Monthly Archives: January 2013

Propaganda in Zero Dark Thirty

            The release of Zero Dark Thirty last weekend raised many concerns amongst U.S. foreign policy scholars and international observers.  Most of these complaints have centered on the film’s portrayal of American torture of al-Qaeda prisoners and other suspected militants in the years following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Other writers have analyzed the film’s portrayal of the usefulness of torture, the differences between torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the long-term affect that such torture has on the so-called War on Terror.  These are all necessary questions to ask and valuable discussions regarding the film, as it appears likely that many present and future Americans will see the film as defining American foreign policy in the War on Terror.  Zero Dark Thirty, however, permits an even larger problem that its audience is probably unaware of: the film portrays itself as historically accurate but only gives an American view of events.   The film depicts Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as attacking westerners because they hate western freedoms, though bin Laden clearly listed his political reasons for the attacks in the 1990s.  The film portrays al-Qaeda savagery in attacking western civilians, but ignores the fact the U.S. forces have shrugged off the murder of civilians during its drone assassination program.  The film even defines al-Qaeda savagery in describing the size of bombs used against C.I.A. agents but avoids discussing the size of bombs the U.S. has dropped on Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan’s civilian areas.   Zero Dark Thirty closely resembles basic pro-government propaganda in all of these ways, and viewers should keep its propaganda role in mind while watching and discussing the film.

            Propaganda can only be successful when its creators claim it to be an accurate depiction of fact.  Zero Dark Thirty makes this claim at the outset, telling the audience that the film is based on first hand accounts given by people involved in the story.  The film next legitimizes itself by immediately depicting the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City.  The screen stays black while the audience listens to many cell phone calls made by those that died in the Twin Towers.  Many callers are frightened, which inspires the audience to feel dread and revulsion in knowing that most of those voices were silenced that day.  This is an artistic and inspired way to remind people of the national mood on September 11th that focused on sympathy for the victims and a desire to exert revenge on those that caused such terrible violence.  However, audiences should also notice that the film only gives voice to American victims, completely overlooking the decades of violence the United States has supported throughout the Middle East.  The film does not permit its audiences to hear similar statements of fear, death, and popular anger resulting from American bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or many other Middle Eastern countries.  Zero Dark Thirty legitimizes American victims while ignoring the body count inflicted in the Middle East, contributing to an American myth of its own righteousness in fighting the War on Terror.

            Such overwhelming focus on the American perspective dominates the rest of the film.  One of the worst examples occurs in a scene depicting a C.I.A. office that runs a television in the background.  The scene begins focused on the television, where New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg conveniently states that al-Qaeda attacks the United States because such Muslim extremists hate the freedom that American enjoy in their daily lives.  The filmmakers clearly intend for the audience to hear these statements in order to define al-Qaeda as a savage, repressive force that attacks only in order to destroy personal freedom.  This depiction ignores al-Qaeda’s political foundations explained by Usama bin Laden since the 1990s.  Bin Laden said as early as 1996 that

Terrorising you, while you are carrying arms on our land, is a legitimate and morally demanded duty. It is a legitimate right well known to all humans and other creatures. Your example and our example is like a snake which entered into a house of a man and got killed by him. The coward is the one who lets you walk, while carrying arms, freely on his land and provides you with peace and security. (“Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” 1996, can be viewed at

He argued the same point in 1998, demanding that

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.  (“Fatwah Urging Jihad Against Americans,” published in Al-Quds al-‘Arabi on Febuary 23, 1998 at

Usama bin Laden argued throughout the 1990s that the United States attacked, controlled, and exploited Muslim lands in order to enrich its own companies.  Bin Laden clearly defined al-Qaeda as more than a simple terror organization trying to kill American freedom, but instead as a Muslim revolutionary movement trying to overthrow American tyranny and establish a truly independent Middle East.

            Such statements continued after the September 11th attacks.  Bin Laden’s video messages released in 2003 and 2004 (the exact years depicted in Zero Dark Thirty) openly declared leadership of a Muslim resistance movement. 

I say to the American people we will continue to fight you and continue to conduct martyrdom operations inside and outside the United States until you depart from your oppressive course and abandon your follies and rein in your fools. . . .  And may our mothers become childless if we leave any of you alive on our soil. (“Message to the US,” published October 18, 2003 by al-Jazeera English at

Similar ideas were expressed in bin Laden’s offer of a truce to European governments that began removing their military forces from the Middle East:

[W]e would like to inform you that labelling us and our acts as terrorism is also a description of you and of your acts. Reaction comes at the same level as the original action. Our acts are reaction to your own acts, which are represented by the destruction and killing of our kinfolk in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. . . .  I also offer a reconciliation initiative to [Europeans] whose essence is our commitment to stopping operations against every country that commits itself to not attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs – including the US conspiracy on the greater Muslim world. (“Truce Offer to Europe,” published April 15, 2004 by the BBC at

Usama bin Laden defined al-Qaeda as a political/military resistance movement from its inception in the 1990s and continued with that definition after the September 11th attacks and the War on Terror that followed.  Zero Dark Thirty ignores all of these statements, choosing instead to focus on the common American misunderstanding of al-Qaeda as seeking to attack the United States out of pure hatred for American freedom.  Zero Dark Thirty therefore perpetuates an American myth born and still advertised by the United States government.  The film’s refusal to question that myth and the film’s portrayal of al-Qaeda’s motivations are hugely disturbing.

            Zero Dark Thirty also goes to great lengths in depicting the savagery of al-Qaeda attacks against civilian populations.  This is most powerful during the opening sequence of September 11th voices, the destruction of a peaceful neighborhood in the London bus bombings of July 2005, and the bombing of a popular American-style restaurant.  The images powerfully motivate audiences to correctly despise al-Qaeda’s willingness to kill civilians.  However, the film also implies American willingness to kill civilians, even children, during the War on Terror.  This is portrayed in several scenes.  The first scenes depicts a C.I.A. meeting in which the main character, a C.I.A. analyst hunting bin Laden, gets a statistical rundown and images of the house that bin Laden used for hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  The analyst is told that the C.I.A. is certain of the age of many people living in the house thanks to satellite images.  The analyst is told that several children live at the compound; they even have pictures of the children playing sword-fighting games around the house.  Several women are also estimated to live at the compound, along with at least two adult men.  A later scene depicts the main character’s first meeting with the SEAL team that would eventually attack the compound and kill bin Laden.  The SEAL team leader seems reluctant to perform the mission because he says that they had been on other missions targeting bin Laden in the past that had been false leads.  The film quickly gives the analyst’s response: she did not even want to involve a SEAL team.  Instead, the female analyst preferred to drop a giant bomb on the house to kill everyone in it.  This statement seems intended as comedy for the audience (and many in the theater laughed at it), even while her face is deadly serious.  However, Zero Dark Thirty also shows its propaganda power: al-Qaeda is depicted as evil for killing civilians, but the C.I.A. is depicted with a righteous and even funny willingness to drop a giant bomb on a house that would likely have killed children and other anonymous adults along with the possibility of killing bin Laden.

            The filmmakers also give some details of terrorist weapons in order to demonize anti-American groups.  One emotional scene depicts the bombing of a C.I.A. interrogation group in Afghanistan, with later news reports defining the bomb used as being a powerful 2,000 pound device.  Other C.I.A. leaders frequently remind viewers throughout the movie that 3,000 American civilians were murdered on September 11th.  The filmmakers clearly included the bomb’s size and American death toll in order to convince audiences that the terrorists are brutal, merciless, and unconcerned for how many people die in their attacks.  However, Zero Dark Thirty again fails to provide context for such information.  The film conveniently skips past the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 along with the hundreds of bombs dropped and the thousands of Iraqi civilians massacred.  The film never discusses American use of unmanned drone airplanes that constantly fly over Afghanistan and Pakistan, dropping scores of bombs that have killed hundreds of civilians.  Emphasizing the American civilian death toll and the terrorists’ use of large bombs while simultaneously ignoring similar death toll and bombing statistics when killing other peoples reveals how closely Zero Dark Thirty resembles the American government’s perspective in the War on Terror.  Audiences can only conclude that the filmmakers made such decisions consciously, and that Zero Dark Thirty approaches government-sponsored propaganda.

            Zero Dark Thirty could be considered an artfully constructed war story due to its main characters’ emotional depth, the honest way that September 11th victims are represented, and for its descriptions of American motivations for fighting.  However, its major weakness emerges when one realizes that the film refuses to project any of these qualities or descriptions onto America’s enemies and the innocents killed in American attacks.  Middle Easterners in general, and al-Qaeda in particular, are portrayed as bloodthirsty, insane, brutal attackers seeking to destroy American freedom by killing as many westerners as possible with the biggest weapons they can get hold of.  Such depictions ignore al-Qaeda’s core complaint against the United States: that the Americans have occupied, oppressed, and exploited Middle Eastern lands and peoples for pure economic profit.  Zero Dark Thirty seems likely to define the War on Terror in the American popular mind, and it is a very scary thing indeed to realize that Americans will likely continue to misunderstand al-Qaeda’s fundamental goal.  Zero Dark Thirty claims to be historically accurate, but its failure to give basic information brings it closer to a piece of American government propaganda.  The C.I.A. should be proud of such an accomplishment.


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California’s Damaged Democracy

            The world closely watched the U.S. election results last November, correctly concerned about shifts in economic, military, and foreign policy that could have been created by a swing in political power.  While the U.S. federal elections largely left the balance of political party power unchanged (President Obama winning re-election over a split Congress), several major changes in California were clearly evident.  The 2012 election in California should be closely studied because it was the first election run under the so-called “open primary” system.  The “open primary” was put in place when voters approved Proposition 14 in June 2010.  Voters believed that their voting freedoms were being enhanced, but the 2012 results clearly prove that Prop 14 has actually restricted voting rights and given the Democratic Party an unfair advantage, particularly over the Republican Party.  Proposition 14 has damaged democracy in California.

            California voters, like most in the United States, had only been allowed to vote for primary candidates in the parties they were registered with.  For example, a voter registered as a Republican could only vote for Republican primary candidates, just as a registered Democrat could only vote for Democratic primary candidates, and so on with all political parties.  Propositions approved by California voters in the 1990s took the first steps in opening primary elections so that voters from any party (including unaffiliated voters) could vote for candidates from any party (included unaffiliated candidates).  Therefore, a registered Republican could vote for candidates from any party in the primary election.  This policy was correctly seen as “opening” the primary to voters that may be disenchanted with their own party’s candidates.  This opening of the primary had become normal for California elections until Proposition 14 was approved in June 2010.  Prop 14 changed California elections again, this time keeping the “open primary” system while added the “Top Two Candidates” provision.  Prop 14’s giant change was to only let the two highest primary vote-getters into the General Election in November.  “The candidates who are the top two vote-getters at a voter-nominated primary election for a congressional or state elective office shall, regardless of party preference, compete in the ensuing general election.” (“Text of Proposed Laws, Proposition 14” Section 5 (a), pages 65-66.  The entire document can be read at  Any registered party was capable of getting on the November ballot even with an open primary system up until 2012, the first General Elections held under Prop 14’s new rules.  The outcomes are clear and undeniable to anyone that has taken the time to study the 2012 General Election results.

            Proposition 14 specifically targeted the elections for California’s representatives in the U.S. Congress (both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives) and for the California state legislature (both the State Senate and State Assembly).  There was only one U.S. Senate race for California in 2012.  Republican and Democratic candidates won the two most votes in the Primary Election, so the General Election ballot showed a candidate from both major parties.  Most California voters probably did not notice that they only had two choices in the General Election in November because both major parties were on the ballot.  The General Election ballots for the U.S. House of Representatives were often a far different experience, as many California Districts ran two candidates from the same party.  These parties were able to dominate the General Election ballot in these Districts because two rival candidates from the same party gained the two highest vote totals in the Primary Election.  The final election results show that 12 California Districts eliminated one of the major parties, with 6 Districts only running Democrats, 2 Districts only running Republicans, and “unaffiliated” candidates (labeled as NPP for “No Party Preference”) being a finalist in 4 Districts.  The following table simplifies these numbers:


                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)


“Third Party” candidates were eliminated completely from the General Election because their candidates were not two of the top vote-getters in any Primary.  “Third Party” voters should be outraged at such a result, but so should Republicans because Republican candidates were eliminated from 9 Districts (the 6 Districts dominated by Democrats and 3 Districts that featured a Democrat vs. an unaffiliated/NPP candidate).  Democrats were only eliminated from 3 Districts (the 2 dominated by Republicans and District 23 that featured a Republican vs. an unaffiliated/NPP).  Proposition 14 in effect disadvantaged Republicans by eliminating Republican candidates from 9 Districts while the Democrats were only evicted from 3.  In total, 12 Districts eliminated one of the “major” parties from their General Election ballot.  That accounts for 22.6% of California Districts that eliminated opinions held by large numbers of voters – nearly 1 in 4 California Districts harmed democracy in dramatic ways in the 2012 General Election.

            Similar problems are found in the General Election results for the California State Legislature.  Twenty seats were up for election in the California State Senate in 2012.  Democrats were the top Primary two vote-getters in two Districts, so were allowed to dominate the General Election ballot in those Districts.  The Peace and Freedom Party got their candidates onto the General Election ballot in two other Districts.  Table 2 accumulates the results below:


                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

California State Senate        20             2           0          2           0                 4    (20.0%)


Though a “Third Party” got two candidates into the final round of voting, both candidates were crushed in the General Election (getting only 14% of the vote in District 9 and 20% of the vote in District 20).  (“State Senate – Results of All Districts,” published by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen at  Republicans were again the biggest losers of Prop 14’s results: Republicans were eliminated from the General Election in 4 Districts (the two dominated by Democrats and the two Districts that voted between a Democrat or a Peace and Freedom Party candidate) while Democrats were eliminated from none!  Four out of 20 Districts eliminated the Republican Party from its General Election, which accounts for 20% of all Districts that held elections in 2012.  The Republicans should be outraged at their exclusion and should start thinking about ways to alter or rescind Prop 14.

            The ugliest example of California’s retreat from democracy was in the vote for California State Assembly.  California held 80 elections for State Assembly in 2012.  Democrats were the top two vote-getters in 13 District Primaries, so were allowed to dominate those ballots in November.  Republicans dominated only 7 Districts, while there was one Peace and Freedom candidate in District 15 and one unaffiliated/NPP candidate in District 28.  Table 3 reveals the final statistics:


                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

California State Senate        20             2           0          2           0                 4    (20.0%)

California State Assembly  80          13           7           1           1               22    (27.5%)


Again, Republicans should be outraged at these results: Republicans were eliminated from the general ballot election in 15 Districts (the 13 dominated by Democrats, District 15 that featured a Democrat vs. the Peace and Freedom nominee, and District 28 that ended with a Democrat and NPP on the ballot).  Democrats were eliminated from only 7 Districts.  This means that Democrats gained a 2 to 1 advantage over Republicans in the 2012 election!  Overall, 27.5% of California State Assembly ballots eliminated one of the two major parties.  Only one District gave its voters a “third party” choice.

            The results are clear: about 1 in 4 Californians looked at their ballot in November 2012 and found little meaningful choice.  The “Top Two Primary” winners were exclusively Democrats or Republicans in many areas; Republicans were eliminated from 28 elections, Democrats were cut out of 10 elections, while “third party” and “unaffiliated” candidates were excluded from a whopping 145 elections.  Californians were not told that such results were likely when they were asked to vote on Prop 14.  Now that we know its results, all Californians that love democracy should mobilize to overturn Proposition 14.  The “Top Two Primary” system obviously benefited Democrats because other parties were excluded at a far higher rate, so Republicans, Third Parties, and Independent voters should start a grand coalition to bring real choice back to California.  The Democratic Party could easily dominate California, and the American population could mistakenly come to believe that there is no viable alternative in California politics, if Prop 14 is kept in place. 


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