On April 27th, 2004 HBO aired a stunningly poignant, powerful and breathtaking 56-minute film challenging post 9/11 United States policies. In “Strip Search” Big name stars such as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Glen Close, renowned writer Tom Fontana and talented director Sydney Lumet risked their careers to bring to film fears of the government’s violation of it’s citizen’s privacy via laws such as The Patriot Act. The film opens with a confused Linda Sykes (Gyllenhaal) being handcuffed and forcefully escorted from a restaurant in China by two outfitted police. She is then taken to a dingy interrogation room and thus a powerful and intimidating interrogation process begins. Seemingly at the same time, an Arab man (Bruno Lastra) is hooded and taken by American police forces into custody at an American interrogation facility. The roles are swapped, as a Chinese male (Ken Leung of ABC’s LOST) interrogates Gyllenhaal’s and an American female (Glenn Close) narrows in on Lastra as his interrogator. The two storylines are paralleled with nearly identical dialogue use in the cell in China, as in America. The two detainees are systematically stripped of their humanity throughout the interrogation process by being refused rights, detained indefinitely without charge, refused an attorney and kept from contacting family members. In an especially poignant moment Gyllenhaal and Lastra comment, “I don’t know my rights, you haven’t read me my rights!”. The interrogators respond frighteningly that the detainees have no rights because they have not been arrested or charged with any crime. They are simply there for questioning. But can they leave? No, no not until the questioners have received the information they’re hunting for. Can they call a lawyer? Why would they need a lawyer? Might they implicate themselves? This frustrating loop of being denied simple rights goes on throughout the short film, only becoming increasingly brutal.
Eventually, the two are stripped of their clothes by their interrogators, reducing them to nothing more than mere subjects, capable of being molded and cajoled into whoever the interrogators need them to be. Although our eyes are spared from seeing the full extent of the strip search, a cavity search is implied and we can see the extreme mental (and most likely physical) anguish rippling across the faces of Gyllenhaal and Lastra. They are humiliated, mentally and emotionally tortured and the title of the film “Strip Search” begins to take on dual meanings as they are stripped of their very humanity in the faces of their captors. I will not spoil the ending for those lucky enough to get their hands on a copy of this incredible film, but will note there is no positive resolution that we so anxiously and hopefully await, and the audience is left stunned and horrified at the implications it holds for our reality.
After the first showing of the 56-minute film on HBO, its subsequent showings were cancelled, the show’s webpage on HBO.com was deleted and all electronic advertisements and information about the film were erased from the internet. Where the TV guide showed a slot for “Strip Search” on April 28th, an entirely different (and might I add non-controversial) program was aired. Still, eight years later, the only mention of the film on HBO.com is a quick citation of it in the short biography of film credits of writer Tom Fontana. HBO has in the past been renowned (and in some circles, notorious) for it’s snubbing of censorship and has been a willing outlet for sensitive and controversial content. This film however, seemed to raise more questions with the American public than even HBO was willing to deal with.
Michigan Peace Team managed to obtain a copy of the film directly from writer Tom Fontana and aired it on the campus of Michigan State University shortly after it was aired and pulled from HBO, but even this direct link was fraught with suspect events and complications. Finally after years of small but effective backlash from individuals who managed to catch HBO’s first airing of it, the station agreed to air it a second, third and fourth time in April of ’09. It is still not possible to find any information about the film on HBO’s website, but it has been picked up by the popular Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com), and when “googled” a couple short articles about the film appear. I also managed to find three copies available for purchase on Amazon.com and one on Ebay.com, ranging from about $29 to $160. The elimination of this film from HBO’s program schedule and its history suggests the question, how meaningful is this film to the American government? Do the concepts and suggestions made hit too close to home for us as citizens to be privy to? When it was originally aired, it brought up fears related to the recently passed Patriot Act, which was so heavily discussed at the time. As I viewed the film recently, I began to wonder where the heat for this controversial and terrifying act has gone. Has it passed from the minds of American citizens through the buffer of 11 years? Are we more willing to give up our rights in the face of what seems to be an increasingly terror-filled world? Have we since accepted the loss of rights as a necessary measure in our nation’s “war on terror”? Or I wonder, have the concerns simply morphed form, hidden behind appeals using different language and media that doesn’t specifically speak of The Patriot Act but refers to it’s policies?
I think perhaps it is time to revisit the status of our rights as citizens of the free and great country of America and figure out if Fontana’s film reality still has the power to become our reality, either now or sometime in the future. Three weeks after September 11, 2001 congress enacted the Patriot Act and was extended in 2009. Through it, extended and exceptional powers were granted to government agencies including the power to perform “roving wiretaps” and unannounced searches of personal properties, denying citizens the ability to view and scrutinize warrants. These powers were granted without empowering courts to monitor the use of the wiretaps and searches. There was and continues to be an essential missing link of checks and balances within the Patriot Act and it has only continued, in spite of suggested privacy protecting amendments. The government continues to claim the efficacy of the act although a study conducted by TRAC at Syracuse University suggests these claims are based upon skewed information. “Despite the three-and-a-half-fold increase in terrorism convictions, the number who were sentenced to five years or more in prison has not grown at all from pre-9/11 levels.” (ACLU 2005) Convictions are more often found for minor charges such as passport violations. By allowing minor convictions such as these into their statistics, the Justice Department is able to give misleading information on how many terrorism-related abuses were curbed, and skews figures on how many of these were directly related to policies such as the Patriot Act.
After a bit of digging it is possible to uncover some of the abuses our government has taken in respect to these policies. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) numerous innocent people have been detained indefinitely and without charge for questioning in terror investigations. Other abuses to citizens and migrants are also not so well hidden. In 2005, Tariq Ramadan who had been invited to teach at Notre Dame was revoked of his visa under section 411 of the Patriot Act, which “permits government to exclude non-citizens from the country if in the government’s view they have ‘used [their] position of prominence to endorse or espouse terrorist activity or to persuade others to support terrorist activity’”. Also, in the wake of the 100th anniversary of the FBI in 2008, the BBC cited an instance in which a Pakistani-American father and son from California were accused of attending Pakistani terror training camps. After tapes of their interrogations were reviewed by another FBI agent he admittedly found the tapes “appalling”, stating it was obvious the questioners were “leading” the two, and found nothing to suggest their guilt. The event failed to expose any active al-Qaeda cells in California (the objective of the detainment). These cases are only two of the many instances of abuse granted by the Patriot Act and other privacy compromising acts passed post-9/11.
More recently, there have been numerous abuses of this power, which haven’t been specifically attributed to the Patriot Act, but have violated citizens right to privacy similar to the violations committed against Maggie Gyllenhaal and Bruno Lastra in “Strip Search”. Kevin Zeese of HuffingtonPost.com in his article “Politically Active Americans Facing Searches and Surveillance” presents such a situation, which occurred in September of 2010. In this instance, the FBI raided six homes of non-violent peace activists in Minneapolis and Chicago. Those amongst the raided were individuals from Greenpeace and the Catholic Worker and of course, according to the Inspector General, there was little or no basis for the investigations. The increasing number of unfounded and poorly conducted searches is an incredibly disturbing violation of the rights granted to us as United States citizens. However, it seems the discussion of these sorts of violations have been traveling through the brains of U.S. citizens without much reflection or discussion. What has happened to the controversy that once rained down upon the enactment of the Patriot Act and the fury of discussion that was sparked by questionable violations of constitutional rights?
Is privacy still something Americans value? Or perhaps more correctly, is privacy a right the masses are willing to negotiate and compromise in exchange for the promise of a terror-free life? (Although I suppose this depends upon the individual’s definition of “terror”.) Is the frightening notion of losing our rights and privacies still eminent in the collective minds of the American people, or has the terror of war and death pervaded the American conscience enough to dull the idea of collective rights given to us by our forefathers, in the hopes of providing safety for our children? I wonder; have we stopped demanding assurance and proof that the sacrifice of our privacy is being rewarded by anti-terrorist activity? It is essential that we not passively accept what has been decided for us without question. If the people of this country have decided to allow the exchange of privacy for the promise of a terrorism-free life, we must acknowledge the lack of checks and balances inherent in this policy and create a citizen based system, checking the progress of these policies and holding our government accountable to its claims that its conduct has been and continues to be effective. We must be realistic in calculating the costs of these policies. If our right to privacy is deemed a necessary sacrifice for the “war on terror” to individuals with no ties to terrorist organizations, one must question by whom, and by what criteria are organizations deemed “terrorist” mules? I myself have given money to and received newsletters from organizations such as Greenpeace, which has been implicated as having terrorist conduct. Michigan Peace Team itself, which promotes, practices and teaches non-violence (precisely the opposite of terrorism) has been tracked and monitored by the government. Will those so willing to give up their rights for the cause of the “war on terror” be equally as willing when they are implicated, searched, detained and stripped of their rights and humanity as the characters in Tom Fontana’s film are?
I do not write for the goal of repealing the Patriot Act necessarily, nor to simply rant about our government intruding into the privacy of citizens of the United States of America but to bring up necessary considerations. I seek to refresh the minds of Americans and reenergize the debate surrounding the Patriot Act and other policies of recent administrations that effectively deny constitutional rights. It is our duty as American citizens to hold our government accountable for their policies and actions. We must remain constantly informed, in order to ask questions and provide checks where the government is unbalanced. It is my hope, that as films such as Tom Fontana’s “Strip Search” and other media is further dispersed across the nation and viewed by ever more diverse groups of people; on college campuses, in churches, amongst neighborhood groups and families so that the discussion does not die out but continues to demand response and action. We must not forget what inspired citizens can do for their country.
–Kellie Brandt- MPT Intern
Sources Cited/Further Reading:
Internet Movie Database. Strip Search (TV 2004). 2004. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0376215/
The Library of Congress Thomas. Bill Summary and Status-107th Congress (2001-2002) HR 3162 CRS Summary. October 2001. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:HR03162:@@@D&summ2=m&
American Civil Liberties Union. Myths and Realities About the Patriot Act. June 2005. http://www.aclu.org/national-security/myths-and-realities-about-patriot-act
BBC News. Rights still an issue as the FBI turns 100. March 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7279136.stm
Kevin Zeese. The Huffington Post. Politically Active Americans Facing Searches Surveillance. September 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-zeese/politically-active-americ_b_744154.html
Other Interesting Reading:
Bruce Fretts. Tv Guide. HBO’s Strip Show Stirs Debate. April 2004. http://www.tvguide.com/news/strip-search-hbo-36630.aspx
Lucia Graves. The Huffington Post. FBI Wants More Power To Track Internet Activity, Civil Rights Community Cries Foul. August 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/05/fbi-wants-more-power-to-t_n_672227.html
Senator Russell Feingold. On Opposing the U.S.A. Patriot Act. October 2001. http://www.archipelago.org/vol6-2/feingold.htm
American Civil Liberties Union. http://www.aclu.org. Search: Patriot Act.