Jeremy Scahill in Yemen filming Dirty Wars
In the new documentary Dirty Wars (LiC Review), journalist Jeremy Scahill investigates the consequences of the largely covert war we’ve been waging on terrorism since 9/11. The film moves beyond NY and LA this weekend and tonight, Scahill will be doing a Q&A following the 7:40 pm show at the Landmark Theater in West LA. I had a chance to chat with him for a few minutes last week on the eve of the film’s theatrical premiere.
Craig Kennedy: Before I have you expand on some of the ideas in Dirty Wars, I’d like to hear more about the dangers you faced traveling outside of the protection of the US military to get the story. Tell me what that was like.
Jeremy Scahill: I think the biggest fear that you have when you’re in a car is an IED, that you’re going to hit a landmine somewhere or some kind of improvised explosive device and get blown up. The threat of being kidnapped or shot by snipers is sort of omnipresent too so that you’re constantly having your head on a swivel. I think people who haven’t been in war zones have this misperception about what it’s like. There’s this idea that it’s just gunfire constantly. Actually you’ll have incredible tranquility until you don’t and then all the sudden some terrible series of things starts happening and it’s horrifying. Beyond that, there’s the psychological stress of simply driving outside of Kabul and going through these provinces where you know people have been kidnapped or ambushed and you see supply convoys that have been blown up and charred remains of trucks on the side of the road or you’ll see masked figures with guns walking across a field toward where you are and you’re praying that your car isn’t going to break down right in front of them. That sort of fear is always with you.
CK: What was it like approaching villagers who are probably still angry about what just happened to them and you don’t know whether they see you as a friend or an enemy?
JS: When we went to visit with people who had survived these night raids and whose loved ones had been killed, we didn’t just show up and knock on their door. We’d sent people ahead of time to go and meet with them and tell them our intentions and to get permission to come and visit them. That’s one thing I’ve learned from years of doing this is that you have to have a real cultural sensitivity and understand how outsiders are received in the places where you’re going to go. If you don’t do your homework, you can end up in a really dangerous situation.
CK: Did you have any moments where you felt like maybe you were in over your head?
JS: We did have an incident where we were in a meeting with some locals in a province outside of Kabul and we were trying to set up an interview with members of the Taliban. We were sitting in this room full of men and I look at my Afghan colleague, Rauf, and he kind of looks like a ghost and I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong and he’s just shaking his head like “don’t look at me.” He’s having this negotiation with them in Pashto and we don’t understand what he’s saying. Afterward when we get back in the car, Rauf says that they were debating whether or not to kidnap us and how much money they’d be able to get. Sometimes you do things to get a story that in retrospect I guess are just insane.
CK: When the reality of the situation you’re in hits you directly like that, how do you put it aside and keep going?
JS: Rick (Rowley the director) and I were both shaken by that. One thing that’s sort of unusual and you might not expect is that you develop a very good sense of humor when you’re in these dangerous places. It’s one of the things that can keep you sane. The way we processed it was to sort of make a running joke of it. Part of it is you try to steel yourself because otherwise you’ll be paralyzed by your fear and you won’t be able to work. I think that’s true of a lot of things when you do this kind of work. You have to tell yourself a series of lies about the stakes or the consequences of what you’re doing. The danger of that is, if you cross the line into believing you’re invincible, you’re probably not going to be long for this world because then you start doing truly stupid things. As long as you’re in touch with your own mortality and you kind of keep a sense of humor and you realize that what you’re doing is incredibly risky, you probably stand a decent chance of making it out alive. But I also have colleagues who have been maimed or killed over the past 15 years in war zones and I know very well the dangers of it.
CK: Let’s talk a little more specifically about the story you pursue in Dirty Wars. War is always a messy, ugly business. To your mind, how is the kind of covert war you’re investigating now different? Is it that much worse?
JS: There’s very little that’s new in war except technology and there’s no such thing as a clean war. But for me what’s new about this and is part of why we made the film is we’ve got this president who is an incredibly brilliant man, who is a Constitutional lawyer, has won the Nobel Peace Prize and was viewed by many liberals as this transformational figure who had campaigned on a pledge to roll back the Bush/Cheney era excesses, particularly on issues of counter-terrorism and national security. But under his administration, Obama has presided over a process where they are actually systematizing the institution of assassination as a central component of US national security policy. It’s not that the US hasn’t engaged in assassination for years, it’s that it’s becoming a legitimized part of how the US wages its wars and the most prominent forces now in the US arsenal are the most secretive and least accountable. It’s not that we’re at the dawn of some new era, per se, but things that were normally talked about in the context of scandal are becoming the tip of the spear of the policy. We’re returning to Central America in the ’80s where the US was engaged in proxy wars. You have secret forces bumping people off and you have kill lists that are being maintained by secret committees in the White House. The fact that it’s happening under President Obama is one of the more chilling aspects of it.
CK: And as you show in the film, we’re not just targeting foreign enemies. We’re assassinating US citizens. That’s something very different.
JS: Yes, the case of Anwar al-Awlaki which we look at in the film. Look, I’d be willing to concede that he was involved with everything the White House has leaked about him, even the things I know are not true, but for the sake of argument let’s say that he had been actively involved in the attempted Christmas Day bomb plot. What do we do with one of our own citizens in that case? That’s criminal activity that he’s engaged in. Do we just sentence him to death and execute him or do we get an indictment against him and seek to bring him to justice? If we can’t extradite him or he won’t surrender, you have all sorts of options and you can justify them all sorts of ways, but why did they never charge the guy with a crime? If Obama was sincere when he said he’d have preferred to prosecute al-Awlaki, why not indict him? How do you surrender to a drone? How do you surrender to an authority that hasn’t charged you with a crime? For me, there’s no difference between American lives or Yemeni lives or Pakastani lives. We’re all equal, but on a Constitutional level, the reason why this is such an important question is because how a society treats its own people is a pretty good indication of how it views the rights of other people. To me, that’s why the stakes of this story are so high. It says something about who we are as a society more than it does about who Anwar al-Awlaki was.
Filed under: LiC Interview