One question that emerged from our conversation with Sidney Lumet and Tom Fontana was: Does the artist have a duty of patriotism during a time of national crisis and emergency? “Strip Search” is a cautionary film about the consequences of the Patriot Act and the erosion of civil liberties. Yet, doesn’t the artistic community have a responsibility to assist in the war effort; indeed, must they be patriotic so that the reasons behind the Patriotic Act–the defense of this nation from the threat of terrorism–not be undermined or trivialize?
Lumet and Fontana did not, in any sense, believe that they had a responsibility to support a war that they did not believe in personally. Fontana, in fact, believed that the most important obligation of the artist is to expand the conversation
and the scope of public debate, to “keep people talking,” which is not unlike the overall purpose of our Forum– why we sponsor these events and maintain this blog.
Artists supported America’s involvement in World War II, although it is true that artists tend to be on the left of the political spectrum, and are drawn, politically and personally, to messages of anti-violence and anti-war, even through Hollywood is better known for mass produced images of violence and glorified depictions of war. While artists appreciate the struggles of the radical, not all radicals are deemed righteous or redemptive. For instance, anti-abortion protestors who chain themselves to abortion clinics are not depicted in our cultural landscape in particularly heroic terms, and yet their means are decidedly radical.
Yet, President Bush, and Sidney Lumet and Tom Fontana, are in one sense advocating the same thing, but ultimately drawing different conclusions. Everyone believes in American freedom–the far right and the left, and everyone in the middle. Freedom is the cornerstone of American democracy and exceptionalism, yet both sides can advance the cause for freedom and yet leave all sorts of contradictions on the cutting room floor, and the West Wing.
The presumptions and premises of the Patriotic Act is that American freedom will end unless we vigilantly and valiantly prosecute, interrogate and punish those who have brought terrorism to America. Lumet and Fontana, in “Strip Search,” suggest that American freedom is itself compromised by depriving us of
the very liberties that ultimately make America free. What is America without its freedoms, and yet what would America be if it were left unprotected against those who value neither America, nor the promise of its freedoms?
In the film, the interrogator proclaims, in an effort to both lament and rationalize what he is about to do: “I can’t help it that we don’t live in a perfect world.” And the woman about to be strip searched says, in response to his desire to have his child live in a safer world, which presumably requires that he resort to these interrogative techniques: “Safe but not free; alive but not human.”