Trust our resident legal eagle, Judge Bill Gibron, to carefully scrutinize this political polemic on the current state of US international policy and civil rights.
"By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world. By encouraging liberty at home, we will build a more hopeful America."—George W. Bush
"Might makes right."—Old maxim, circa 1357
There are certain truths that we hold to be self-evident. All men are created equal (how they are all treated is a far different story). The United States is a nation founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…just as long as none of the aforementioned offends or differs from the implied social norm. We, the people, in our never-ending attempt to form a more perfect union, tend to undermine justice and piss on domestic tranquility. We could care less about the common defense, have more or less revoked most general welfare, and feel that freedom is something best left to freaks, non-conformists, and radicals. But, hey, don't mess with our children, or there'll be trouble, with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for politics.
So when, on September 11, 2001, terrorists determined to deal a deathblow to democracy by crashing commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, they initially got a decent part of their wish. They threw the United States into a tentative tizzy from which it still hasn't really recovered. Using a decidedly knee-jerk response to the events of that fateful day and marrying them to a lazy, lax approach to the protection of rights, America went to war with itself and its citizens as well as battling the rest of the Axis of Evil. And when the skirmishes died down and the victories were determined, the score was apparently foreign frightmongers one, the government zero, and the people of the US an unknowable negative quantity. That is, if you believe the latest investigative documentary by Public Interest Pictures and the Disinformation Company, Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties.
Before delving into the pros and cons of the arguments offered in this more or less agenda-based presentation, one has to get a few givens out of the way. It's hard not to admit that the President, in a classic case of judgment-rushing, targeted the terrorists in the homelands of his choice and proceeded to play posse for America's wounded pride. The attacks of September 11th were and remain inexcusable symbols of cowardice and gall. But somewhere in the middle of the push to pulverize the enemy and reestablish the karmic lines of justice, the US kind of blew it. Instead of thinking things through, developing a clear strategy and executing it with the greatest armed forces and fighting men and women in the world, it went into the Mid-East like a drunken saloon stool jockey, six-guns blazing and mind half-hammered on a sense of its own wounded ego. The results have not been swift, exact or fair. As the war in Iraq continues to drag on, we are hearing more excuses and indictments than causes for celebration.
According to Unconstitutional, the sands of Afghanistan and Iraq are not the only places where piecemeal planning has resulted in an abortion of purpose and protection. On the home front, in the melting pot mentality of our metropolitan urban centers and the supposed sleepy safety of those suburban havens, the federal government was and is targeting people because of their ethnicity, religion, or politics. Americans are becoming misidentified enemies of the state, without probable cause or salient rationale. To hear the various venting talking heads tell it (comprised of a surprisingly bipartisan parade of congressmen, activists, and military men), the US post-9/11 continues to act in World War II internment camp conceit, reconfigured to an intangible war on terror. In an effort to maintain order and instill a sense of preparedness, the government is housing time bomb revolutionaries and suicide bombers-in-the-making in a glorified gulag at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Under conditions violating the Geneva Convention and with various vague rationales as to why such standards need not be met, the current administration is viewed as a vile, vindictive bully who can't own up to the fact that the world is rapidly denying its power. The planet is seeking ways to whittle away at the USA's self-imposed and supposed authority, and this hooligan is not standing for it.
When it takes the time to make its points, when it's not hitting us over the head with mistake after mistake, iniquity upon iniquity, Unconstitutional makes some very valid charges. The entire manner in which the heavily criticized Patriot Act was passed into law is enough to give even the most jingoistic jarhead reason to pause. The implication seems to be that the legislation passed in a rushed vote by both chambers of the Congress was not the actual law that went into effect. Items were left for definition at a later date, terms were vaguely written and—in the most damning accusation—actual agreed-upon language was changed between the vote and the publication of the new rules and regulations. Also, the lack of openness in the name of national security really plays against those confronted in this documentary. They may indeed have a very cogent reason why certain facts and figures aren't available to the public, but the allegation again is that the US has something to hide, from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to the new style of search and seizure that slyly sidesteps the Fourth Amendment. Throughout the running time of this twisted treatise, there are moments where you feel ashamed of your citizenship.
Still, Unconstitutional doesn't always play fair when trying to bolster its bias. When a Jordanian defector is arrested, along with several members of his family, on suspicion of terrorist connections, the filmmakers paint a decidedly one-sided image of this man and the misery his loved ones were put through. Then, like an offhand comment overheard in a crowded bar, the narrator explains that our "innocent victim of circumstances" is in the US as a political refugee, under suspicion in his homeland for allegedly siding with some hijackers in an incident where he was piloting a commercial airliner. Suddenly, the small shadow of a doubt is cast (the question logically being what else we don't know about this man) and the "Oh My God!" nature of the vignette is a lot less sensational. The same situation exists with another "personal profile" facet of the film. A father worries for his detained son, saying that he merely wants to hear from him and he would be happy. Naturally, after months of zero communication comes a letter outlining brutal treatment and inhuman conditions. Even as the parent saves face and says that his offspring deserves said situation if he is guilty, the inference is that he's really innocent, and just being tortured by the US for no valid reason.
One element this documentary really fails to focus on, though, is the religious zealotry that is fueling the vast majority of the unrest and violence worldwide. Theocracies tend to legitimize any action in the name of a god, and even without seeing the latest issue of Jane's Guns Recognition Guide, it's clear that no one has invented a weapon that can combat such a mindset. While not exemplifying all Muslims, there is a wave of ethical unrest in many parts of the world that has the decadent, deity-denying West directly in its crosshairs. Unconstitutional never says how such a situation should be addressed, or what the answer might be in trying to protect one's sovereignty from such an onslaught. It just ladles on the lamentably extreme examples and hopes that its propaganda is approved. Now, there is nothing wrong with calling this presentation by that notorious "P" word, since by its very nature, propaganda is just information presented to mirror the intent of the message. This is indeed what Unconstitutional is all about. It may not feel it needs to offer the other side of the story. After all, that's the version that gets airplay every night on network and cable newscasts.
Still, in lacking balance and full fairness, one can't help but feel uncomfortable at the propositions being tossed around: the altering of legislative language; the private searches of home and businesses, even when the owner is not actually present and no warrant has been proffered; the violations of international law and universal ethics; the absence of any real results save for a Tiger Rock reasoning behind the new policy's effectiveness (anyone with a working knowledge of The Simpsons will understand that statement). Had it given the opposition a chance to make their case, and then systematically dismantled it piece by piece, this would be an undeniably brilliant dissertation on a strategy in complete and utter chaos. But as effective as it is, and as unnerving as many of the missives are, Unconstitutional can't be anything but a powerful sermon to the converted. If you already believe that George W. Bush and his entire administration are the next in line for a war crimes trial in The Hague, then Unconstitutional will sufficiently support your zeal. But those on the fence, or spouting the "love it or leave it" slogans of a few decades ago, will be more pissed than pleased with this polished, polemic presentation.
The Disinformation Company presents Unconstitutional in a barebones, basic DVD that has good technical issues, but really blows the chance to bolster its positions by failing to include any clarifying context. The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, with lots of detail and depth in the direct from video transfer. We fail to find any of the usual visual suspects—flaring, halos, bleeding—in the camcorder cinema structure, and the colors are all vibrant and vital. The sound is also exceptional, providing a crisp, clean Dolby Digital Stereo mix where every Q&A is completely understandable. Aside from a tepid trailer, there are no other added features on this DVD, which is a real lost opportunity for the filmmakers. Something as incendiary as Unconstitutional needs all the support it can get. Leaving it out in the wind like this makes the message seem that much more skewed.
The War on Terror has been far from perfect. Indeed, the glow from flawlessness would have to travel several billion light years just to reach this administration's ideas about proper engagement with potential enemies. But to hear Unconstitutional tell it, the actions of the United States border on malice aforethought in their desire to clean up some minor domestic issues along the road to the end of terrorism. Had it been more evenhanded, Unconstitutional would be a powerful, potent statement. As it stands, it's a fine—if flawed—look at an incredibly frightening topic. Maybe this was the fear the extremists hoped to instill all along—not a fear of foreign invaders or intervention, but a fear of ourselves, and of our own hasty reactions.
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