Friday, May 06, 2011

I feel you, DiA

This clip-out from DiA on The Dish triggered an image:
The worthwhile, boring, essential parts of war and life do not make good television. They do not even make good narrative: David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel tries to sanctify boredom (and if I ever manage to slog my way past page 56 I'll let you know if it succeeds; he's a great writer, but come on, I'm only human, I have my narrative needs too), but otherwise writers and filmmakers wisely steer clear of the subject. People standing around tables in offices sorting documents into files or making minute adjustments to photographs does not make for compelling reading or watching. But make no mistake, those people are the ones who put the SEALs in that compound.

What I saw was the preamble (there's got to be a more technical term -- the medley of images and theme song at the beginning of each episode) to The Wire, David Simon's epic HBO drama of the Baltimore drug trade. The medley tracks the movements of cops and bureaucrats and people on Baltimore's poorest streets. It's often struck me that the sequence captures the dignity, the intensity, the concentration in the most mundane human tasks -- punching the buttons on a pay phone, dragging on a cigarette, snapping a  photo, exchanging cash for product, u-turning a bicycle. It somehow screens out any moral content we might impose on the actions, shows us all as conscious animals doing what we do.

In any case, the association was no accident. Jumping to DiA, here was the upshot:

For the death of bin Laden was the triumph not of Jack Bauer, but of Lester Freamon. The information that led to bin Laden's death does not appear to have been water-boarded out of anyone. For those poor souls who have not memorised all five seasons of "The Wire", Mr Freamon is a Baltimore detective with a gift for the paper trail. No guns, no street work, just document upon document, brick by brick of patient, steady analysis. SEAL Team Six was on the ground, and of course they deserve respect and admiration, but let's spare a thought too for the office work that put them there.
There's an irony behind DiA's tribute. One running theme in the wire is that the FBI's war on drugs has been drained of resources by the war on terror (and so cops on the city narcotics squad can't get the help they would have got a few years earlier when they're onto something big).  And a second irony: while the show honors the work of good police tracking drug dealers, it casts the war on drugs itself as completely futile,  counterproductive. Of course the same argument has often been made about the war on terror: that it has stimulated the activity it's meant to squelch while draining the country of vital resources. Though there's a difference: terror must be countered. The intelligence/detective/police/targeted military action that DiA salutes here, no one would gainsay -- it's torture and invasion and occupation that have led us astray. In the war on drugs, the target itself -- traffic in drugs -- is questionable.

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