Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23): An Eye for an Eye and Blasphemers

I am a blasphemer. Not in how I use God’s name as a swear word. I swear very little if at all. I am probably not a blasphemer in contravention of the Third Commandment that instructs us, “not to bear the name of YHWH in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) However, I am a blasphemer deep in my heart and even deeper in my mind. This is not a charge stated lightly or carelessly. Rather, it is an onerous one and is the main reason I find this week’s portion so intriguing.

What is a blasphemer?

Parashat Emor is primarily about the equation of purity and holiness and, more particularly, how priests are to avoid becoming “polluted”. Yet, incongruously, the portion ends with the stoning of the blasphemer just before the law of retaliation (lex talionis) is repeated. The two sides of the sandwich, rules of retaliation and priestly injunctions against pollution, are critical to my understanding of blasphemy and how it should be treated by a community.

Let me begin with the injunction of an eye for an eye, the injunction to retaliate. Verses 24:19-20 read as follows:

ויקרא כד:יט וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ: כד:כ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ: Lev If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 24:20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.

This is not an abstract imperative to me. Last Monday I was operated on my left eye. It was injured when I was seven-years old. Doctors removed a piece of lead, stitched up my pupil and for over fifty years I could only discern light and dark; through that eye, everything only looked like various shades of a cloud. Once just over twenty years ago when we were driving north on Vaughan Avenue just south of St. Clair Ave. W. and I was in the passenger seat, I suddenly exclaimed aloud, “I can see! I can see!” For the first time in over five decades on the big billboard on the north side I could discriminate actual shapes with my left eye – blurry though they were. I even saw some sort of difference in colour, though, when I checked, not quite what others saw. But the recovery of some sight in the left eye was “a miracle.” I could see with my left eye, not clearly, but see nevertheless.

Over the years since, contrary to the pattern of most people, my sight in that eye gradually improved so that I began to be able to identify shapes and even read very large print. The improvement was attributed to the fact that the scar tissue on my pupil had gradually become smoother over the years and had become more and more transparent. My retina had never been injured. It was suggested that I get laser surgery and there was a good chance that my vision would improve even more.

When I was first told about this, I was informed that there was a risk, not a tiny one but a significant chance that there would be no further improvement and that the improvement in my vision would even be set back. The main reason was that my pupil had been misshapen by the injury and laser surgery would be riskier. I decided not to take the risk and rather enjoyed the gradual improvement in my sight in my left eye over the last two decades.

Then four things happened. First, I had begun to develop cataracts in my eyes, much worse in my partially-sighted left eye than my right, and my vision in that eye had begun to become more blurred again. Second, laser surgery had improved enormously and the chances of success had changed dramatically. Third, my optometrist, whom I saw regularly, seemed more dedicated to improving my eyesight than I was and “insisted” that I see a surgeon. Fourth, in the test for my surgery, at least in one of the tests, the technician put a blackout lens over my right eye and a dark lens with pinholes in it over my left eye. I was asked to read the letters on the screen.

Miracle of miracles! I could read every single letter, right down to the tiny ones on the final line. Clearly, I could even have perfect vision out of that eye if the light was allowed to reach the retina easier and perhaps more directly and more focused. I joyfully acquiesced to the surgery.

A week ago Monday I had the surgery. This Wednesday I went for my follow-up examination. I could read through the left eye all but the bottom row of letters on the black-and-white screen. I had been rewarded with 20/30 vision. Success!

What does this story have to do with a revenge ethic let alone with blasphemy? The full context of the injury helps clarify the relevance. When I was seven-years-old, fifteen months younger than my late older brother (he eventually became a highly-regarded cardiologist), he had just turned nine. As he did his homework at the kitchen table in our house on Ulster Street, I began to tease him mercilessly for having to take school work home and for not finishing everything at school or even dispensing with it quickly when we got home. Finally, in rage and exasperation at the continual interruptions and the constant teasing, he turned and flung his pencil at me. The pencil hit my left eye and the end piece of the lead broke off and remained lodged in my pupil.

That was on a Thursday after school. We did not know the extent of the damage at the time, or that the lead had been lodged in the pupil. My eye just stung and kept watering. The nurse was not in the school on Friday and I was sent to see her first thing on Monday morning. She immediately called my mother and I was rushed to Sick Children’s Hospital in the old building on College Street that now houses the blood bank. I was operated on the same day and spent the next three weeks in the hospital graduating by steps from a black mask to a Lone Ranger mask and then a black pirate patch over my left eye.

Other than eating salty porridge – sugar was still rationed immediately after WWII – my memory of the hospital in a general ward with about twenty other young boys was that we had had a wild great time over the three weeks of my stay. My blind eye has just become a fact about me. Because I had very dark brown eyes, no one noticed that the left pupil was turned upwards unlike my young friend, Charlie Menkes, who had an external scar over his eye where he had been cut. In contrast to me, everyone knew he was blind in his left eye.

What if the law of retribution had been in effect? Would my brother have lost sight in his left eye because he had thrown the pencil? Even though I had provoked the action? After all, the injunction simply stated that, “The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” How unjust that would have been! And my late bother might not have become the brilliant medical diagnostician he turned out to be.

The lex talionis was not nuanced like the Hammurabi Code that only required an eye for an eye if a noble had been injured. The person would only have to pay a few shekels if the victim had been a commoner or even half that value if he were a slave. If he was a Mesopotamian, my brother would have been forced to pay me his earnings for perhaps a few hours of work for I too was just a commoner. But we were not Mesopotamians. We were Jews. And the law in the Torah regarded everyone as equal and requiring the same retributive punishment.

The injunction of an eye for an eye is one part of the narrative, the top slice of the sandwich. I have already written about the other side-story, the bottom slice that occurs in Leviticus, God’s sudden slaying of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, for who knows what – because they erred as priests in bringing alien fire into the Holy of Holies, because they might have been a bit tipsy, or for a myriad of other rationales that rabbinic authorities have dreamt up to excuse such murderous divine action without giving the victim a hearing or any due process let alone some slack. Unlike alleged pollution of the holy, at least an injured eye only required injuring the eye of the one who caused the injury and not sudden and immediate death. Thank God my brother had only injured me physically and not polluted the purity of God’s holy place.  I regard these rare side-stories as perhaps throwing more light on the law than all the details of that law.

Which brings me to the blasphemer. (Leviticus 24:10-12) In the camp, there was a fight between two boys, presumably young adults rather than young boys like my brother and myself. The two boys were not brothers at all. Both mothers were Israelites, but the father of one was an Egyptian while the father of the other was an Israelite. Had the young lad with the Israelite father provoked the other boy by calling him a half-breed? Had the boy with the Egyptian father responded by cursing the Israelite God?

Whatever the back story, the son of the Egyptian father was put in the stocks to await YHWH’s decision about his punishment. Note, there is no indication that the one boy injured the other in the fight, only that he blasphemed God. But was this a different example of retributive punishment? What happened? Presumably God’s honour was far more important than a blinded eye for God ordered the Israelites to take the lad outside the community and stone him.

ויקרא כד:יג וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:כד:יד הוֹצֵ֣א אֶת הַֽמְקַלֵּ֗ל אֶל מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְסָמְכ֧וּ כָֽל הַשֹּׁמְעִ֛ים אֶת יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל רֹאשׁ֑וֹ וְרָגְמ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָֽה: Lev 24:13 And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, 24:14 “Bring out the curser outside of the camp and all who heard him will lean their hands upon his head, and the whole community will stone him.”

Was this similar to the treatment meted out to Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu? The treatment of the son of the Egyptian father seems much worse or, at the very least, much gorier. Nadab and Abihu seemed to be instantly consumed by God’s fire. The son of the Egyptian father and the Israelite mother, Shelomith, clearly suffered a much slower and more agonizing death. However, there is an indication that the blasphemous son of the Egyptian father, is, like King Josiah, the real hero of the story. Like Rebecca, the mother of the son with the Egyptian father was Shelomit, daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan. Such a description was a lofty honorific.

Was racism involved? Was the son of the Egyptian father really being punished for being of “mixed blood” and, therefore, a symbol of the so-called pollution of the nation through intermarriage, through breeding cattle of one kind with cattle of another kind? Did such alleged “pollution” defile Eretz Israel, the Holy Land itself?

That seems not to be the case. The bloody mob execution was not racist. It appears that the text condemns racism. After all, Miriam got a skin disease for chastising Moses for taking an Ethiopian bride. The following verse is even clearer and reads as follows:

ויקרא כד:טו וְאֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ כִּֽי יְקַלֵּ֥ל אֱלֹהָ֖יו וְנָשָׂ֥א חֶטְאֽוֹ: כד:טז וְנֹקֵ֤ב שֵׁם־יְ-הֹוָה֙ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת רָג֥וֹם יִרְגְּמוּ ב֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָ֑הכַּגֵּר֙ כָּֽאֶזְרָ֔ח בְּנָקְבוֹ־שֵׁ֖ם יוּמָֽת: Lev 24:15 And to the children of Israel you will speak, saying: any man who will curse his God will bear his sin.  24:16 And one who will pierce the name of YHWH will surely be put to death.  The whole community will surely stone him, like stranger and like citizen; when he pierces the name he will die.”

It did not matter who cursed God. Israelite or son of an Egyptian were to be treated the same – stoned and murdered for cursing God. Should we be delighted that in this case egalitarian principles of equality before the law trumped racism? Shawna Dolansky a professor at Carleton University whom I have cited favourably before, seems to think so. I myself find this type of compensatory rationale, however valid in bringing out the principle of equality before the law, to be a distraction from the law that required blasphemers to be stoned.

Dr. Serge Frolov finds this injunction to kill blasphemers to be an embarrassment to the religious and body politic of Israel. I, on the other hand, find it intriguing. Perhaps the one who cursed God was not a reference to him in a racist or nationalist sense, but that he was an Egyptian in his heart, that he belonged to the class of people who prevented the Israelites from being liberated. On the other hand, even though he dissed God, perhaps it was he who at this time lived among the Israelites and now stood on the side of liberation and freedom as well as equality. Perhaps he stood as a foil in contrast to those who stone others for using God’s name as a curse word and who demand an eye for an eye. Perhaps the son of the Egyptian was a symbol of one who challenges the premises of both injunctions and argues that the God of Israel is a God of self-revelation, is a God that learns the lessons of excess zealotry and reverence for purity, is a God who gradually, through intercourse with flawed humans, learned too of His own flaws and learned as well to accept responsibility and to diss His inhumanity.

Afterword I

Ignoring for the moment those who simply deride the barbarism of such laws, this stance is quite different from that of most Reform Jews, who avoid discussing such injunctions that they find embarrassing. Others, supply twisted rationales. Still others, mainly a few evangelical Christians, believe that such demands should be taken literally and enforced. Certainly, in their own way from their own sacred texts, Islamicists from the Taliban and ISIS take similar injunctions literally. What about interpreters like myself who try to understand the plot, the characters and the theme in terms of the textual context and the thrust of the narrative?

The story begins with two boys struggling. Unlike Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, they are not blood brothers. But they are at odds. But like those stories, in the struggle, the one favoured by God (Abel) or by Isaac (Esau) is not the one that becomes the carrier of the historical narrative. Cain and Jacob win but carry the wounds of that victory similar to the way Jacob limps after wrestling with the angel. Similarly, after an enraged Moses killed the overseer for his barbaric treatment of the Hebrew slave, the next day when he found two Hebrews fighting (Exodus 2:13) and asked why one Hebrew had struck his fellow Hebrew, the striker bravely retorted and asked why Moses was acting so high and mighty. Then he mocked Moses responding, “Do you think you can kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”

This story of the stoning of the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother echoes that one, for the son of the Egyptian God, like Moses, acts out of rage, not to kill as Moses did, but to use God’s name as a curse word. But unlike Moses, the Israelites do not flee for they are now on their own land. Further, it is the Israelites who perform the unseemly violence, not Moses, and not in wrath, but in a cool-headed and cold-hearted belief that they were just inflicting a divinely sanctioned punishment for simply using God’s name in vain.

This fighting (נִצִּים) that takes place in both cases is not simply a physical fight, but a struggle to find the correct path and the norms. And like the pattern throughout the Torah, somehow, the choice originally taken seems the worse one, whether the injunction flouted is one of protecting the purity of the Holy of Holies or the name of the Holy One Himself. It will take humanity to soften and amend the harshness of God’s pristine and inflexible commandments.

That is reason enough to be a blasphemer.

Afterword II

Note that, unlike the case of Aaron’s two sons, towards whom God took umbrage, it is the Israelites who arrest the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother for cursing God.  God simply delivers the verdict. But God does not get off the hook so easily. We all know the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.” Just as it is totally unjust to take an eye for an eye, it is far worse to take a life simply for dissing God. Unless – an important unless – the name of God is His life essence. Blasphemy is not simply using God’s name as a curse word, but abusing God’s name, God’s reputation.

Is this not like Putin punishing dissidents or Erdoğan arresting Turks for insulting the highest authority in the land or Donald Trump insisting that dedicated civil servants be fired for besmirching the name of The Donald. After all, what else is Trump, for better or for worse, but his brand? Isn’t that true of God? And is it not much more of a blasphemy than using God’s name as a swear word to comparing YHWH to Putin, Erdoğan and Trump? Does that not make me a blasphemer in my heart and mind much more deserving of being stoned than the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother who used God’s name as a curse or my brother who, in justified anger, threw a pencil at my eye?

All the twisting of the story to turn it upside down and inside out to insist it is a warning against the Israelites insulting anyone’s god, is a lesson against religiously inspired violence based on the belief that insulting the divine name is a most serious and egregious transgression, is not only beside the point, but a more repulsive apologetic in the name of higher principles than all the Talmudic rabbis who try to justify the injunction.

I am more worthy of being cursed because I challenge not only God’s holiness as giving Him an immunity, but the whole idea of separating the holy and unpolluted from the profane and unpolluted. For the nitty-gritty of ethics is to be found in the profane rather than in any abstract vision of purity or perfection. That is why rabbinic Judaism was superior to either the puritanism of the Essenes or the priestly ritualism, even if it often slipped back into the errors of its close predecessors and contemporaries.

 

Hail to heartfelt and mindful blasphemers!

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Donald Trump’s Misogyny

Donald Trump’s Misogyny

by

Howard Adelman

Why am I spending so much time writing about Donald Trump at this point in the campaign? After all, the presidential battle is virtually over. Hillary Clinton is not only going to win the presidency; she is going to wipe the floor with Donald. She is going to humiliate him. The reason: after the battle is over, I expect the real war to begin. Donald Trump is going to go after Hillary Clinton with revenge in his heart, turbo propelled because the winner was not George Bush Sr. who scorned Trump’s offer to be named as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, but Hillary, a woman. Donald Trump could casually put George Bush Sr. down because the latter failed to complete his war against Saddam Hussein – in total contradiction to his assertion that he always opposed the war in Iraq. And in his mind, he did. For when he finally did oppose the war, it was not really about Iraq – about which he knew very little – but about his revenge against President Bush Sr. and the elites of the Republican Party establishment that had scorned him.

If Donald Trump stewed in his anger and plotted revenge in his heart against the Republican establishment for a quarter of a century, when Hillary wins, he no longer has that much time to exact his revenge. He has already either very seriously injured or even destroyed the GOP. What will he set out to do to Hillary? The humiliation will have been so overwhelming, that he will not be able to control himself. He had been briefed over and over again by his “handlers” to keep on message. He has been told repeatedly not to go off topic instead of drilling down further against women who publicly accused him of forcing himself on them. He had to keep his attention on policy issues. But he simply could not.

Stephen K. Brannon had been named as his campaign’s chief executive defining the grand strategy. Kellyanne Conway was named to replace Paul Manafort in August to manage the campaign to handle the tactics. Ever since she was named, Kellyanne promised us that Donald Trump would “remain true to himself” and stay on message. Instead, he remained true to himself and continually went off message. In the third debate, when staying on message was so critical to stopping and reversing his freefall, his subconscious once again took over as the debate progressed, and he shot himself in both his feet. He would leave everyone in suspense to see if he would accept the results of the election. And he will not accept those results, even if he does formally concede. This response to a question about a fundamental principle in democracy could not be pivoted away from by his surrogates trying to compare such a situation with the Al Gore challenge to the George W. Bush claim of victory.

Unlike Manafort, Conway had not tried to mold Trump into a person he was not. Instead, she tried to channel his energy and ambition in more positive ways to keep him on message. But time after time he let her down. No man, and especially no woman, could determine not only who he was, but about how he appeared. Conway’s latest rationale was to judge Trump by his actions, not his words. But his words both betray and signal the pattern of his actions.

Donald Trump’s second major slip in the third debate was to interrupt Clinton’s reply to a question with the words, “Such a nasty woman,” when, of all things, she was discussing her proposed tax policies, perhaps reminding him of the humiliation to which he had been exposed for having to admit that he had not paid any federal income taxes for perhaps eighteen years. Something “nasty” is, at the very least, something very unpleasant to see or smell, taste or touch, though it also suggests someone morally deficient. If you look up the word in a thesaurus, “dirty,” “filthy,” “foul,” are offered as substitutes. The use of the term echoed his description of Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, as disgusting. Nasty is a word that evokes strong sensual reactions and the subjective response. The repulsiveness is at least as important as the alleged objective circumstances justifying such a description. Dirty and filthy, despicable and morally base, are all characteristics projected onto Hillary Clinton that have so recently been fully displayed by the language and talk uttered by Donald Trump himself. He truly and deeply hates himself as he projects his hatred onto others and further inflates his ego with the hot air inside.

The other face of this record of “slut-shaming” by Donald Trump is that women are put on a pedestal and, not only held to a higher standard of chastity, but certain select women are regarded as the epitome of skill and virtue – such as his daughter Ivanka and the many other women of talent he employs in his company and as surrogates in his campaign. He both advances and admires women, but he denigrates those who resist and oppose him, and demeans those he deems unworthy of his “high standards.” Women must be angels, physically and intellectually beautiful angels, or they are disgusting. His treatment of some of those women serves to verify that conviction.

Donald Trump has flip-flopped on virtually every policy he has proposed. On immigration as recently as 2012, he called Mitt Romney’s immigration policies vis-à-vis illegals mean-spirited and maniacal, denigrations that stand totally opposite to the horrible epithets he himself has hurled against illegal immigrants. This suggests that his misogyny, which has been his most and possibly only consistent position, goes much deeper. In this respect, he can be insulted as a “half-witted harlequin” to match his own insults targeting those illegally on American soil. He can rationalize that dislike as a key part of his strategy to boost wages and job opportunities, when it is well-known that these illegals take the jobs Americans largely will not.

Trump wants to suspend the intake of refugees from areas where Islamic terrorism is rampant, even though it is well known that, given America’s long vetting process, given the fact that those admitted in numbers have been historically and comparatively very low, given that 80% of them are women and children, the risk of entry for terrorists is very low. The focus on refugees as terrorists comes from a verbal and strategic terrorist who depicts illegal immigrants as rapists when he himself was once accused by his first wife of tearing her hair out and raping her when she did not show enough empathy for the pain he had been experiencing as a result of his own hair implants. Perhaps the height of his hypocrisy emerges when he emphasizes vetting immigrants to demonstrate they share America’s values, presumably of those misogynist and anti-constitutional demagogic values of the new head of state that Trump so brashly wanted to become.

You can only imagine how deep that misogyny must go to make his stance on immigration appear as simply a passing fancy. Why make a remark about Megyn Kelly as bleeding from whatever”? Why refer to women’s faces and bodies in such nasty language as when he disparaged his competitor Carly Fiorina’s face. Like a Dr. Jekyll to Mr Hyde, Donald Trump can be very charming, flirtatious and offer women a taste of money and power while he himself is literally cocky, controlling and narcissistic and puts women down in public. He forces himself on women because he will not waste the effort of foreplay to ensure that they get pleasure. He is openly and proudly a cheat.

In Robert Louis Stephenson’s 1886 short novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edward Hyde is truly evil. Dr. Jekyll, “something of a stylish cast,” is a large well-made, smooth-faced man who is gracious, amiable and considerate. Seeking the presidency was to be The Donald’s ultimate shot to disguise the horror he unconsciously knows exists below his own surface. The rallies and admiring masses inject the adrenaline he needs. But the result, unsurprisingly, is increasingly the emergence of a more emboldened, cruel and remorseless Edward Hyde. After the election, without the continuation of that potent source, Donald Trump will metaphorically die. He has become the addict he always feared. Once Satan has been cast out of heaven and has been rejected as the object of his own creation, the grand mal narcissist will refute the dictum that pride simply goeth before the fall, for though pride precedes the fall, it is also inflated by it as the victim tries even harder to puff himself up and rise once again to heaven.

Donald’s behaviour with women has not been furtive; Trump has not been determined to keep his liaisons hidden. Trump actually wants the public to know about his sex life – hence his boasts, not simply in the “locker room,” but on the media. Until, of course, such boasts undermined his quest for power. So Hillary was advanced from being a crook and promoted to “nasty.” As Michael D’Antanio depicted Donald Trump in the biography he wrote, Trump wants a queen at his side, but he wants to be king.
In the election on 8 November, he will have been usurped by the embodiment of what he despises. Sex is an opportunity to demonstrate power. Sex is an opportunity to demonstrate that you are a stud and an alpha male. At the same time, as D’Antonio emphasized in an interview with Anderson Cooper last night, Donald Trump is a great empty vessel in terrible need of adoration which provides the fuel for the enormous amount of energy that he uses. The implications: he is now addicted to a far larger stage than the one he had as a developer or as a reality TV star. He WILL respond to the movement to which he was crucial to its birth. The 8th of November will not end Donald’s role on the American stage.

Trump meant it when he promised to put Hillary in jail, for he unconsciously knew he faced an eternal cage of self-destructive behaviour if he lost. For this time, he will be unable to rise from the grave a second time. Winning, winning alone, must remain the goal. For to lose is not simply to die, but to suffer an agonizing death. Donald Trump, underneath a very thin skin, is a “bad hombre” who will not only continue, but expand his attacks on an allegedly rigged alliance of the political establishment and the media which he will continue to characterize as dishonest, corrupt, horrible and biased; for him, the combination is infused with poison. This is, of course, a description of himself.

The attempted rise once again of Donald Trump will be an even wilder ride, fuelled again by “process journalists” who regard the news as entertainment. They love reporting on the struggle, the horse race, rather than the issues at stake. They love technique and cleverness. For them. Donald Trump has been a godsend with his attacks on both civility and democracy, the two pillars of our public life. Donald Trump materially may never have attended the school of hard knocks, but he did so morally and physically. The military academy to which he was shipped off at the age of 13 used brutal tactics to tame its delinquent charges. And Trump absorbed the discipline and need to impose “perfection” on his subordinates. And to never be subordinate. There is only winning and domination. And braggadocio. This is his image of his own manhood and virility. It is the Janus face of his misogyny that characterizes women as dogs and slobs. He boasts that “you have to treat them (women) like shit” and will characterize the best line in Pulp Fiction as Sam’s, “Bitch be cool” when he has his pistol in his hand. As Bette Davis said, “When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman givers her opinion [if it does not echo his own], she’s a bitch.”

As the old comic line goes, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Donald Trump with a post-election gatling gun will be even much more destructive than when he walked the electoral stage carrying a gun and intimidating his Republican competitors.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Holiness Code

The Holiness Code – Parshah Kedoshim Leviticus 19 and 20

by

Howard Adelman

Tomorrow on shabat we read one of the most important sections of the Torah, Leviticus 19-20, or the core verses of the Holiness Code which includes verses and chapters from last week’s portion (17 and 18) as well as those from the following week. (For reference, I have included chapters 19&20 as a separate blog.) Many of the core commandments of the 613 commandments governing Jewish conduct are included in this week’s portion. Any one of them is worthy of an extended commentary. It is virtually impossible to discuss all the injunctions contained in this one reading in a single blog for they are articulated so succinctly and briefly that reading these verses is akin to unpacking a box literally stuffed to the gills with moral injunctions. I want to examine more than one, however, not to analyze a single commandment, but to offer the flavour of the Holiness Code with a view to obtaining a glimpse of what it means to be holy. I will discuss the portion under four headings as follows:

I. Sex and Speech
II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers
III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge
IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

I. Sex and Speech

Why start with sex when discussing holiness? Why probe all the injunctions against misuse of a servant girl by a male boss (19:20), ban adultery (20:10) especially with your brother’s wife (20:21) or incest (20:11, 12, 14, 17, 19 & 20), castigate homosexuality (20:13) and sodomy (20:15&16) almost in the same breath, and then forbid having sex with a woman while she is menstruating (20:18)? Many of these are reiterations of injunctions in chapter 18. Bans on homosexuality seem totally misplaced for most of us with a modern sensibility. Adultery is not so good, but putting someone to death for such an act seems quite disproportionate to say the least. Sodomy seems more distasteful than deserving of such a harsh reprimand and saying that a servant girl should not be put to death when abused by a superior seems to perpetuate putting the blame on the female, though easing the punishment. And why is there an injunction against sex when your female partner is menstruating?

In other words, if sexual prohibitions are at once so basic and at the same time so deformed and misplaced, how can one suggest that obeying such extreme puritanical injunctions provides a path to holiness? I do not think it does. Further, the various penalties – from death to ostracism – do not seem to comport with our contemporary views of such actions or misdeeds. One predominant interpretation is that these injunctions against certain sexual conduct, allegedly profuse among the Canaanites and Egyptians, were intended to define the Hebrews as a pure and holy people in imitation of God, what Roman Catholics designate as imatio Dei. After all, they all seem to be placed in a context of being “clean,” where cleanliness is next to Godliness. And one characteristic of God is that (s)he is disembodied, does not have sex and inherently cannot be dirty.

This is the basic paradox. Humans are embodied. They have sexual drives. God is disembodied and does not need or desire to have sex. But God gave Adam a companion, Eve, precisely because Adam was a nerd and did not even recognize he had a body and needed to love and be loved. So does God want us to have sex and propagate the species? Clearly, the answer is yes. But God also commands that boundaries be placed around sexual behaviour. The reasons to me seem obvious and they are not about imitating God where holiness in the highest realm is defined as asexual. Rather, it is very practical and down to earth.

Yesterday I heard two more stories about young couples with very young children who, contrary to everyone’s expectations, broke up and are headed towards the divorce court. The epidemic – and it is an epidemic – of divided couples and marriages has to be a major concern. Adultery was involved. One partner “fell in love” with someone else. Or in another tale from the day before, one partner felt deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled in the marriage. I am not suggesting that couples when they discover they are incompatible should remain married. On the other hand, the marriage commitment and bond should mean much more than simply abandoning a pledge because of an attraction to another or dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s path of self-realization.

That is why the sexual injunctions need not be considered as absolute puritanical injunctions, but as basic and profound guides about how a couple can realize holiness while engaging in sex and also bearing children. In other words, if we want to understand the sexual prohibitions, it will not be because we pay attention to the literalness of the commandments, but because we pay attention to their purpose related to the pursuit of holiness. And in my understanding of the Jewish religion, it is not because we envision holiness as equivalent to puritanical behaviour or asexuality, but, guides for embodied humans, thereby recognizing embodiment and how embodied sexual beings become holy.

So how is speech related to sexuality? Because it is through speech that men and women archetypically (men and men in cases of homosexual relations) initially have intercourse with one another. Recall that the use of speech was Adam’s hang up. He thought that words were all about naming and classifying and, in imitation of God, bringing something into existence by the speech act of naming and classifying. But a speech act is only asexual as a scientific enterprise. It is thoroughly sexual as a human enterprise.

Leviticus 19 verse 11 commands that you not “deny falsely” (Bill Clinton – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman) or lie. The two injunctions are different. Bill did not precisely lie, for he meant by sexual relations intercourse not fellatio. But he did deny falsely for his assertion was completely misleading. The same verse commands that humans should also not lie. Why is truth-telling the most basic injunction in human intercourse. Because truth-telling is a requisite of trust. And trust is basic to human relations.

Have I lied? More precisely, have I lied to my partner? I have. And each time that I did it was because I was a coward and did not trust my wife to respond in the way I wanted. But that is not trust. Trust entails respect and talking to another and addressing their highest natures. It is not based on fearing reprimands and scolding. Speech in intercourse must be honest, direct and based on trust. Every time I fail to follow this understanding, I betray myself, my partner or children or friend and, mostly, fail myself. Implicitly, I “swear falsely” and profane the name of God. So healthy sex and healthy honest talk are interdependent and foundational for holiness.

II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers

If guidelines and injunctions about physical and verbal intercourse, about how to cultivate a healthy sex life and an honest dialogue between those with whom we are intimately related, are the foundation stones for a holy life, the second level of commandments address those with whom we are least intimate – strangers, particularly strangers who do not belong to our own tribe. And we all know, or should know, that the most repeated commandment in the Torah addresses how to treat strangers and then how to treat acquaintances or neighbours.

With respect to strangers, you cannot tease or belittle them and certainly not characterize them as “rapists” and “thieves.” You shall not taunt the stranger (19:33). More than that, you are required to treat the stranger as if he were a member of your own tribe. “You shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (19:34) On the other hand, you must also reject and ostracize strangers who cavort with Moloch, Ov or Yid’oni and even put to death any who give their children to Molech.

Who is Molech? A god of the Canaanites, a god that required child sacrifice. A holy people, immigrants and refugees, sacrifice themselves for their children. Followers of Molech sacrifice their children for themselves. That is why when we are married, have children and run into trouble, as most marriages do, the primary consideration must be not to sacrifice one’s children for the pursuit of one’s own self-fulfillment or gratification of one’s own physical desires. Now it is a rarity these days to follow that injunction. God knows, I have personally failed. But that does not detract from the value of the principle. In fact, it raises the principle to a higher value.

There is an intimate connection between the dedication to raising your children and to respecting and loving strangers, for giving of yourself for your children and giving of yourself for refugees. But not all so-called refugees. Not “refugees” who victimize children, who engage in terrorism or who exploit others. But why the demonization of those who worship Ov and Yid’oni as well as Molech? (20:6) Ov is a medium who claims direct access to the divine or nether world. Yid’oni is an oracle who claims to be a spokesperson for the nether world or the divine voice. Followers of Ov and Yid’oni are as despicable as those who follow Molech, those who follow the path of using and abusing children, sacrificing children for one’s own purposes rather than sacrificing oneself for one’s children.

What connection is there between denouncing mediums and oracles and the respect and love for children? Mediums and oracles for a holy people spout vapid nonsense. One should not follow a demagogue who promises he can lead you to the Promised Land. Only the Holy One can do that. Oracles who say “trust me” and “I know how to make a deal better than anyone” are not to be trusted. And anyone who follows that oracle because that oracle has accumulated a following also becomes suspect. There is NO privileged access to the nether world or to the future. And there should be no surprise that such oracles and mediums so often scapegoat strangers. By displacing hatred onto others and using the oracular voice, they would bewitch you into trusting them instead of yourself and your inner voice, surrendering yourself for a leader who believes in strength rather than holiness, betting on charms and omens rather than evidence and behaviour over the long run that builds trust. The pursuit of holiness does not depend upon trickery, but upon a consistent effort at honesty and truthfulness and a respect for others especially if they are strangers. The devil may not be Molech, but the devil may be Ov or Yid’oni.

III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge

If trust is basic, enhanced through the use of honest language and intimate physical attachment to another, if loving the stranger and evading the enchantment of those who would use and abuse children for their own pleasure, those who pretend to be mediums or oracles, on the next level of building blocks for a healthy and holy home, we locate the concept of respect. It is the first window of the second story of that home. And the most basic form of respect is that accorded one’s parents. Parents are enjoined to sacrifice themselves for their children and not sacrifice their children for themselves. In turn, children are enjoined to render parents respect and honour.

But respect extends beyond the family. You must respect not oppress the other. (19:13), neither robbing no exploiting him or her. Nor shall you curse another who is physically deaf or is out of range of your voice and cannot hear you. (19:14) You shall not diss another, whether cursing another driver who cannot hear you; in so doing, you demean yourself. If you belittle and insult another, another propensity of those who scapegoat others and put themselves forward as oracles, you undercut respect both for others and for oneself. You shall not engage in favouritism (19:15) and give greater respect to the rich than the poor, for all humans must be respected (19:16), but you certainly must respect the venerable and the elderly. (19:32)

But respect is not enough. You must go deeper and evacuate your soul of hatred. Hatred eats like an acid at your soul and is a sure guarantee preventing one from becoming holy. (19:17) And if you do not express that hatred, but feel it deeply inside, it is even worse. Better to vent than stew, but venting as a relief valve can be almost as poisonous. This does not mean you do not confront and rebuke another for their failings, for their dishonesty, for their demagoguery, for their dogmatism and for their lack of respect for others. “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” (19:17)

Failure to rebuke, failure to confront, failure to express when you feel hurt by the actions of another, means that the weight of their sins will be borne by you and you will be weighed down by the inability to express what you honestly think and feel. But expressing those feelings and thoughts must be done in a context of respect for the other. Finally, if you fail to rebuke, fail to confront, if you carry a grudge and build up a store of hatred within and then seek relief through revenge, that is the final straw in betraying the commandment to be honest and respect another.

IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

The culmination of these failures is idolatry. Making a molten figure into an idol is simply a metaphor for worshiping a material entity as if it were holy. The best sign of idolatry is when a leader ensures his picture appears everywhere or when a leader seeks to stamp everything with his own name. Whether one worships an idol or tries to become an idol oneself, perhaps the greatest failing of our age of celebrity worship, we indicate by such behaviour that we have betrayed the pursuit of holiness.

Let me give one perhaps trivial example, the current fad of tattooing one’s body, of making “cuts in your flesh”. For “you shall not etch a tattoo on yourself.” (19:28) Why not? What harm results? Enormous harm. For etching a tattoo into one’s flesh is an effort at make a fleeting feeling of the moment permanent and failing to recognize that things of the flesh can never be permanent. It is not because the body is God’s creation, for our bodies are made of the dust of the earth. It is not because we are enjoined not to mutilate God’s handiwork, for we are commanded as Jews to circumcise a male baby when only 8 days old. Rather, tattooing is related to idolatry, to deifying what should not be regarded as worthy in an effort to get in touch with the permanent, with the eternal.

It is clear in the Torah and it is a fear at a time of celebrating the day of Israeli independence, that Israel itself can be turned into an idol, worshiped in itself as the exceptional and the holy in total disregard of the behaviour of its politicians and its people. On the other hand, God has said to his people, “You shall possess their land, and I shall give it to you to possess it a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the Lord your God, Who has distinguished you from the peoples.” Jews are commanded to be a holy nation, a nation that gives witness to the highest values. This does not mean that other nations cannot express that role or aspire to holiness. Quite the contrary. But it is an overriding injunction for Jews as a people.

And that is what it means to be holy. It means being both intimate and honest with one’s partner, making one’s best effort at telling the truth, especially telling the truth to power, not sacrificing the lives of children for oneself but sacrificing oneself for your children, loving the stranger as oneself but never being so naïve as to fall into the bewitchment of a Molech, a medium or an oracle, not disrespecting or insulting the other, but being willing to rebuke that other when he or she offends, not building up resentments into a hateful cauldron or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, worshiping another as an idol or trying to embed in one’s own flesh a sense of permanence for the impermanent.

That is the core of the holiness code.

Violence: John Wick and Nightcrawler

Violence: John Wick and Nightcrawler

by

Howard Adelman

John Wick and Nightcrawler are both action thrillers with a great deal of violence. But they are very different movies. Chad Stahelski, a former stunt assistant director and the novice movie director of John Wick, has positioned his revenge movie somewhere between Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (I never saw Vol. 2) and David Cronenberg’s 2005 A History of Violence. As in the latter comic book novel on which the film is based, John Wick is mostly a flashback to just before the current phase of violence until its culmination. Unlike A History of Violence, where the hero instigated his fallout with the mob, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retired from his role as a mob hit man on good terms with the New York-based Russian crime family because he had met the love of his life and had performed the almost impossible assignment for the Russian mob boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), of eliminating the latter’s mob rivals. That stunning performance (not shown) earned John his exit ticket from the criminal underworld.

The revenge and his re-entry into murder and mayhem are propelled initially because of a total coincidence – Josef Tarasov (Afie Allen), the spoiled son of his former employer, develops the hots for the 1969 vintage Mustang convertible that John drives when Josef sees it parked at a coffee shop. In a home invasion that night, Josef and his bodyguards beat John up. In the process, Josef kills John’s dog, Daisy, a gift of his late recently departed and much loved wife who died of cancer. All of the above takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie. The quest for revenge is spurred by the violent murder of Daisy.

Why does John retire in the same city in which the Russian mob holds total sway? How is it that neither Josef nor his two sidekicks know of the infamous John Wicks, dubbed the bogeyman? How can only three men at the beginning of the mobster film beat John to a pulp when, in the rest of the movie, in a series of three different scenes, John Wick slaughters scores – literally scores – of Russian mobsters? Could the answer be because he had buried his enormous collection of firearms in concrete before he retired? Without guns, he is literally a sitting duck, whereas once the weapons are unburied, he can beat anyone in boxing, wrestling, and using the most violent of the martial arts, though his main tool of slaughter is the machine gun and the pistol. But if you have to ask questions about realism and causation, then the film has not swallowed you in the high kinetic pace of a series of brilliantly staged massacres. After all, the intelligence of the movie has been concentrated in stunt driving and the most graphic murder scenes.

My wife, who said the movie was the worst she had ever seen – she is not a lover of violent action thrillers – thought it must have been a spoof. Kill Bill is a spoof since Tarantino directed it with choreographic brilliance and with his tongue in his cheek. Tarantino is a consummate craftsman with a fantastic sense of humour. I could not find an ounce of comedy or satire in John Wick. It was but one scene of murder and mayhem followed by another, with only the slenderest thread tying the scenes together. Instead of serving as an implicit commentary on the genre of violent films or even as a more explicit one as in A History of Violence, the violence in John Wick consists only of cinematic effects, though the latter are brilliantly executed.

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill arises like Lazarus from the dead – a victim of murder by Bill of her whole bridal party. She alone survived in a coma for years. Keanu Reeves recovers by the next scene. John Wick lacks any of the tricks of magic realism that so infused Kill Bill and transformed the genre of action thriller into a fairy tale for modern times with no narrative. The plot takes no more than a sentence to describe. In John Wick, it takes three or four sentences, and that is at least two too many. The far too long plot line with a few twists never offers enough to create mystery, but strings together too many sequences that provide plenty of time to question the slender artifice on which the film rests. It would have been better to rely on the sheer gratuitous quality of the action.

In the fairy tale, the tailor kills 99 in a single blow, Uma Thurman killed 88 in Kill Bill – along with an assortment of bodyguards and specialized murderers. The body count in John Wick seems to closely rival Tarantino’s send up of violent thriller movies, except there are two other specialist hit men in John Wick – Marcus (Willem Dafoe), his former mentor and friend, now hired by Viggo as John’s executioner to protect Josef, and the more interesting and most comic figure in the movie, Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), the female assassin. As in Kill Bill, the thrust of the film supposedly comes from the depth of John’s vengeance as well as the breadth of his murderous skills, but with respect to the motivation, as the pursued cowardly bully, Josef, says in the most unintended comic line of the movie before being dispatched by John Wick in revenge for Daisy’s death – all this because I killed your f…ing bitch dog?

Since most of John Wick is a flashback of John’s fallout with Viggo over John’s intention to kill Josef in revenge for Daisy’s death, one might have expected the film to have been a flic about character using the genre of a revenge thriller, but instead John Wick turned towards stale plot devices of a dozen violent predecessors to hold the action scenes together. The violence is displayed in graphic detail without the gore of the 2010 Kick-Ass and without any indication of any theme such as the one Cronenberg provided on violence. There is no hint that we in the audience have any role or responsibility for this violence.

This is not true of Nightcrawler directed by another novice director, but experienced screenwriter, Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the script. That movie is a thriller chiller on a whole different plane than John Wick. Just as tow truck operators listen to police dispatchers to learn the location of accident scenes, nightcrawlers use the same frequencies for the same reason but for a different purpose — to get video tapes of the victims to sell to TV stations. If John Wick leaves you on the edge of your seat with the frenetic pace of the slaughters, the ghoulish Nightcrawler worms its way into your intestines as Lou Bloom, played with outstanding brilliance by Jake Gyllenhaal, progresses from a scavenger of scrap to his rise to eminence as the ironic poster boy for entrepreneurship, self-help and a Műnchhausian dirty determination to raise himself by his own bootstraps to a business CEO in a media-crazed age. Nightcrawler is a worthy successor to The History of Violence.

Though Nightcrawler does not adopt Cronenberg’s Hobbesian metaphysic that violence is an integral element in our DNA, the love of violence of Lou is perceived as simply a byproduct of a consumer rather than a producer culture of violence reinforced by media news that caters to our lowly tastes. The news director in Nightcrawler, Nina (played by Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo as a paean to Faye Dunaway in Network but with more wrinkles and eye shadow) sums it up: “If it bleeds, it leads.” The supreme achievement is to broadcast a screaming woman with her throat cut running in panic in a quiet upscale neighbourhood. On many stations, the mantra of seeing a woman bleed in a safe suburb infiltrated by urban violence has become the marker for the appeal of much local evening TV news. [Incidentally, the movie also includes Gilroy’s brother Tony as a producer and his brother John as the editor, a documented refutation that the film is autobiographical in any way.]

It is not so much that we secretly crave what we publicly condemn, but that our passion for consuming visions of violence propel media news in a system founded on the need for advertisers to cater to our tastes. Nightcrawler does not adopt the discarded theory that violence on television breeds violence in the streets, but rather adopts the position that the taste for violence in the streets leads to the emphasis on violence on our screens that, in turn, allows a psychopathic petty criminal with a degree of intelligence sharpened into self-learning through home schooling, spouting the potted business mantras of his auto-didact education, to rise in the cut-throat business world to create his own nascent business empire.

Even though Jake’s character, Lou Bloom, unlike John Wisk, never acts directly as the executioner, he brilliantly sets the scenes for the execution of others – whether his competitor in the nightcrawling video business, the cops or his own employee, Rick, played with hysterical passivity by Riz Ahmed. Lou progresses from a chaser of news to a shaper and composer of news to a creator of the news itself. He becomes his own director to a racing beat but without the frenetic energy of John Wick. In the process, we gradually learn the depth of his madness and the breadth to which this form of psychopathy has penetrated. Jake Gyllenhaal increasingly stares with concentrated attention and gleeful penetration with eyes sunk in deep sockets exaggerated by his loss of 28 pounds to play the part. He sees what we evidently want to see but look away when it is in front of our eyes. However, when presented through the media of television, we watch with unblinking and mesmerized fervor.

On 14 June 2014, Nancy and I arrived in Dublin just in time for the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday. If Leopold Bloom, a Christian convert who was a blend of wandering Jew and the Greek hero Ulysses, walked the streets of Dublin observing and describing his fellow Dubliners with the distance and detachment of a Jewish eye over a 24-hour period, Lou in contrast to Leopold stalks and rides the avenues of the nighttime in film noir Los Angeles, not to describe its life, but its violence and love affair with death. If New York in John Wisk is gloomy with haze and pouring rain, the night air of Los Angeles is murky and bleak. Each movie has numerous stock scenes – in John Wisk, a nightclub, a church which is a front for the mobster’s bank, a depopulated industrial remnant presumably in New Jersey, and the choice of the iconic scenes of Los Angeles of Venice Beach, the LA airport, palm trees and oil derricks – the selection seems more deliberate in Nightcrawler for that movie is as much about Los Angeles as it is about an individual nutcase.

If Leopold Bloom in Ulysses was modest, Lou Bloom has chutzpah in spades, even if there is no suggestion that he is Jewish. However, just as his namesake did in Dublin, Lou unveils the mundane and the intimate of daily life, but its very dark side. If Leopold was a consumer of inner organs of beasts and fowls, stuffed roast heart and liver slices, Lou is a visual consumer of human carrion, of human hearts and bleeding internal organs. Both Leopold and Lou are driven by their appetites and both have a penchant for voyeurism, but Lou’s appetites have morphed into the macabre while Leopold, even as he frets over the affair of his wife, Molly, and the death of both his son and his friend, always exhibits a sense of humanism and tolerance. Lou, in contrast to Leopold, is a loner, and in contrast to the deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, is, paradoxically, gregarious. Lou is a gregarious loner in a world where madness has simply become ordinary corporate practice. In this movie we are purportedly exposed to the real Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank.

If Leopold detests violence, Lou is smitten with it. And unlike John Wick, there is a real progression rather than simple repetition in the type and scale of the violence. In radical French philosophy, Leopold Bloom is the archetype of loss of identity and political apathy for a nihilistic mass contemporary culture. Lou Bloom is its apotheosis where the divine has become truly satanic. While Leopold always thinks in the poetic English of the Irish, Lou speaks with the metronomic patter of managerial textbook jargon that reveals its ghoulish qualities so that it truly and literally becomes wickedly funny.

In all its horror and action, it is a very comic film.

Obama15.Zero Dark Thirty.Deciding to Kill bin Laden

WARNING: If you have not seen Zero Dark Thirty and do not like the plot revealed, do not read past the first six to eight paragraphs. The essay is also attached.

Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13

by

Howard Adelman

There has been an enormous amount of paper spent on the ethical question of torture as portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal’s (the screenwriter) movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Some questions were raised about whether the torture scenes should have been portrayed with such realism, whether the claims to journalistic or historical accuracy should have been made in a fictional film that was a slender selection from historical events (the movie opens with the undeniable assertion that the film is based on firsthand accounts of actual events), about how the filmmakers obtained access to all the information and whether the release of the film was initially scheduled to boost Obama’s chances of re-election, especially since both John McCain and Mitt Romney had opposed the hunt for bin Laden.

I am lucky that the distributor decided to postpone the release until after the November election or there would have been a lot more material for me to read. In any case, none of the above questions yielded the quantity of copy, even when put all together, as the question of whether the film said that torture revealed crucial information that enabled the Americans to hunt down Usama bin Laden (UBL in CIA tradecraft). Did the movie take a neutral stand on torture or did the movie condemn torture or promote it?

Those are not my questions. I was fascinated by a very different question. In all my reading I did not see one reference to the issue of my concern – and I really looked, so if you have seen any, please send them to me. But before I discuss that issue, I offer an overview of the torture debate if only to prove I did my homework as well as offering an opportunity to summarize the first quarter of the film, thereby providing necessary background for my question. If you, dear reader, have not seen the film, if, further, you detest commentators who reveal the plot, I offer a fair WARNING; this is an essay using the film as fodder for the issues discussed. It is not a review written with the clear norm in mind that a reviewer should not spoil a movie by giving away the plot. On the other hand, if you are a lover of films, in particular, if you are a lover of gangster movies and know that you can watch The Godfather over and over because the plot itself in a gangster movie is as irrelevant as the details of that plot, then enjoy. The plot is standard with enough novel innovations to make it fascinating. That is why the events could be borrowed so easily from actuality to make the movie. In any case, virtually everyone knows in general what happened. The pleasure is in the details of how what happened is executed. I will, of course, ignore all the copy on how the movie’s chance of winning Oscars dropped precipitously as a result of the controversy and political backlash over the torture topic. And I will not prophesy how the film will do at the Oscar ceremonies this Sunday.

Some of the comments on the torture issue were outlandish – like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) calling Bigelow America’s Leni Riefenstahl and suggesting she too would go down in history as being a handmaiden to torture. Naomi Wolf published an open letter in The Guardian on 4 January 2013 asserting that the film was an apology for torture. "By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist… now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden."

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in ‘the global war on terror’, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent. Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the ‘information’ it ‘secured’, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls ‘the detainee program’.

Wow!!!

Naomi Wolf went on to speculate and suggest that, in order to get the cooperation of the military – necessary Naomi believed to get the shots of the high tech secretive stealth helicopter program – in turn necessary to get financing, Bigelow had to offer a pro-military message. Then Bigelow compounded her crime, according to Wolf, by claiming the film, though not a documentary because it interspersed fiction with reality, was akin to one. But it was not, according to Naomi Wolf. There are no sources to be corroborated. There is no evidence that the regime of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib got the information that led to bin Laden as the film claimed. And then Wolf went into a long screed about what she witnessed in visiting these torture sites. It is a wonder she did not see a plot against herself since Wolf is the name of the Head of the Counter-terrorism unit in the CIA in the movie.

Admittedly, Wolf’s take on the torture issue was one of the more extreme interpretations, but it led me to my own speculations. Was this the equivalent of watching women’s mud wrestling among the chattering classes? Does it enchant because of the pleasure of seeing the beautiful Naomi Wolf throwing mud balls at the equally beautiful tall and willowy Kathryn Bigelow? On a deeper level of suspicion, was Naomi’s screed an attempt at revenge against Kathryn Bigelow for undermining the founder of third-wave feminism’s thesis that images of female beauty have become crueller and even heavier weights as women crash through barriers erected by the male dominated establishment? After all, when Maya breaks through the ramparts of the last and strongest holdout of male superiority in Langley, Virginia, and feels great rather than lousy about herself (though, in the last shot, clearly very lonely) and, even more importantly, gets the viewer to feel terrific about what she has done, even if it is only to become the de facto kingpin of one mafia group knocking off the leader of the rival syndicate, was this just Naomi Wolf’s way of showing she could direct a drone missile at Kathryn Bigelow whereas Kathryn’s hero in the movie never achieved the top prize?

There were many others who attacked the film for its portrait of torture and declared the film to, at the very least, misrepresent the contribution of torture to capturing terrorists and, at worst, prescriptively suggest that the use of torture was both useful and ok. Some even suggested a boycott. Martin Sheen and Ed Asner were reported as backing David Clennon’s appeal along those lines, but Martin Sheen later backed off his endorsement of Clennon’s stand and Clennon himself subsequently also insisted he did not mean that people should not see the film, only that Bigelow should have been more forthright in condemning torture. Michael Moore then praised the film as fantastically well made, defended Bigleow and said the film will make you hate torture. And so it went on from a myriad of commentators.

Get serious, fellas! This is a gangster movie. It is a movie, not historiography. It uses historical events, but part of the hysteria and mania in America is about the misuse of history and the narrative that 9/11 was so searing that it radically changed America forever. 3000 were killed, not all of them Americans. 1 in 100,000 died! I do not want to diminish the importance and pain of any who died in the World Trade Centre or in the Pentagon, but how can we view this event as equivalent in historical importance to 1 in 10 Yankees dying and 1 in 4 Confederate males dying in the American Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans died in that conflict, not 3000. Six million did not die! That is the equivalent number that would have had to have died if 9/11 is to be compared in historical importance. And recall that in the American Civil War, many, many more were maimed. Admittedly, the Civil War was different. Americans were killing one another. In 9/11 a small group of bearded religious fanatics who were not Americans had killed Americans, and perpetrated the crime on American soil. Some symbols are far more powerful than actual number counts reveal.

Kathryn Bigelow’s film recognizes that fact. The film opens with a black screen as we listen to a collage of actual telephone calls after the World Trade Centre was attacked by two hijacked planes. We do not have to see those iconic pictures of the hits and the collapse of one tower after another. The voice of the panicked woman screaming and asking for help as the she feels the increasing heat sends chills down one’s spine. This is going to be a very personal story of the hunt for bin Laden and not the suggested quasi-documentary that might have been expected by the opening credits. And we are emotionally held in detention before we even see the first visual.

Ammar (played brilliantly by the French actor, Reda Kateb), an alleged al-Qaeda is in an interrogation room at a Black Site where he initially is just beat up, though for some initially unexplained reason, one of the smaller hooded CIA men does not join in on the beating. Though there are subsidiary scenes, in the main protracted scene of torture Daniel Stanton is the chief CIA operative in Islamabad played by the Australian actor Jason Clarke (he was the cop in Rabbit-Proof Fence) as a mixture of a PhD psychological expert and hip American dude with an impeccable accent and tattoos; he switches from mean physical and psychological abuse to humour and empathy in an instant.

His hooded partner, the smaller one who did not participate in the beating, leaves the interrogation room with him. After the ski mask is removed, we see that the presumed ‘he’ is a somewhat squeamish she, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who carries the film and takes some time to adjust to the use of torture under Daniel’s tutelage, but adjust she does as she turns into a taut, determined and singularly focused agent on her first assignment that will unexpectedly last years. The mask or towel is put on Ahmed to "waterboard" him as if paying homage to Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” ("The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellman, 389. I have borrowed this quote from a new book that my daughter Rachel is writing.)

We are introduced to torture as a matter of using a variety of techniques in addition to waterboarding, but all geared to humiliating the other. Initially Ammar verbally fights back and calls Daniel "a garbage man in a corporation" and Daniel calls him just "a money man, a paperboy". In Pakistan, Daniel pulls Ammar’s pants down as he is strung up and exposes what he calls Ammar’s "junk" and then guffahs as he observes that Ammar has shit in his pants. Daniel puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around as his dog. The symmetry has very quickly become asymmetrical and, subsequently, Ammar is hung up, put into a small wooden box, sleep deprived but when repeatedly questioned about the sate and place of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia by Daniel Stanton as the CIA’s man in Islamabad, Ammar says nothing. And then the attack in Saudi Arabia takes place. A bearded man enters an apartment tower and shoots two westerners (it is not clear whether they were targeted), then in the pattern of a serial killer, walks down the hall killing others. Endorsing torture because it yields results!!!

Contrast that story line with the one in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden, the much lower budget rival to Zero Dark Thirty released about the same time but completely obscured by the fog over Beigelow’s film. In Seal Team Six, the same female agent goes directly for a torture session to the chase for the Usama bin Laden’s courier. The message in that film is unequivocal. The clue to the big break came from enhanced interrogation techniques.

In Zero Dark Thirty, the torture scenes shift into the background as we are given a ten minute college 101 introduction to intelligence gathering from various sources – other countries such as Jordan, satellite feeds, human informers, intercepts — and still the bombings take place, in London in the tube and on the buses, the Marriott Hotel where Maya is almost killed. Against this background we watch how intelligence is gathered and collated and interpreted at enormous effort, brain-power and expense. Still the bombs get through. In praise of the value of intelligence let alone torture – hardly!!! Naomi Wolf must have seen a different film than the one I watched. But she never described the film so we will not know. She focused only on denunciation.

Then the key little bit of information comes out, the only intelligence retrieved from someone tortured, and it comes out not by using torture, though the past torture ambiguously may have played a part. The information is obtained by using empathy, playing on the fallibility of memory and Ammar’s inability to know what he had said and what he did not. Through these psychological methods helped by trickery and a lie, Maya and Daniel learn something – the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who is bin Laden’s courier.

The scenes shifts to military interrogations through questioning, Turkish interrogators with a hint but only a hint that they are even more ruthless torturers, then Maya in a black wig visiting a black site on a rusty old ship in a Baltic port where she meets Hakim, a very valuable asset who adds to the corroboration that Abu Ahmed is indeed a high level courier. So perhaps torture was critical to putting the story together. We are not told that, but it allows the viewer to easily draw that conclusion.

Should torture have been used? I believe it is not justified even if it is proven to be effective and there are a plethora of studies about its ineffectiveness. Does the film have anything to add to that debate? No. It does help portray what we are debating but not how the debate could or should resolve itself or even how it affects those who participate in its use or as its victims. But this film is not about torture. And the question about the utility and ethics of using torture belong in another context.

What matters in the story is that torture was used and then was prohibited. It’s Obama’s prohibition that is important. In a brief scene Obama is being interviewed on 60 Minutes on 16 November 2008, and he asserts unequivocally, "I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture." We are told very clearly that many CIA operatives believe that they now have to work with one hand tied behind their back. Worse yet, they may be exposed for whatever they do before a political inquiry. The shut down has made them all über cautious. That is the point other than that torture was used and the ambiguity about the degree that torture contributed to that result. When an almost broken Daniel has decided to go back to Washington to take a desk job and is grieving over his pet monkeys because his superiors believed that they could possibly escape – "Can you believe that?" – Daniel warns Maya, "you gotta be really careful with detainees now. The politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar with the oversight committee."

This is why that background is so important, for the key part of the film is the third section after using CIA assets to track and find the courier in the second section. The core of the film is the decision to attack the compound where Maya alleges Usama bin Laden is holed up, though the only evidence she has is all indirect – a high level courier for bin Laden lives there, it had no TV, cable, satellite or telephone access. One inhabitant never appears and is assumed to be there because there are three wives and only two husbands. The third man is never even seen by satellite imagery. The evidence is all circumstantial.

How can I perversely claim, against all other accounts of the movie that I have read, that the key is the decision to attack the compound not the torture issue. First, because how technically some key information was obtained is interesting, but it is not the core of the drama unless the characters themselves wrestled with the question of whether torture was or was not effective or ethical. They do not. It is just a given. The ‘how’ – in this case, how information is obtained and used – is very critical to a chase movie or a heist movie, but is not the centre of focus of a high drama. And the real drama comes with the question of whether to attack or not.

The second argument is a structural one. If torture was the central issue – though it clearly has been interpreted to be so by the media coverage – why does it take place in the first half hour and why is the issue then dropped? Third, look at the structure of the drama. The film follows a conventional plot line leading from the background on the initial cause, presumably known by everyone so that it needed only 15 seconds, then the effort to get to the starting gate, then the crisis – to go or not to go – and then the implementation.

I would also cite as an authority, Acting Director Michael Morrell of the CIA who, in an unprecedented gesture, issued a press release on the film on 21 December 2013 to insist the film was a work of art and not a documentary as suggested and certainly not historically accurate. Maya did not do it; a huge team worked on the issue and it was a big team effort. Secondly, he too believed that the film suggested that "the former detention and interrogation program were the keys to finding bin Laden". "That impression is false," he insisted.

Morrell did not recognize the ambiguity of that assertion. We know he was referring to the issue of whether torture yielded the results, but he seemed totally unaware that the assertion that the impression is false could have referred to his impression and interpretation of the film. His interpretation that the film gave the message that enhanced interrogation techniques yielded the key evidence could have been false. Ironically, he admitted to using "enhanced interrogation techniques", asserted that they contributed key evidence, but insisted that that multiple streams of intelligence were used.

I keep thinking I have seen a different film than anyone else. For the film I saw, even though it spent an inordinate amount of time on torture for what I suggested were very different reasons – did attribute the conclusion to multiple intelligence sources and did not unambiguously suggest that the key information was obtained as a result of torture. Morrell also wanted to defend the memories of his colleagues – one thinks primarily of character of Jessica in the movie – against the fictional portrayal, though I suspect, given the influence of film, those memories will be deformed and reformed as a result of the movie.

I wanted to read his objections because I expected him to take issue with the way the decision process in the CIA was portrayed. He did not. So I presume that it was a reasonably accurate portrayal. Silence says so much.

However, my main argument — that the core of the film is the CIA decision process and not the first quarter torture scenes — is the artistic, political and theoretical concerns and priorities of Kathryn Bigelow as the film director. I have only viewed two of her other movies even though she has been making movies since the late seventies. Everyone knows about Hurt Locker because Bigelow won two Oscars for the film and was the first female director ever to win and Oscar. I also saw one of her films about twenty years ago called Point Break. I still remember it though I never knew she had directed it until I recently read her bio.

Point Break is a film that merges the genre of a serf movie with that of a crime movie when an FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers led by Patrick Swayze in Los Angeles who rob banks to finance their life style wearing the masks of presidents – Nixon, etc. In the process, the FBI begins to identify with them and, as we watch, we are left in suspended animation curious whether he will join with his new "friends" and subscribe to their code or maintain his code as a police officer. On one level, the plot is sustained by the events. But at a deeper level it is sustained by the self transformation in consciousness of the FBI agent and the titillating prospect of its disastrous consequences. The muscular beauty and luscious sheer physicality of the movie married to a gang film was both a comment on a life style as well as upon the presidents whose masks they wore both to disguise and reveal themselves was brilliant, as was the pacing and the suspense.

Bigelow has made at least a dozen other movies and I was determined to watch at least a few of them before writing this piece – but I did not. In any case, in Zero Dark Thirty the sense of tension is not maintained by whether Maya will or will not sell out and adopt the male code, but whether, in doing so, she will succeed in her mission to kill bin Laden. On that message the film is unequivocally clear: she converted and became more testerone- driven than any of the other honchos in the CIA. Further, that was the only reason she, and therefore the CIA and America, managed to kill Usama bin Laden.

Review again how Zero Dark Thirty starts; the initial collage of 9/11 that revs up shock and fear and anger, even rage; then the code of a muscular gangster film of men beating up someone in accordance with the fixed rules of a Hollywood scene of pausing and giving the victim a chance before dealing another vicious blow. It is literally gut wrenching and Nancy and I both cringed for we respond viscerally to physical violence in films, especially when so realistically portrayed. (Nancy whispered at the time, "So this is where you take me on Valentine’s Day!)

The film no sooner captures our attention at the gut level than it touches our hearts again already wide open by the cri de coeur of the woman in the burning and collapsing Trade Center Tower. Maya is as squeamish about violence as we are. So we are with her throughout her Odyssey as she is made over and shaped and inducted into the code of a torturer at one level and the CIA masculine code of what makes a successful case officer. She learns to torture – without wearing a ski mask. She learns to push her way among a crop of vacillating and week-kneed frightened CIA senior heads. So we learn as she learns the codes, the language, the slang, the acronyms. We in the audience hear the following lines, but I bet there was not one person in the theatre who could decipher them. George at one point says, "I run the Af-Pak division of CTC, and I’m primary on this for the agency. This is a title fifty operation."

What is the Af-Pak division? What is CTC? What status is a primary? That one we can guess. What’s a title fifty operation? In one line of text we are wallowing in CIA bafflegab for a lay audience. But that is unimportant. It’s the use of code language that counts. Our ignorance tells us it is a code language. We have been introduced to the private language that the CIA used as part of their bonding.

There is one other key female CIA agent to whom we are introduced in the film. Jessica is sure she has a lead on an informer, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who she insists is really motivated. He supposedly has been turned by the Jordanians and is also motivated by money ($25 m is on the table). When Maya turns off the 60 Minutes program with Obama insisting that America doesn’t torture, Jessica informs Maya that the doctor will not come to Islamabad to meet them because he fears for his own security. The irony is distinctly there. We know what is coming even if that knowledge is not allowed to creep into consciousness. Jessica should fear for her security. They agree to meet in Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to which the next scene shifts.

After a long wait and way after the meeting time, just as the CIA team, which includes another young female CIA officer, Lauren, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and the base’s CIA security head, John, after last minute instructions on how the interrogation will be handled, the team is now on the verge of giving up. We feel the tension, the expectation, the disappointment, the anxiety, the renewed eagerness when a car is seen approaching from the distance. It stops outside the barriers by gate guards. Jessica panics and fears that her informant will be spooked. Jessica urges John to wave the gate guards off. But security only works, he says ominously, if we stick to the rules and the game plan, if we are constant. Make an exception, she urges. I can’t he replies. I’m responsible for everyone’s safety, not just yours. Then, in the one totally unconvincing scene in the film, he surrenders to her will and determination. He orders the guards to stand down We in the audience sit pinned to our seat waiting for the car bomb that will massacre them all. Only it is not a car bomb. The Islamist is wearing a body bomb which the doctor (?) blows up when he gets out of the car and they order him to take his hand out of his pocket.

There are no surprises in the general plot of a heist movie, a gangster movie, a spy movie, an action movie, except in the manner of implementation of the next step. In the best of such films, it is not the external drama of events that propel the film but the personal psychological transformation of the central protagonist.

See what can happen when we bend the male security codes for women driven by their feelings and their instincts! That is the message! It is the backdrop to Maya’s pressure on her CIA superiors to give the ok to attack the compound. But before that Maya will have her own setbacks. Just after she has witnessed via satellite feed the death of her closest friend and her team, she is handed a disc that shows that the Abu Ahmed, who she has been chasing now for years, is dead. She watches the video and refuses to believe it. When asked what she will do she replies that she will smoke everybody in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden. Not capture him! Not interrogate him! Kill him! Maya has become an unstoppable force, ruthless and dedicated, willing to suppress emotion and wreck revenge on bin Laden personally. He’s mine, all mine, she lets us know, echoing Daniel’s statements as he tortures Amman in the opening scenes. She is the vengeful force of wrath. And unlike the typical gangster, she is a superwoman and cannot be killed riding shotgun or at the wheel of the car in the reverse attempted revenge by al Quaeda against her personally.

Further, as in a typical gangster movie, your real enemies are not the other gang, but your colleagues. As the line goes in Goodfellas, "Your murderers always come with smiles on their faces." Will her desk jockeys in Washington manage to kill her project before she gets to kill bin Laden? On her side, the central issue is betrayal. The dispatch of the other side automatically follows, even if it requires great technical ingenuity, managing to survive and prevent being betrayed. The murder of bin Laden is straight forward. The subtle efforts to undermine Maya when she is least suspecting and most vulnerable are at the core of the film. Recall Maya’s dirty look at Daniel when he votes for a soft 60% that the compound hold bin Laden.

But this is a gangster film of the twenty-first century when the real gangsters have gone international, but it mirrors the old gangster movies of the sixties and seventies when all gangsters got their just desserts rather than the gangster films of the eighties and nineties when the good guys and the gangsters each betray their own side and kill one another. In Zero Black Thirty we are back to an age of innocence in gangster movies but now on an international stage. The bad guys get their come-uppance. The good guys cheer even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the murder scene.

Maya toils for years with no results until Debbie, a new recruit who is as perky as Maya was when she first arrived, walks up to her desk and tells Maya that she came to Pakistan inspired by tales she heard about Maya. Debbie hands Maya a file that seems to indicate that it was not Abu Ahmed who died but his brother. Why had Maya not been told before? "Things got lost in the shuffle. Human error." Caprice! History takes a turn because of chance and chance was needed to offset human error. Habeeb, Abu Ahmed’s older brother, who looked just like him, was the one who died. How does she know? By inference. If someone as important as Abu Ahmed had died, the chat rooms all over would be flashing

Daniel in Washington goes to bat for her. In an interchange with Wolf, the Muslim head of the counter-terrorism unit in CIA headquarters, Daniel offers to be the fall guy, the body, the scapegoat, that the Inquisitors for the government will be looking for to punish for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He does so as a noble knight in service to Maya’s obsession and in return for a couple of hundred thousand dollars needed to find the phone number of Abu Ahmed’s family. Daniel goes out into the field again and offers a prince in Kuwait a V10 Lamborghini in exchange for the phone number. No torture now. Just payola.

One after another Maya bends other male reluctant officers to her will in spite of their initial reluctance. She convinces Larry to help on the slim evidence that the guy who phones home from many different places and lied to his mother shows clear signs of tradecraft. Until she runs into Bradley at the American Embassy! Bradley tells her that he can’t understand her obsession with getting surveillance on some guy who a facilitator once said might have been bin Laden’s courier. In any case, Bradley doesn’t give a fuck abut bin Laden. What matters is preventing attacks in America. He threatened to send her home to work on American al Quaeda cells.

Maya doesn’t budge an inch. If you want to stop attacks on the homeland, get bin Laden; he keeps ordering them she yells back. Bradley barks back, "no one has talked to bin Laden in four years. He’s out of the game. He’s dead. You’re chasing a ghost." Maya responds even more strongly, but with a very personal attack on Bradley for being a no-nothing and just wanting to tick a box that you got another low-level operative. Then she raises the stakes beyond the weapons of verbal humiliation used in sparring and blackmails him. "Either give me the team I need to follow the lead, or the other thing you’re gonna have on your resume is the first Station Chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden. Bradley responds, "You’re fucking out of your mind." We cheer Maya for winning what to date seems her most important cock fight for we have been well socialized in the code of gangster movies. As worshippers of the image on the cave wall, we understand the laws of revenge. We have all caught scopophilia, the predominant male gaze of Hollywood cinema. Only instead of women portrayed as simply objects, we watch them mutate into male protagonists. We go to the movies desiring "to watch and identify with what you’re watching" so women, half the audience for movies, can now be mesmerized by gangster films.

The code is simple. If someone tries to subvert you, you have to retaliate with a harder blow than the one he threw. Otherwise you’re a wimp. Maya proved she was no wimp and had learned the rules of the war of all against all that prevails in the Hobbesian state of nature. No compassion. No backing down. No saying you are sorry No bowing down before superior formal authority. It is the law of gangs. It is the law of prisons. It is the law of the jungle. It is the laws that Daniel articulated at the beginning of the film. Formal authority be damned! The issue is always who the lord and master is and who the bondsman.

So it goes. As you sit in the audience you cheer her on and despair at the number of wishy-washy bosses she has to beat up. Then we get on what seems a side track. Bradley is being pulled out of Pakistan because he has been named publicly in a lawsuit by the family of the victim of a U.S. drone attack. The issue isn’t Bradley’s departure. That’s the feint. The issue is that drone attacks create their own media relations nightmares and a different kind of security problem. Maya wanted to nuke the compound but indirectly we are told that she had to draw back; accept killing bin Laden and give up on the fast and certain but with indeterminate political consequences. Maya has been socialized to become a sociopath standing out and challenging the system in terms of its own real rules and using any means she can to get her way. And we in the audience love every bit of it. The law of the jungle is bulldoze your way through and use whatever norms there are against the system itself to get your way. Compassion for the kids in the compound! Does Maya express one bit of concern about the kids who would be killed? Not a whit! A bleeding heart she ain’t. Up with rugged individualism!

We now have the answer why Maya did not completely get her way. She wanted to blow bin Laden’s compound with a drone rather than using Navy Seals. Pakistan gets a new CIA head. Maya says she needs people to track Abu Ahmed. The new head folds rather than argue with her. Her reputation has preceded his taking the job. He knows who really runs the show. But the hunter has become the hunted. An assassination gang tries to get her, shooting up her car. But she gets away. She has become one tough and resourceful broad.

Now the peak to which everything has been building — getting an affirmative decision to attack the compound. Days pass. Weeks. Months. Maya takes to writing in lipstick on the glass wall her boss’s office how many days they have waited for a go-ahead.

What are the considerations? The scenes are fast paced and tumble one on top of the other even though they take place over four months and obviously take much more time than we see. We view a hall at the White House outside the office of the President’s National Security Adviser (NSA). George approaches as the team files out and says to the NSA, "I just don’t get the rhythms of politics." The NSA replies, "You think this is political? If this was political we’d be having this conversation in October when there’s an election bump. This is pure risk. Based on deductive reasoning, inference, supposition and the only human reporting you have is six years old, from detainees who are questioned under duress. The political move is to tell you to go fuck yourself, and remind you that I was in the room when your old boss pitched WMD in Iraq…at least there you guys brought photographs." The memory of Iraq haunts the whole bureaucracy just as the Mogadishu syndrome haunted the Clinton presidency when the Rwanda genocide broke out. But Maya is so determined and wilful that she can not only resurrect zombies but can even dissolve the ghost of the Iraq War.

We learn that the issue is a calculation of risk and not politics. Given the evidence, it’s a no-brainer – go fuck yourself. George pops back: But how do you weigh the risk of bin Laden getting way? He is far more subtle that Maya in his use of blackmail. The NSA now suggests that the problem is no longer whether to attack but how. "Give us options."

But we are not given the options. We are not explicitly told why they chose to use Navy Seals rather than drones. Was it because of the women and children in the compound? Was it because they wanted concrete proof that they had bin Laden? Was it because they wanted to capture documents? Was it because they feared bad public relations?

We never know. Had the film already gone on too long? Was it over budget? We are not given any information on the options and why one was chosen over the other. The climax focuses on the decision on whether to implement one option or not. We move to Nevada and an Air Force base and we meet the Navy Seal team and view two high tech stealth Blackhawks that have never been tested with people or in an actual operation. There will be all kinds of risks in employing them. But we never see any real calculation of that risk. We are never introduced to any sense that the decision is really about rational deduction and inference. It is about will and only about will with a supporting cast of reasons playing minor roles.

And we are back to the decision? A Navy Seal asks Maya in an incredulous tone, ‘You mean you have no intel on the ground?" But even these tough soldiers, Maya wins over. She is truly an unstoppable force. She is truly a superwoman. But on route to their conversion from sceptics to followers if not believers, she tells them her preference: "Quite Frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser… But bin Laden is there – you’re going to kill him for me." Vivian who plays the same agent in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden insists on the same: "We should bomb the fuck out of it." Since the two different filmmakers did not share notes, it seems that the character of Maya/Vivian was based on a real person.

The tough and best way was to use a drone. But the politicos are too worried about the hell that would break lose if they had the wrong target or for killing women and children. We do not know if this was part of the reasoning. It is part of showing Maya as tougher than any of the men she has dealt with and certainly tougher than the politicians. America has found its Margaret Thatcher.

But then she comes up against the CIA Director played by James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame with Wolf, the Deputy Director, Daniel and others in attendance. Yes or no the CIA Director asks. 60% two of them answer, including Wolf. 80% says George. Daniel suggests a soft 60% for bin Laden but high probability for a high level target. Then the CIA Director turns to Maya, but is interrupted by his deputy who insists they have taken her opinion into account in their assessments of the probability. But Maya says her piece anyway. "100%, he’s there – okay, fine, ninety-five percent because I know certainty freaks you guys out – but it’s a hundred!"

She beat them all at their own game. She did not get her drones but she got the next best thing. Bigelow has directed a brilliant film in which she surrendered her belief as youth drawn from conceptual art that the aesthetic should always be in service to the idea and instead made a movie in which the idea and the aesthetic work in a remarkable tension as she continues her explorations of the coded language of the masculine herd, in this case, one in which a female has become the winning prize fighter. Her movie is a remarkable visceral journey involving gut, heart and eventually head. The rest of the movie is the climatic action film of the implementation of the decision and strictly about the code of masculinity in a state of nature that is all about power and violence. That ending, however, that muscular he-man stuff is, however, anti-climactic to the psychological thriller that just ended.

In the end Maya flies alone to where we do not know.

Tomorrow: Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

[Tags Obama, Zero Dark Thirty, revenge, rational decisions,
history]

Obama15.ZeroDarkThirty.Kill.binLaden.19.02.13.doc