Risking the Unthinkable

by , September 17, 2010

If you haven’t already, you need to rent Unthinkable on DVD (it was never a theatrical release and went straight to video in July) – it may be the best movie you’ve never heard of or seen.  You’ll certainly recognize the two featured stars – Samuel L. Jackson and Carrie Anne-Moss – but the third lead actor, Michael Sheen, is lesser known (he’s the voice of the White Rabbit in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Lucian in the Underworld movies, and will have a starring role in the upcoming TRON Legacy to be released in December).  The tag lines for the movie are:

  • Right and wrong no longer exist
  • How far would you go to make him talk?

I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t already seen it, but here’s the basic plot: A white American Muslim and former U.S. Special Forces soldier – Stephen Arthur Younger aka Yousef Abdul Mohammed played by Michael Sheen – claims to have planted three nuclear bombs in large cities of the US, threatening to kill millions.  The movie centers around the interrogation to find the location of the bombs.  Even though he is a U.S. citizen, Younger is held by the military at a secret facility as an enemy combatant.  The FBI is brought in to assist the military (Carrie Anne-Moss plays FBI agent Helen Brody).  But – with the blessing of "higher authority" – the military hands over the interrogation to a contractor, Henry Herald Humphries or "H," played by Samuel L. Jackson, who will go to any lengths to break Younger.  (WARNING: Unthinkable can be disturbing and not for the squeamish – it’s brutally graphic and, even though it qualifies as a psychological thriller, virtually nothing is left to the imagination).  The battle is not just to break Younger before the bombs are set to explode, but also between Brody and H over the methods being used to interrogate Younger.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that Unthinkable is about the use of torture (or what was called "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the Bush administration) to elicit information from terrorists.  Ultimately, it’s about the age-old question, "Do the ends justify the means?" which is best illustrated when Agent Brody objects to her superior that H’s interrogation of Younger is unconstitutional and is told, "If those bombs go off, there will be no Constitution."  In the end, Unthinkable doesn’t answer the question (although one critic believes the movie is "simply big screen propaganda" and "an excuse to permit torture"), but does provide plenty of food for thought.

General Paulson, who is the senior military person in charge of the secret facility, justifies the interrogation on the grounds that "even if there is one percent chance the threat is real."  Unfortunately, that has become our post-9/11 mentality when it comes to homeland security and responding to the threat of terrorism.  We want to be risk free against all possible threats – no matter how possible or probable they might be.  And we’re willing to have our civil liberties and constitutional rights eroded in the process – and all too often for false security against phantom threats.

Unthinkable also raises the question of the value of any information extracted by interrogation.  Agent Brody makes the point that Younger (who as a former Special Forces soldier has been trained to resist interrogation) will tell H anything he wants to hear if subjected to brutal methods simply to avoid further pain, but that the information will be useless.  However, when Brody is able to elicit information from Younger (claiming she needs some proof from him that his nuclear bomb threat is real) what she gets is an unexpected surprise (I promised I wouldn’t be a spoiler).

Unthinkable intentionally uses nuclear devices as the threat because they represent the greatest fear factor.  Certainly, a nuclear weapon detonated in densely populated urban area would be devastating.  In their Autumn 2007 Washington Quarterly article "The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City," Ashton B. Carter (currently the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics), Michael M. May (former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and William J. Perry (Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration) wrote:

"[T]he broad outlines of the grisly effects of a 10-kiloton groundburst are clear.  The downtown area, about one mile in radius, would be obliterated. Just outside the area leveled by blast, people wounded by flying debris, fires, and intense radiation would stand little chance of survival. Emergency workers would not get to them because of the intense radiation, and in any event, their burns and acute radiation exposure would require sophisticated and intensive medical care to offer any chance of survival. Further downwind from the detonation point, a plume of radioactive debris would spread. Its shape and size would depend on wind and rain conditions, but within one day, people within five to 10 square miles who did not find shelter or flee within hours would receive lethal radiation doses. This area, for example, could include Brooklyn, New York; northwest Washington, D.C.; or the upper peninsula of San Francisco."

However, a reality we still refuse to come to grips with is that a low yield nuclear weapon detonated in an American city (and perhaps even a few cities) is not a world ending event — nevermind the near impossibility of a terrorist getting his hands on, placing, and successfully detonating such a device.  This is not meant to trivialize the consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack or marginalize the lives that would be lost, but – as a nation – we would survive (just as we did after 9/11).  Two things to remember: (1) Japan survived after we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II and (2) utterly destroying our country is currently reserved for Russia which still has several thousand nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States (and despite the end of the Cold War, both the U.S. and Russia continue to target each other with their respective strategic nuclear arsenals).

But I think the most important point of Unthinkable is made when Younger aka Yousef reveals his demands: He wants the president to announce that the United States will stop supporting puppet governments and dictatorships in Middle Eastern countries and a withdrawal of American troops from all Muslim countries.  Predictably, the "senior U.S. official" in the room derides the notion of giving in to such demands and allowing a terrorist to dictate U.S. foreign policy.  H’s reaction, however, is surprising.  Essentially, he says, "Why not?"  [As an aside, H is clearly a conflicted character.  He is without doubt a torturer who is willing to do whatever it takes to break Younger.  He believes we are at war and that what he does is necessary.  Yet he also seems to not want to do what he does and his willingness to accept Younger's demands reflects that he wants a reason to stop.]

Why not, indeed.  It’s not the intended point of Unthinkable, but the elephant in the room is U.S. foreign policy as a catalyst for terrorism.  It’s an inconvenient truth we refused to consider before 9/11 and refuse to acknowledge after.  But if we continue to refuse to confront that truth, we do so at our own peril.  And risk the unthinkable.

Read more by Charles V. Peña