Sometimes the reaction to a movie is more interesting than the movie itself. In Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow controversially suggests torture played a necessary role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Given that this suggestion is both untrue and politically provocative, Zero Dark Thirty has been widely condemned. Bigelow’s film seems to implicitly approve of human rights abuses in the name of the ‘War on Terror’.
Another recent film is similarly coy about civil liberties and human rights. Yet there has been no outcry about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, released in Australia last week.
Spielberg’s tale of the constitutional amendment to end slavery shrouds Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in myth. The Civil War is the ultimate “just” war. It was fought to end the vile institution of slavery. Hard to think of a more noble cause than that.
But Spielberg whitewashes some of the great stains on the Lincoln presidency. The film obscures, even ridicules, any suggestion Lincoln reduced American liberties during the Civil War.
Take one memorable scene. In Congress, a fiery New York Democrat, Fernando Wood, accuses the president of being a tyrant. Lincoln, Wood shouts, is a “violator of habeas corpus and freedom of the press, abuser of states’ rights, radical republican autocrat ruling by fiat and martial law”.
The film skates quickly over the accusation. Wood seems ridiculous. He describes the president as “our Great Usurping Caesar”. He supports slavery, a much greater tyranny. But many of his claims were correct.
The Lincoln administration declared martial law. It suspended the writ of habeas corpus, allowing the government to detain civilians without charge and without trial. And Lincoln didn’t ask permission from Congress first – a major increase in the power of the executive branch of government.
At first the administration simply wanted to enforce military conscription. But very quickly people were being jailed for doing perfectly legal things. Many civilians were locked up for selling alcohol to soldiers, even though there was no law against it. Others were locked up for “disloyalty” or using “treasonable language”. Local authorities found that incarceration without charge was convenient. They could arrest first and ask questions later.
At least 14,000 people were locked up as political prisoners during the war, according to the historian Mark E. Neely, jnr. The real figure could be twice that.
The suspension of habeas corpus was controversial. The Republican Party was supposed to be the party of individual liberty. Many Republicans were uncomfortable with Lincoln’s heavy hand. Democrats filled the gap and restyled themselves as the ”habeas-corpus party” – obvious hypocrisy from supporters of slavery.
For a long time historians believed there was a militant underground within the North that justified a clampdown on civil liberties. It is now clear that there was no such mass resistance. There is no reason to believe the elimination of legal rights helped win the war.
Lincoln’s administration suppressed at least 300 newspapers. Most of the suppressed papers were Democrat ones. Nineteenth-century journalism was proudly partisan.
Lincoln authorised torture, too. The technique, also used against civilians, is eerily familiar. It is described in historical record as a “violent cold water shower bath”. Essentially, a high-powered hose was sprayed against a person’s body until skin broke. This “shower” could last for hours. There was no attempt to cover up this torture. The president didn’t seem fazed by it at all. We only know it happened because of formal protests made by the British ambassador when British citizens were victims.
Certainly, in the American Civil War the North were the good guys. There can be no question about that. The country had been torn apart. Many of those whose liberties were eliminated supported the slave trade. They’re not sympathetic characters.
But that’s the thing about legal rights. Even bad people deserve the protection of the law. There’s no question that modern Islamic terrorists are bad. But their sheer badness doesn’t make indefinite detention or torture justified. The justice of a war says nothing about whether rights should be protected.
Lincoln’s choices during the Civil War had long-term consequences. Memory of Lincoln helped justify Woodrow Wilson’s even more considerable rights abuses during the First World War. And Lincoln’s legacy has been regularly used to defend depravities in the War on Terror – if the greatest president did it, then surely so can George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Lincoln’s memory should be a sensitive issue.
Both Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln are up for best picture Oscars in a few weeks. The storm over torture makes Bigelow’s chances small. Lincoln is just the sort of film the academy likes. It is pure Americana, at times cloyingly so. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis deserves every Oscar he can get. But Spielberg grants little room for moral ambiguity in his hero-president.
Some people have seen the Zero Dark Thirty debate as America starting to deal with the civil liberties incidents of the last decade. The silence on Lincoln suggests there is a long way to go.