Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Does the end justify the means?

My family enjoyed watching The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford. It recounts assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the following military trial of Mary Surratt, accused as a co-conspirator of the plot.

The movie highlights how she did not receive a fair trial, being assumed to be guilty, and was a victim of political expediency. The Secretary of War rationalises her treatment by claiming the "greater good" of "preserving the Union." The end justifies the means.

There is debate about the extent to which Redford was trying to draw parallels to the  treatment of inmates of Guantanamo Bay by the US government. Here is an extract from one review:
In The Conspirator, Redford goes back to one of the only events in American history that tore at the country’s identity as violently as 9/11 did. And he demonstrates that what happened back then, during the trial of Mary Surratt, amounted to the squashing of rights, the twisting of protocol, the suspension of justice for “the sake of the nation.” Edwin Stanton, played by Kevin Kline, was the Secretary of War under Lincoln, and he makes the argument for why Mary must be found guilty (even though she is, at least in the movie, innocent). He becomes the film’s version of Dick Cheney, taking the low road of force over constitutional safeguard. And Aiken, the last-honest-man hero (played by McAvoy with a lively glint of moral passion), realizes that if he doesn’t fight this bureaucratic railroading, he’s colluding in the destruction of the American system, the American way. The movie’s message is: In America, the ends do not — cannot — justify the means. That, the film says, is the meaning of America. Redford clearly intends this message as a commentary on all the legally dicey things that have gone on in the aftermath of 9/11: the detaining of terrorist suspects, with little or no evidence, and with no representation or deadline, in the prison at Guantánamo; the underground use of torture techniques that violate articles of the Geneva Convention; the willingness to suspend the law for the sake of an anti-terror, we-fight-fire-with-fire absolutism.
There is also a nice review in The New Yorker, focussing more on the cinematography.

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