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Tag: Authoritarianism

The Survivors Will Envy the Dead

The escalating nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea have me thinking of the 1965 film The War Game, a mock-documentary that dramatizes a thermonuclear attack on a small British city. The film, directed by Peter Watkins, won an Academy Award for best documentary, though it was ultimately denied airtime by the BBC because of its violent content. The experience of watching the film is disturbing, not only because it recalls how deeply the threat of nuclear war had penetrated global consciousness during the Cold War, but also because it draws attention to how disconnected our contemporary cultural sphere is from the species-level threat of nuclear war. We just don’t seem to care anymore. This is precisely why The War Game is still worth watching. It not only illustrates the danger of nuclear proliferation, but it also serves as a reminder that the international community has failed to address the persistent danger of nuclear arms.

There are many aspects of The War Game that remain relevant today. For example, the nuclear strike depicted in the film is provoked by a conflict between the United States and China over American military involvement in South Vietnam. The United States threatens to strike the Chinese military with tactical nuclear missiles, which in turn provokes the Soviet Union to assist the East Germans in unifying Berlin under the Communist regime. In an effort to defend Berlin from Communist aggression, the United States and Britain strike Soviet forces with a nuclear missile, thus initiating a full-scale thermonuclear conflict. This was a likely enough scenario when the film was released, and it should give us pause regarding how easily the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea can explode into a larger conflict between any number of nuclear powers.

The War Game is also concerned with the potential of a nuclear war to undo the democratic institutions that protect individual rights and civil liberties. As the threat of nuclear warfare becomes increasingly immanent early in the film, the British government suspends its democratic system and institutes an authoritarian government headed by a special council of fifteen officials. The new authoritarian government forces evacuations and civilian billeting, institutes food rationing, and establishes explicit classes of people who will receive wildly divergent qualities of treatment in case of a nuclear attack. Those of the lowest class will receive no treatment at all, but will be “put out of their misery” by the police. Unsurprisingly, these mandates give way to social discord. The suspension of democratic law leads to military officers shooting enlisted men for refusing orders, and domestic police summarily execute citizens for civic unrest. The War Game is lucid in this regard. It is not naïve to believe that the world’s democracies would suspend their constitutions under the pressures of nuclear war. One could reasonably argue that they would do so under far less urgent circumstances.

One potential critique of The War Game is that the film is overly speculative, and that an actual nuclear crisis will not necessarily end in world war and the death democracy. Watkins answers such objections by contextualizing the film’s nuclear crisis in relation to actual historical events. For example, The War Game makes regular and convincing comparisons between the atrocity suffered by the fictitious British city and the actual atrocities that occurred at Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The comparisons are convincing because Watkins places the British citizens in situations modeled on actual reactions to WWII-era bombings. So when the film’s British police collect, loot, and burn the bodies of thousands of dead citizens in the streets, they mimic the actions of German police in the wake of the Dresden bombings. Similarly, when the film’s British survivors seem to regress into a state of apathy, filth, and disease, they repeat patterns observed among the Japanese survivors of America’s atom bombs. These examples suggest that the suffering of the past may very well slip into the future so long as nuclear stockpiles remain intact.

It is important to recognize that the human condition would never be the same after a nuclear war. The human psyche would suffer such a horrendous blow that many would no doubt envy the dead. Just imagine the consequences of an entire nation suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The future would be grim indeed. But perhaps we’ve already been acclimating ourselves to precisely such a future. It does seem that many people have already accepted the threat of nuclear war as an unlikely but ultimately justifiable reaction to hostile nations. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with this blasé attitude toward such a future. A nuclear strike by any nation under any circumstance would be an outright assault on the most basic elements of human dignity. We are fortunate to have organizations like the Ploughshares Fund that have remained diligent in resisting the irrationality of nuclear weapons. We need these organizations to remind us of the very real dangers that nuclear weapons pose to humanity. But we also need films like The War Game to remind us of how close we have actually come to destroying ourselves, for that is exactly what we threaten to do every time a nation produces or enhances a nuclear weapon, and every time a national leader threatens a member of the international community with annihilation.

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Accused = Guilty; Or, How to Write about Terrorism in a Country with a 99% Conviction Rate

A few weeks ago, the website Literary Hub published a brief overview of Chinese crime writing under the title “Shanghai Noir: How to Write Crime Fiction in a City with a 100% Conviction Rate.” Written by British journalist and true crime author Paul French, the survey touches on how difficult it can be to write about crime in a society that denies crime’s existence and/or cultivates the myth of a flawless judicial system. French notes that in nations such as China, where the conviction rate for murder stands at 99.9%, and where maintaining such a rate is crucial to the state’s political project, one’s ability to write about crime critically and honestly is fundamentally compromised. He writes: “The truth is crime in China is a problematic genre—it all too often raises tricky political issues, when it appears the censors [sic.] axe falls swiftly; local politicians are powerful and prickly. Crime shows on TV are no better—showing valiant and incorruptible policemen and women in a cardboard cut-out way that would have been laughed at in America in the 1950s!”

I haven’t been able to shake this statistic—a 99.9% conviction rate. It seems to me that this statistic cuts two ways. First, it contributes to the appearance of social harmony underwritten by a diligent and expert police state. The appearance of peace and security is key here, for it offers the peace-of-mind that things are exactly as they should be. Everything is under control. This is one reason why authoritarian regimes suppress crime statistics while so radically inflating conviction rates. But this peace-of-mind is only available to those who are unlikely to be accused. This leads us to the second way in which the statistic cuts: For those who belong to one of the groups that find themselves subject to routine scapegoating—one group French mentions as falling within this category is Shanghai’s “population of migrant workers”—a 99.9% conviction rate no doubt compounds a difficult and pervasive sense of insecurity. When no statistical difference exists between being accused and convicted, the only statistic that matters is the rate of accusation.

Authoritarian societies are not the only places where crime statistics are skewed by outside social and political forces. One need look no further than America’s failed “War on Drugs,” which has led to wildly disproportionate numbers of African American citizens being convicted of drug-related charges, even as drug use among white citizens continues unabated. But perhaps the most striking example of politically skewed crime statistics in a developed democracy can be found in the United States’ near-perfect conviction rate of those who stand accused of terrorism-related offenses. According to a very informative database published earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged 802 people with terrorism-related offenses since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of the 802 people charged, only two have been acquitted, with three having had their charges dropped. In other words, when it comes to terrorism prosecutions, the United States convicts 99.4% of defendants—just shy of China’s clearly skewed (and terrifying) conviction rate for murder.

It seems to me that much of what French says about crime in China can be applied to terrorism in the United States. As with crime in China, terrorism in America is politically sensitive, and there are powerful interests invested in shaping—often through overt scapegoating—how Americans view both terrorism and terrorists. Unfortunately, those interests have been remarkably successful. Perhaps French is right when he says that 1950s America would have laughed at contemporary Chinese television depictions of “valiant and incorruptible policemen and women,” but 21st century America isn’t laughing at the absurdity of valiant and incorruptible federal prosecutors who always get their man.

A 99.4% terrorism conviction rate lays bare the political dimension of American counter-terrorism efforts, and the message is clear: The counter-terrorism police state exists to protect you. It is doing its job. You have nothing to fear.

Tweeted on June 4, 2017, shortly after a terrorist attack in London that left seven dead and dozens wounded.

How can American writers write critically, or even interestingly, about terrorism under such conditions? The closest anyone has come, to my knowledge at least, is Ben Fountain’s outstanding novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which presents a scathing portrayal of America’s post-9/11 mentality. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also quite good, and Kent Johnson’s Doggerel for the Masses comes to mind, but I can’t think of many other literary or pop-cultural examples that succeed in cutting through the absurdity of America’s response to 9/11. (If there are examples I’m missing, let me know; I want to read them.) This is a failure not only of imagination, but also of social and political courage to grapple with the complexities of current affairs. We need writers, filmmakers, artists, and critics to do this work, and we need them to do it sooner rather than later. Their success may very well prove crucial to the success of a larger project for an honest reckoning with the contemporary world.

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