In a country mired in multiple challenges, it may sound like a non-issue that a controversial Hollywood film has been practically disallowed from release for general viewing. Another defence of the unofficial ban on Zero Dark Thirty, a recapitulation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden (OBL) and the climax of the Seal Team Six raid in Abbottabad, is that all countries have red lines which rightly or wrongly are used to keep certain material out of the reach of unsuspecting public. After all, movies, like some literature, have a strong propaganda potential and these are known to be used to create national images of glory or humiliation of others. Why let the embarrassing tale of OBL’s capture — which at any rate is riddled with factual inaccuracies — be displayed on the shelves?
These and other reasons make a case for blocking Zero Dark Thirty from being screened in Pakistan. However, in the long run it is not a strong case. There is little doubt that the film is set in the context of the standard script for most such efforts that show American heroism and patriotic toil to ‘smoke out their enemies from the caves’ at all costs. The script glosses over some pretty disturbing questions about OBL’s origin and his elimination. However, the fictional side of the film still hinges on the fact that the man was captured in Pakistan. This fact and the swirling storm of suggestions, rumours and conspiracies they kick up, has not found any rebuttal from Pakistan’s mighty establishment and its eager-to-issue-denial government. We all know, and our generations will remember regardless of whether the Kathryn Bigelows of the Hollywood world remind us or not, that the raid was hailed by the president of Pakistan through his ghostwriter’s effort in the US press. Back home, from the army chief to the prime minister, all were heard heaving a sigh of relief. While we did sheepishly tell the Americans that they had violated our sovereignty, ‘good-riddance’ was a theme that officialdom never deviated much from.
This was endorsement of the US action in no uncertain terms and, in an indirect way, also a general authentication of the narrative that Washington created to describe the flow of events that unfolded in the final raid. Officials in Pakistan, shamed and embarrassed beyond redemption, never bothered to pick holes in whatever came out of Washington. They never raised a counter-narrative, which could tell Islamabad’s side of the story. The only complaint that was aired with some vigour and conviction was that Washington did not give Pakistani intelligence enough credit for providing broad but significant leads about OBL’s movement before his trail grew cold. The beef we developed with Washington over CIA’s operations on our land using the good offices of Dr Shakeel Afridi had a ring of duplicity about it, considering how easily we had allowed Raymond Davis to leave Pakistan months earlier. The man was undoubtedly the main link in the CIA chain working for the final raid, which explains the extraordinary effort the US mounted and president Barack Obama spearheaded to get him out of Pakistan. It is also unimaginable that CIA would throw its net so wide and deep in Pakistan and nobody got wind of what the spooks from abroad were up to. And if we were so incompetent as to be sleeping on duty, then the ‘enemies’ had a licence to sneak pass us and on their way back, lock us into a hurtful national situation.
Even our late, post-event response has been both comical and tragical. The Abbottabad Commission’s report took long to prepare and the inner politics of its members has made a joke out of the serious probe they were supposed to conduct into the matter. The best we have been able to do is to raze to the ground the OBL compound (as if that would change history!) and build a park on it instead. Clearly we do not learn from our experiences. We did the same thing with the jail where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged. He lives on. For decades, we withheld the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report from general access, but the 1971 tragedy continues to hang in the air like a forever dark cloud. We bulldozed Jamia Hafsa but the questions surrounding the Red Mosque operation are coming back to haunt us. The more we deny and run away from our past, the more it chases us. Zero Dark Thirty should be allowed for general viewing, not because it is a great film or an authentic account of a momentous event, but because this would serve as a reminder to all of us that nations that do not clean up their own backyards pay a heavy price for it. Being depicted as Pakistan is shown in Zero Dark Thirty, is that price.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2013.