"I pledge to God to assist and support, regardless of my own
self-interest or reasoning, regardless of my own well-being,
and not to challenge the leadership."
The al-Qaeda Loyalty Oath
What does evil look like? Is it the face of Osama bin Laden, scowling beneath a scraggly beard, preaching holy war against the West? Is it the face of Donald Rumsfeld, square-jawed and cocky, squinting behind moon-shaped glasses, preaching preemptive shock and awe?
It probably doesn't look much like the face of Salim Hamdan, Osama's former driver, who wound up incarcerated in isolation in Guantanamo. He waited seven years for a trial, which finally came about when his lawyers won the landmark Supreme Court victory in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that established overreaching by the Bush Administration, and violation of U.S. military law and the Geneva Conventions. In Laura Poitras's documentary The Oath, we first see Hamdan's face covered with a hood, in grainy black-and white footage of his initial interrogation after his capture in Afghanistan in November of 2001.
It may not look much like the face of Abu Jandal, Hamdan's brother-in-law, a bodyguard for Osama in the late '90s, now a taxi driver in Yemen's capital city, Saan'a. We first see him asking his adorable little son, Hamid, what he wants to be when he grows up.
"A jihadist," says the boy with a gap-toothed smile.
Evil, of course, doesn't look like much of anything. It is cloaked in banality, in the term coined by Hannah Arendt. So Osama is evil to Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld fits the bill for Osama, and the image of imperialist America gathers young Arabs into the fold of jihad, and fanatical Islam sends American children and congressmen terrified to bed at night. And a proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan is whipped into a wildly distorted political crisis that helps keep the whole insane wheel turning.
Poitras set out to make a documentary about Hamdan's eventual acquittal and return home, but in the brother-in-law Jandal she found a subject who was fascinating, charismatic, and best of all, willing to talk, and talk, and talk.
He talks to a group of young Yemeni men about jihad. Surely, one of them asks, the attacks of September 11th were wrong, to kill so many innocents? "What is the difference between the innocents of America," Jandal replies, "and the innocents of Iraq and Palestine?" He is an authority figure to the young men, touched by the special glamour of his personal connection to brother Osama. You keep expecting them to ask "What's Osama really like?"
He talks to the press, Arab and American. He talks to a New York Times reporter about the hotheaded new generation of jihadists. He appears on 60 Minutes with Bob Simon. He talks about his guilt over Hamdan's situation, and his fear of reprisal from jihadists who condemn him for abandoning his oath to al-Qaeda.
He talks to passengers in his taxi as he weaves and honks his way through the chaotic streets of Saan'a. Poitras has installed a hidden camera, which passengers spot easily. "Oh, it's not working," he reassures them glibly. "The battery's dead."
He talks to Hamid about Islam, waking the boy for early morning prayer, schooling him on the number of times he must repeat various ritual phrases in praise of Allah. Religion will be the fuel on which future conflicts will run. But when they're watching a news report on a suicide bombing, Hamid pleads "Daddy, can we watch Tom and Jerry?"
Eventually we discover that Jandal was captured in the wake of the Cole bombing, and was in a Yemeni prison on 9/11. He went through a prison rehab program, The Dialogue, designed to return jihadists to society as responsible citizens. When he was arrested, he talked to FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who used sweets and persuasion to get Jandal to spill a beanstalk-load of valuable al-Qaeda beans. "It's a mistake to use enhanced interrogation techniques (torture)," Soufan explains.
We don't get much of Hamdan. We hear his letters to his family from Guantanamo, describing his solitary confinement, locked away from exposure to human beings and even the sun. In one, he counsels his brother-in-law not to talk so much. We get his defense mostly from his military attorneys, especially the very impressive Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, his lead counsel. When his team won Hamdan v Rumsfeld, Congress passed a new law, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which retroactively set Hamdan up for conviction by tailoring the law to the things with which Hamdan was charged. Convicted on one count of "material support for terrorism" under the 2006 law, he was sentenced to time served plus five months, and was released in January of 2009. After his return home, he has refused to give interviews. Jandal describes him as a changed man, introverted where he used to be charming and gregarious.
Poitras has opened up a fascinating window into the minds of the people who hate us, apparently not so much for our freedom as for our arrogance, our belief that we are the center of the universe. They, of course, believe that Islam is the center of the universe. It's a tricky landscape on which to find common ground.
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be