The Gatekeepers : A frighteningly good film


Either by chance or deGatekeepers-FBsign, I am watching films related to the Palestinian situation these days. And increasingly, these are being produced by Israelis or joint collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians. The most recent was The Gatekeepers, which I watched just a few hours ago. It is a powerful documentary that captures the voices of six former Shin Bet chiefs, who seem to unanimously agree in that the existing policies of the state of Israel are wrong and the state may be winning a battle, but losing its war on “terror.” Just a few weeks ago, I watched Five Broken Cameras, which is a powerful narrative of the recent trend in nonviolent protests in Palestine and how the state of Israel is reacting to it. The Gatekeepers is told from an Isreali perspective, but offers a perspective that is not to be dismissed easily. 

Superbly shot and very well edited, The Gatekeepers is a sneak peek into the minds of men who have arrested thousands, assassinated hundreds and controlled millions of Palestinians in their careers. This is a one of a kind documentary that goes beyond the façade of the tough men working in intelligence units to show the human side of their work. “Politicians like to make binary decisions, with just 0 or 1, they don’t like multiple scenarios. Our work is to make decisions in complex situations, where there are more than two options, sometimes three or four,” points out one of the chiefs. The moral ambiguity that faces them when making decisions involving life and death are not easy, even to these hardened men. 

    “Victory is seeing you suffer,” points out a Palestinian psychiatrist to the Israeli chief of Shin Bet and this seems to be what is occurring in Israel today. While the spate of suicide bombings may have reduced from what it was during the Intifada, the fact that the average Israeli is in a constant state of anxiety, due to the actions of the state, that seeks to keep the occupation going is hard to miss. 

The film is a powerful statement to the power of surveillance, and authority that the Israeli state has over Palestinians. Avraham Shalom points out how census was taken as a practice in the post 1967 era, to keep a tab on all the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. While there is no doubt that often, this leads to power being abused, the realities of keeping the status quo i.e., the occupation intact trumps all moral ambiguities that the chief of Shin Bet may feel. “We are just doing our job and perhaps after we retire, we become leftists,” says Gilon.

The film is a sobering reminder that there cannot be peace unless the strong side, in this case Israel makes a real effort towards it. While the film does flow chronologically with the 1967 war, the Oslo peace agreement and the Intifadas that followed, it is not meant to be a history lesson.  The narrative is firmly rooted in the decisions that these men make and the consequences that it has for the state of Israel and also the Palestinian civilians.  While it is a sobering reminder to all that there cannot be peace in the region unless extremists on both sides stop the cycle of ‘intractable violence,’ it is also a stronger indictment of the regime that does the controlling and monitoring and securitization to look at the wisdom in all its actions and look at a strategy rather than just operating tactically, as we are reminded throughout. The tension between who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter is also clearly brought out, as the chiefs admit that there are no black and white scenarios here, and “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  The fact that the Israelis are treating the Palestinians similar to the way Germans treated the occupied lands is also admitted by one of the chiefs. 

Here is an interesting interview with Dror Moreh, the director of the film who says: “The more we are advanced in technology, the more impersonal it becomes.” An apt reminder for us, in the age of drone lead warfare. The parallels between this and the war in Afghanistan are not to be missed, especially when it comes to targeted assassinations. Ami Ayalon points out that the assisination of Yayha Ayyash was a  big event, and that underscores some of the issues that come up in targeted killings. While still debated on all fronts, simply because it goes against international norms, the fact that these are occurring as we speak, makes this issue current and controversial. 

Dichter’s words may be apt to sum up the powerful narrative of the film when he says “ You cannot make peace by military means.”  That may well be the wisdom that the Israeli politicians need to imbibe. 

Why you don’t need so much “breaking news”


 I read an interesting article on Guardian critiquing novelist Rolf Dobelli’s ideas that reading news can be dangerous for you. The kind of “breaking,” “live,” news that characterizes much of our experience these days is not very helpful and at worst, actually can be harmful to your well-being   His argument is that real insight and understanding is never instant. “ It takes time to piece together complex causality, and the global news machine of bite-sized nuggets doesn’t do complexity,” he adds. In this day and age of global violence, financial crisis, natural disasters; even the smallest incident can (usually) be blown out of proportion and become part of our consciousness like never before.

In his article, he makes a few claims that are worth examining. I use some of his claims and also add a few, that I think are relevant:

Firstly, that news media misleads. Often confusing correlation with causation. Pick any big issue, and chances are that many journalists are making this mistake. He says:” Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.” This is a compelling argument and one that one sees occurring, all the time.

Media exaggerates: Just to put this argument in context, here is an interview with a Terrorism expert, David Schanzer, from Duke University. Here is the article about the recent Boston Marathon bombings and his reaction: “ Q: What is the trend today? Is terrorism being used less now than it was a few years ago, or are we just not hearing so much about it?

David Schanzer: The decade since 9/11 has seen less terrorism (of all ideologies) than other recent decades. There were 168 attacks in the ten years after 9/11, but in the 1970s, there were 1357 attacks.” But given the massive coverage that these events receive these days, one is inclined to believe that violence related to terrorist attacks is on the RISE, whereas it is not so.


Media is part of the mass consumption ethic: If one were to critique media, perhaps the most honest critique comes not from the capitalist or libertarian framework; but the Marxist framework. Here is Theodore Adorno, pointing this out in Minima Moralia. He says:” To speak immediately of what is immediate, is to behave no differently from that novelist, who adorns their marionettes with the imitations of the passions of the yesteryear like cheap jewelry, and who sets persons in motion, who are nothing other than inventory-pieces of machinery, as if they could still act as subjects, and as if something really depended on their actions. The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” This observation points to an ethic, where reality is manufactured, produced and sold, with happy consumers sitting by and waiting for their problems to be produced, analyzed and often solved – all in “real time” TV. This is the ethic that makes slacktivism possible, and also one where often “analysis,” and even “thinking,” is outsourced to the “experts,” because it is more efficient and easy to do.

The problem of spreading ignorance and rumor: This is all too evident at the outbreak of every “major” disaster. Be it a hurricane, fire or a “terrorist” attack, rumors are aplenty immediately following the disaster. While more than 90% of the material just following most incidents is chaff and useless, this is precisely what captures the imagination of most of us. It is this voyeuristic, dark side of our personalities that media aims to feed, with the constant, live updates and rumor mongering and (often) half-assed assessments by “experts.” While those who understand communications and crisis management know that this is where “framing” of events is occurring, and it is where “truth” is defined, often the media outlets behave with callousness.

So, am I advocating a return to the stone-age? No twitter, Facebook, live CNN coverage? The short answer is no, while the longer answer is ‘may be.’ While media has become a part of our consciousness and is critical in shaping our understanding of who we are, I believe it is in some ways even impeding our thinking, unless we are able to carefully discern the wheat from the chaff. As a regular user of media outlets (print, online and social) and having been a news junkie for most of my formative years, I realize the value of careful, thoughtful analysis and also somewhat skeptical of instant news or reports that claim to explain the world in 10 minutes. As researchers, journalists need to be more careful, methodical and also aware of the issues they are reporting on. Barring a small fraction, I would hazard a guess and say that most do not know what they are talking about. As a parting thought, and further proof that journalistic knee-jerk reactions often do more harm than good, here is Bill Maher trying very hard to prove to an expert that his knowledge of Islam and history is far superior; since he gets to be on TV and is considered a “star”. This is nothing but polemics, hatred and bigotry, passing off as “analysis.” And nowadays, you don’t have to watch the right-wing media for this kind of shallow reactions, unfortunately ; this is becoming all too mainstream. 


Two stories, one common emotion

The recent bomb blasts in Boston has fixated everyone around the world and the game of speculation about “who did it,” is still on. No matter who did it, the fact that the bombs were aimed at civilians makes is worthy of condemnation and rightly so, all right thinking people have come forward to do so. Especially, the Muslim groups in the U.S have been forceful in their condemnation, given the vulnerable position that they often find themselves in; post 9/11 hysteria surrounding Muslims and extremism. Another story, of


boston_bannerequally big magnitude made headlines – that of the Immigration reform bill. While the bill has been drafted by a group of eight bipartisan senators, it still has to go through congress before it becomes law. While vastly different in scope, demographics and stakeholders, these two stories bring together one common emotion – that of fear, and our reaction to it.

                               The fear of the ‘unknown terrorist’ has always been present in the American psyche. One can go as far back as 1979 (the Iranian revolution) or may be even earlier (1950s) to look at the roots of this fear of the Islamic extremist (read terrorist) in the popular imagination. Edward Said’s Covering Islam is a good primer towards understanding this issue.  This subtle, and at times abrasive projection of our fears takes many forms. Here is one example. Amy Davison nailed it in the New Yorker, with an article about the young Saudi man, who was a victim of the bombings, but was made a “suspect” all too briefly. She points out in the article:” Why the search, the interrogation, the dogs, the bomb squad, and the injured man’s name tweeted out, attached to the word “suspect”? After the bombs went off, people were running in every direction—so was the young man. Many, like him, were hurt badly; many of them were saved by the unflinching kindness of strangers, who carried them or stopped the bleeding with their own hands and improvised tourniquets. “  Further exploring this, she asks:” What made them suspect him? He was running—so was everyone. The police reportedly thought he smelled like explosives; his wounds might have suggested why.”

            With the drafting of the Immigration reform bill, by the “group of eight” bipartisan senators, the pathway to legitimacy and eventual citizenship for the over 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S may be near. This may be more a practical measure, than one rooted in pure political calculations, as the country gains more from legitimizing this group of undocumented immigrants, than by keeping them in a limbo. I believe this is the first step in the right direction and must receive support from the Congress. This bill has the potential to lay to rest one of the most divisive political issues and reshape the conversation around employment, immigration and the domestic economy, in one blow.

As NBC Latino reported recently, the bill provides for those undocumented immigrants to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant Status (RPI), and this would them to be in this country legally, work for any employer and travel outside of the United States. “While RPI confers legal status, it does not make individuals eligible for public benefits, including healthcare, under the Affordable Care Act. The costs to apply for RPI status are a $500 fine, assessed taxes and application fees. After six years in RPI status, another $500 fee will be applicable,” it added. An RPI can apply for a green card in ten years and subsequent to that, in three years; apply for citizenship. The bill is also pragmatic, in that it ensures there are enough low-skilled workers, as well. The DREAMers will have a shorter path to residency as well. With greater opportunities to legitimately pursue education and other opportunities, the DREAMers can contribute more in taxes to the country, as this study by the College Board points out. Hopefully, the bill passes the hurdles it has to and is implemented as law. This seems almost a certainty as even conservatives such as John McCain realize that the Republicans need the Latin vote to survive as a political party. Pragmatism has trumped partisanship in this case.

In the case of Boston bombings, barring the rightwing media, most of the mainstream media have been cautious and guarded about their response to the Boston bombings, remaining cautious in terms of naming and blaming. While this is welcome, the biggest test will be when the FBI and the investigating agencies actually announce who did this. That may really determine how the media reacts and how people determine their reactions based on that. As of now, there is ambivalence, fear on all fronts – and also general confusion, apart from grief for those who have been directly impacted. In a thoughtful piece published by New York Times, titled “How not to React to Boston, “ Lawrence Downes says:” It would compound yesterday’s tragedy if the push for desperately needed immigration reform were derailed through a deadly combination of overreaction and xenophobia. The United States was close to tackling a long-overdue overhaul of its immigration laws in 2001. “

He goes onto point out that:” President George W. Bush had discussed the issue with then-President Vicente Fox of Mexico and was planning to make it a priority. Then came 9/11 and the birth of the homeland-security state. Immigration reform — except for the border fortifications, the deportation surge and the policing crackdowns — was put off indefinitely.” One can only hope that this bill in 2013 does not meet the same fate.

In a conversation I had with a Rabbi, who heads a national interfaith group a few weeks ago, she pointed out how anti-immigration sentiment is directly correlated with anti-Muslim feeling. While this is not news to many well-informed people, it should be a reminder to all of us that small mindedness, narrowness of vision, bigotry takes on many forms.

Thankfully, America seems to be reacting quite rationally with the immigration story, at least so far; and one can only hope that the same level-headedness is shown to the other story, as well.