In the Name of the Father is a time capsule, perhaps more than most films. Coming out as it did out following the worst of the violence between the Irish Republican Army and the English crown (this is simplifying things, but bear with me), and documenting a particularly gross abuse of power by the English, it was in its time a product of a society coming to grips with its own fallibility and capacity for injustice. Today such highfalutin notions seem almost quaint. At least, that’s how John Yoo would see it.
First, some context: Gerry Conlon (a young Daniel Day-Lewis) is a petty Belfast thief who happens to be in London with his friend Paul when the Guilford Pub is bombed by the IRA, killing five. Gerry and Paul and two other friends, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act passed in the wake of the bombing, are rounded up and tortured and into confessing. Along the way much of Gerry’s family gets swept up, including his father, Giuseppe, with whom he spends several years in prison before Giuseppe dies. Gerry continues his father’s work toward his freedom and eventually attains it.
The most discomfiting sequence in the movie is Gerry’s… interrogation, during which he is slapped, beaten, and questioned so many times even the audience starts to question if he’s telling the truth. Paul is brought in and tells him he should “clear his conscience.” Eventually Gerry is told the police will kill his father if he doesn’t “confess,” and so he acquiesces. And of course, when this is brought up in court, it becomes a matter of the lowly thief’s word versus that of the upstanding police. They are all found guilty, but in an act of ‘mercy’ the judge declares that instead of having Gerry executed for treason against the crown, he will only be convicted for terrorism and sentenced to 15 years.
It’s all drearily relevant stuff, such that even while I was watching it I knew it would give Dick Cheney a raging boner. Yet the sad truth is that, as criminal as the treatment of the Guilford Four is, Cheney would barely consider it foreplay. The physical abuse doesn’t begin to match the mannered sadism of waterboarding, naked hooding, induced hypothermia, exploited phobias, stress positions, and sleep deprivation that the authoritarian Right has gone from lamenting to rationalizing to gleefully advocating in only eight years. An audience of twenty years ago might have been shocked to hear of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that it allows police to detain a suspect for a whole seven days without charging him. Yet outrage at such a perversion of justice today, when the executive branch is claiming the power to assassinate Americans at its own discretion, is like watching an eleven year-old being told the little rubber bunny in his hand is actually a sex toy—but without letting him know it belongs to his parents. He does not know how deep does rabbit hole goes.
This is the truly toxic effect of the national security discourse of the past decade, the corrosion of decency, even among those who are actually concerned about old-fashioned notions of civil liberties and personal autonomy. Gerry’s attorney, Gareth Peirce, is given many speeches, especially towards the end, where she can rail against the injustice of a system that can take fifteen years away from innocent people to satisfy a public that was “baying for blood.” ‘That’s all well and good,’ I thought to myself, ‘but that’s not how it works out in real life.’ And yet, in the broad strokes, at least, it is. (I didn’t know anything about the movie or its story going into it) By some freak chance—in the movie it’s an uninitiated guard’s mistakenly giving out secret evidence—the Guilford Four were able to have their day in court and be freed.
But what are we, in the second decade of this prematurely nasty century, to take away from this? Even the ostensibly happy ending comes with caveats: though the innocent were freed after fifteen years, no one was ever punished for the gross malfeasance at work in the halls of justice. And these victims were Irish, just across the sea from England, and in America so integrated they they’re hardly thought of as a minority anymore. The English, too, at least had the decency to imprison them in their own country.
The United States today has captured and kidnapped citizens from China, Afghanistan, Germany, and more besides. It has sent them to black sites across the globe to be tortured with no charge leveled against them, denied the right to a proper legal defense, and released or not released on arbitrary grounds. Barack Obama, who was elected on promises to return the nation to the rule of law, has allowed the architects of this policy to continue serving as professors and judges and guerilla politicos for the ‘freedom’ crowd, and is now seeking the ability to monitor all electronic communications under the auspices of national security. History will eventually damn the Bush and Obama administrations for all this, if the moral arc of the universe our president so often invokes is of any indication. Yet that assumes we haven’t by then completely submitted to our baser angels, taken Peggy Noonan's advice and "kept walking." For now, we are left with Gerry Conlon’s words as spoken by Daniel Day-Lewis to Emma Thompson’s Gareth Peirce:
“You see, I don’t understand your language. Justice, mercy, clemency. I literally don’t understand what those words mean.”
These days, who does?