samuel L Jackson, the What If issue involves a Terrorist who before arranging to be captured on mainland USA had sent a video in which he shows the immediate location of three nuclear bombs set to explode in three different cities if his demands are not met within a matter of days. He has not made any demands prior to capture and the film is based on the premise that the government will not meet the demands or negotiate on them, regardless that it is established the bombs exist and collectively will kill and maim around 20 million men, women and children. The terrorist has also been trained with withstand the excess and prolonged application of pain.

The USA Presidential government(through Homeland Security) retains the services of Samuel L Jackson, a married man with two children for just such a situation who lives under 24 hour security surveillance but otherwise he and his family are able to lead a normal life. Although the CIA manage the holding of the prisoner they use the army to provide the secret environment and who themselves initially use some basic torture methods such as water boarding and asphyxiation before Jackson is involved.

For some unexplained reason the army commanders selected for the task appear unaware of what their work is likely to lead to and that it will reach points beyond which they are unwilling to go. This aspect makes does not make sense.

Nor does the involvement of the FBI who are brought in by the government in the interrogation and attempted finding of the locations and rendering harmless of the devices. This may be because of the statutory jurisdiction and inter state arrangements where the Federal FBI and CIA units as well as the army have defined and limited official roles but I was immediately struck by the inconsistency that if as a government you decide to break your own laws in the interests of the greater good why should worry about the niceties of national, state and agency responsibilities, risk dissent on the part of those given the responsibility to break the terrorist or indeed keep him the USA if torturing him on the mainland created a problem. Have they not heard of rendition to countries whose basic standards are different?

It is also not clear why he allowed himself to be caught and why he did not just explode the devices at the earliest opportunity, or how he was able to bring in the nuclear material from Russia where it originated and obtain all the relevant parts without the help of others, or why he did not ensure that his wife and children had left the USA prior to giving himself up.

The basic story is therefore fundamentally flawed and it was immediately evident to me that as soon as that the torturing of the man had no effect that the USA government, or any government in such a situation, would use his wife and then his children as hostages. It is after all a simple equation the life of one woman and two children against those of millions. It is not unthinkable but the simple mathematics and a basic moral calculation made by everyone who was involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and presently in Afghanistan where over the past days a group of children were unintentionally caught in the line of fire.

In Unthinkable the audience is subjected to prolonged scenes of violence in which the terrorist is castrated, has the tops of fingers sliced off, his teeth pulled and threatened with his eyes being gouged out as well as electric shocks before his wife is brought in and has her throat slashed and then his children secured and threatened with similar action towards them.

In the beginning it is the FBI lady who is used as the good cop/ bad cop form of interrogation but she too joins in the violence after the terrorist tricks them into detonating a comparatively small device in a shopping mall which kills 53 men women and children and injures hundreds of others. As an alternative to the torturing of the children the terrorist does reveal the location of the three devices, but Jackson like me had worked out that because the nuclear bomb making material that had gone missing in a decommissioning event in Russia had been between 15 and 18 pounds (in reality the amount would have been known precisely) and each of the three located bombs contained precisely three and a half pounds of material, there was a fourth bomb, and the film ends in silence with a view of the clock timer going from countdown to detonation time. The basic point of the film is therefore that there are some situations in which torture is justified but if you are going to do it you have been ensure that those selected to undertake the task are up to it and properly trained, and that there will be consequences for those authorizing the action as well as undertaking the action if the action fails, and possibly even if it is successful and becomes known. Winston Churchill took the decision to allow the bombing of Coventry without taking action to warn the population despite our knowledge of the raid because we needed to continue to ensure that the German enemy was not aware we had broken their use of coded communication to protect the date and location of the main invasion of mainland Europe and other strategic developments, and he again authorised the bombing of civilian Dresden as did the USA President the use of Atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in order to reduce the loss of life among the allies and bringing the war to a quicker end.

In the film Jackson himself is shown as a normal human being sitting with his wife communicating with his children over the lap top she had brought to him in a break from his work! The FBI lady queries how she can live with such man, and first the wife and then Jackson explain that his wife has been raped by three men in front of her parents during the recent ethnic cleansing wars in the Balkans and that she then had the opportunity which she had taken to kill them. When in relation to the two children of the terrorist he hesitates, the Presidential command link advises that they have taken his wife and children into protective custody for such an eventuality. Michael Sheen plays the terrorist. The film was not released into theatre but went straight to DVD on release in June 2010 and subsequently to TV.

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