Lessons in torture
Rendition lays bare the CIA’s approach to suspected terrorists, writes
AYOUNG woman goes to see Blood Diamond because she admires Leonardo DiCaprio. Later, she and her fiance stop by a jewellery store to pick out their engagement rings. ‘‘ No blood diamonds,’’ she tells the man behind the counter.
Call it a culture shift, a societal change, a step closer to a perfected civilisation, all for the price of a movie ticket.
For the past couple of decades, much of the newspaper and magazine reporting out of Africa has been stunning, delivered by journalists who in many cases risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to get out the word about droughts, famines, coups, AIDS and genocide.
But most people in the West didn’t know much about Rwanda until they saw Hotel Rwanda . Most knew nothing about big pharma’s testing of drugs on African children before The Constant Gardener . Until Syriana , few grasped the confluence between oil and intelligence.
Even more than news media, Hollywood has become the teacher. Its next effort to teach Americans about their world and their Government takes the form of Rendition ( released in Australia next year) from director Gavin Hood.
Since September 11, 2001, something called rendition has sporadically been in the news. It involves the CIA’s abduction of a suspected terrorist somewhere in the world and his forcible transportation to a friendly Arab country where he is thrown into prison.
Rendition brings the procedure vividly to the screen, combining as it does elements of three real- life cases: individuals against whom there was no evidence were rendered into a living hell that lasted months or even years before they were released for lack of evidence.
Between 1987 and 1998, the FBI carried out 15 renditions from a variety of countries. Rather than the FBI ( a law- enforcement agency) bringing suspects to face criminal charges in the US, the CIA — an intelligence agency with no police powers — was now transporting criminal suspects from country A to country B. From there it wasn’t a huge step to the weeks after 9/ 11, in which the CIA’s special activities division began delivering terrorist suspects not accused of any crime to an often brutal reception in countries E ( Egypt), M ( Morocco) or S ( Syria).
In Rendition , the fictional Anwar El- Ibrahimi ( played by Omar Metwally) is a model citizen: he’s a chemical engineer who lives with his pregnant wife ( Reese Witherspoon) and young son in a Chicago suburb. Except for his name, and the fact that his mother wears a hijab, he’s as American as any other citizen. He delivers papers at international conferences, such as the one he just finished attending in South Africa, and is a consultant to the US government.
Meryl Streep, as a senior CIA official, is ( wrongly) convinced Anwar has been in touch with a terrorist bomb- builder named Rashid. The CIA seems to have discovered calls from Rashid to Anwar’s mobile phone.
Changing planes in Washington, DC, for the final leg of his flight home to Chicago, Anwar is snatched at the airport by men wearing black masks and taken away for questioning. He insists he doesn’t know any Rashid or anything else about terrorist bombs. When they can’t find any evidence to the contrary, the agents are about ready to let him go home. ‘‘ Nobody’s interested in this guy,’’ one tells Streep with a shrug.
Streep isn’t easily persuaded. ‘‘ I’m interested,’’ she says. ‘‘ Put him on the plane.’’
A few hours later Anwar is in a country that could be Egypt, given that its Government has admitted to playing host to about 70 CIA renditions. What follows isn’t pretty, but it is definitely educational.
Much has been written about an interrogation technique called waterboarding, which the CIA employed against several of the al- Qa’ida higher- ups who swam into its net in the months after September 11. Waterboarding is usually described as giving the victim the impression that they are drowning. After watching Anwar get the treatment, it’s clear that there’s nothing impressionistic about it. Waterboarding is drowning.
Anyone who wonders precisely what’s involved when rendition suspects are tortured with electricity will wonder no more. Rendition also lends credence to another objection, often raised by former intelligence and lawenforcement agents, that torture is of no value because someone being tortured will say anything to make the torture stop. Viewers of Rendition who understand that Anwar is innocent are nevertheless likely to be startled when, rather than face another session with 220 volts, he suddenly begins confessing to acts he could not have committed.
His tactic soon becomes clear. He cannot explain what happened to the $ 40,000 he claims to have been promised by Rashid. The terrorist ‘‘ co- conspirators’’ whose names he rattles off turn out to be the other players on his former soccer team.
Anwar’s tormenters won’t take yes for an answer. But a junior CIA officer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, develops an increasing revulsion to the CIA’s approach as well as a growing conviction that Anwar is innocent.
Earlier, when Streep says, ‘‘ You’re new at this, aren’t you?’’, Gyllenhaal replies: ‘‘ This is my first torture.’’
‘‘ The United States does not torture,’’ Streep snaps back.
Those words embody the real- life constitutional dilemma that may be around the corner. Yet to be adjudicated are such questions as whether US government employees working abroad are bound by the Geneva Conventions or US anti- torture treaties and statutes. In short, is the outsourcing of torture legal?
Anwar’s fictional case most resembles that of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was changing planes in New York in September 2002 when he was seized and held for two weeks of questioning.
The Canadian government, which had tipped the US about Arar’s arrival, expected him to be put on a plane for Canada. Instead, the CIA decided to fly him to Jordan, where he was driven across the Syrian border and spent 10 months being tortured in a Damascus prison.
An investigation by the Canadian government concluded there was never any evidence linking Arar to terrorism.
Unexplained disappearance: Reese Witherspoon as Isabella Fields, the wife of Anwar El- Ibrahimi, in Rendition