December 21, 2014
For The Herald in the US
Film about former US Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld shows how the country’s society has changed for the worst post-George W. Bush
NEW YORK — The phone-video shows a barefoot guy, dressed in black, wearing a black wide-brimmed hat topped with a black veil. He hums, out of tune, “Boston Strong, Boston Strong,” while teetering his way down a street.
When the police asked him what was in his backpack, he said “a rice cooker.” The suspicious object — which indeed contained a rice cooker, filled with confetti was blown up by the bomb squad near the Boston Marathon finish line on Tuesday 15, after the ceremony to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack — two pressure cooker bombs carried in backpacks — that killed three people and left 260 injured.
The 25-year-old young man, Kevin Edson (aka Kayvon, as he signs the posts in his website NaturalSelection.net), a student of art and design, was arrested on the spot. Yellow and blue makeup (the colours of the marathon) showed a path of tears from his eyes to his cheeks. After he was Mirandized, he said to the officer that took him away: “It is symbolism, come on!” To appeal to the policemen’s artistic sensibility, he added: “The performance got the best of me.”
Edson was arraigned for threatening battery, possession of a hoax explosive device, threats to commit a crime, disturbing the peace, disturbing a public assembly, and disorderly conduct. He was also imposed a US$100,000 bail, and sent to a state mental hospital for evaluation.
There, they will probably find that he had been already diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as his family said in a statement. “To have this happen on the one-year anniversary of such a horrific crime is unfathomable,” they apologized.
By his next court appearance, on May 7, the contents of Edson’s website might contribute to the DA’s arguments: that same Tuesday he posted pictures of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, with comments like “Sexy till proven innocent,” “Boy-o-boy, I’d pressure cook him a meal n’ bring him homo (sic) to Mama.” Like his ludicrous videos — performances of himself against Google-know-all-about-us, and of his visions on fashion design with soda cans parts or cigarettes boxes —, his statements seem to be those of a disturbed person.
Years ago in this country he would have been treated as, well, a disturbed person. But due to the legacy of George W. Bush, an imbalanced man was treated as a national security threat.
The Texan Republican’s two terms as US president changed this country. There is the inequality caused by the disastrous economic favour of the super-rich, the transformation of a huge superavit in an even huger deficit, the lack of attention to environmental damage, the scandalous Katrina tragedy, the invasion of Iraq under the false premises of never-found WMD. But the so-called excesses of the war on terror, from torture and indefinite detention without due process in off-shore prisons to the damage of US legal system by improper prosecution and warrantless surveillance of millions, seem to have pervaded the political culture given they have continued under Democrat President Barak Obama.
A recent documentary has shed a distressing light on one of the architects of this era. The Unknown Known, by Oscar-winning (The Fog of War) director, Errol Morris, portraits twice secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in his own words: an extensive interview that follows his Frank-Underwoodesque career as a congressman who was appointed by president Richard Nixon to head the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969, soon to move to Counsellor and then Ambassador to NATO and then — Nixon already ejected — Chief of Staff by president Gerald Ford, where he recruited young Congressman Dick Cheney, who took his place when Ford placed him in the Pentagon in 1975.
To better understand why a bipolar wannabe artist is a matter of national security this film should be seen along with The World According to Dick Cheney, another documentary by R.J. Cutler, where former vice-president, and true friend of Rumsfeld for more than 40 years, follows the same shaping of contemporary politics.
Both men have written their views on their deeds for the historical record: Cheney published In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, while his friend needed two books, Known and Unknown: A Memoir, and Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life. However, the openness — or impenitence? — the two of them show in the documentaries is painful to watch.
Cheney, an early misfit from Wyoming, understands the rules of the game the minute he is invited by Rumsfeld to become a young staffer in the Nixon administration in 1969. He was 28 years old; his mentor only 36. He climbs up the Republican ladder as a leader in Congress (he was key in the Select Committee that investigated the Iran-Contra Affair), as Secretary of Defence of George H. W. Bush (and director of the invasion of Panama and the First Gulf War), and finally an unprecedented strong vice-president with the second Bush.
Conveniently unaware of the storm inside the Justice Department because of a warrantless wiretapping programme instructed by Cheney, and the charges for obstruction of justice against Lewis Libby, Cheney’s right hand, Bush distanced himself from his VP, fired his friend Rumsfeld (who had hardly survived the scandal of torture and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib), and never received him again in the White House where they both worked.
In the documentary, Cheney seems still sore: “Our policies in Iraq were going well,” he argued against the dismissal of Rumsfeld. “I felt we were leaving a good man wounded in the battlefield,” he said about Libby. He even defended torture: “Are you going to trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor? Or are you going to do your job?,” he asks Cutler.
The movie shows, in the end, a bitter man who fell from grace and after a heart transplant practices fly-fishing. On the contrary, The Unknown Know presents a scarier image of politics.
Rumsfeld reads his memos, dubbed snowflakes because he threw a blizzard of 20,000 of them onto his staff in his six years in office. His voice opens: “July 27, 2001. A memo to Condoleezza Rice concerning Iraq.” He wrote: “If Saddam Hussein was ousted, we would have a much improved position in the region and elsewhere.” The next memo goes further: he proposes to rearrange the map of the Mideast.
Was the invasion of Iraq a mistake?, Morris asks. “I guess time will tell,” Rumsfeld says. Smile. What did he learn from the Vietnam War, which he observed from the Congress, from NATO and from the White House? “Some things work out, some things don’t.” Smile.
Almost every take ends with that odd smile. No wonder that Henry Kissinger — it takes a thief to catch a thief — said that Rumsfeld was the most ruthless person he ever met.
The tongue-twister that inspired the title is famous. Rumsfeld said in 2003 (and wrote a memo about it) about WMD in Iraq: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Waiting for a crack — the fourth combination: the unknown known of the title, that of the unconscious mind as well —, the audience is defeated. Rumsfeld’s sincere insincerity is all there is at the end of the 96 minutes of the film.