Strip Search – A film by Sydney Lumet

No. This is not a pornographic film, not when the director is Sydney Lumet. The first and only time I saw Strip Search (HBO and IMDb) was on HBO in mid 2006. And since the Indian government believes that its citizens are not mature enough to appreciate controversial subjects (not just politically sensitive subjects, but also minor things such as nudity), HBO seems to have run a heavily edited version of the movie. So I am not too sure of how things were linked up, and the intervening two years have taken a toll on my memory, so my recollection of details may be a bit off the mark. But the film is important. So I must try.

Right at the beginning of the film, a teacher in a US school asks the class would they surrender their freedom for a day if the US promised that it would wipe out terrorism within that time? Yes the class says. What about a week? Some are hesitant, but most agree again. A month? Fewer ayes. A year? The class is quiet. The scene changes. An Arab man is lifted from the streets by the FBI (or the Department of Homeland Security) for interrogation. And an American woman tourist in China too faces the same situation. Both are interrogated about their connection to terrorist activities in which some one they know is involved. And they are humiliated. The scenes from both the ordeals – the one in the US and the one in China – are shown in parallel segments, one after the other, with the same dialogs being used in both places. I don’t quite remember the end of the film, but one IMDb commentator says, the girl (great work by Maggie Gyllenhal) confesses while the man doesn’t, so that must be it.

This is a film about the threat of terrorism, and how in tackling it, governments tend to go too far. So far in fact that personal liberties which are guaranteed by the constitutions of democratic countries are no longer respected. Lumet uses US and China, two countries with completely different views on the concept of liberty, to show that despite one being democratic and the other totalitarian, governments will not hesitate in stripping citizens of their basic rights, if such rights impede the greater good (which, of course, is defined by the government).

The threat of terrorism is real. That terrorists not only target civilians, but also institutions that preserve law and order is a reality. If you can intimidate judges and cops, half your job is done. But how do you see to it that no innocent people suffer? It is better to let ten guilty people free than hang an innocent person, one saying goes. But what if one of the people you let go kills ten others? These are pertinent questions that need good answers. But, consider this – if the state is directly responsible for the death or torture of an innocent man, what happens to its moral authority? How can it claim to be a defender of freedom if it follows the principle of selective sacrifice for the greater good? Basically, what is the difference between the US and China for a person in the US who, despite being innocent, finds himself at the receiving end of the state’s might. In a wider sense, this would apply to any democratic country, which while it goes about saying its democratic, does not actually respect the limits of the system.

The teacher’s question, and the students’ answers to it says a lot about the state we are in. People are ready to surrender their freedom in return for safety – which is more often than not – not guaranteed. But there is a point beyond which they are uncomfortable – the point where they say no. Most countries in the world already snoop into the private lives of their citizens – the US indulges in wiretaps, London has placed cameras all over the city, China filters the internet (and I fear other countries will soon begin to do that), India blatantly indulges in censorship of television content, books and movies with a new government regulator in the pipeline that would effectively gag the electronic media. If you look at it, 9/11 was the tipping point as far as invasion of privacy by government is concerned. And the future does not look good. When will the time come when people will say enough is enough? When will you say no?

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