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Witness

Two wrenching documentaries expose the horrors of Gaza and Guantánamo Bay. Plus: Jane Tennison’s abortion.

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Death in Gaza filmmaker James Miller (with Daniel Edge).  

Ahmed—kicking around a soccer ball, dreaming up trouble to get into with his best friend and obedient sidekick Mohammed, wearing his zippered jacket day and night as if it were the garter of a Templar—is 12 years old in desolate Rafah, at the butt end of Gaza, near the Egyptian border. Like a zebra or a hummingbird, he seems always to be revving his motor, always about to abscond.

Tom Sawyer also comes to mischievous mind, with a ringleader look on his face that shades from cunning to foxy-feral. Even so, Ahmed’s still a kid. When not throwing rocks at tanks and bulldozers, he is reading the poems of Darwish in school. So it comes as a shock to see him with a rocket launcher on his shoulder, among ski-masked paramilitary bogeymen. Worse yet is to watch these boys making quwas out of iron, charcoal, sugar, and sulfur. A quwa is a homemade hand grenade.

“These children don’t seem to stand a chance. For every stone thrown, a rubber bullet will return.”

If you were paying attention to the Middle East a year ago last May, you will already know that Ahmed isn’t who dies in Death in Gaza (Thursday, August 12; 9:30 to 11 p.m.; HBO). James Miller, the 34-year-old British filmmaker who had already given us such remarkable documentaries as Unholy War and Beneath the Veil, was gunned down by an Israeli tank before he could supplement his account of Ahmed and Mohammed with the point of view of Jewish children on the other side of the bloodbath. To everybody’s credit, Death in Gaza tells us what happened in its first few minutes, instead of melodramatizing. Miller’s writer-reporter colleague, Saira Shah, refuses to exploit his death. The facts speak for, or gag, themselves. The soldiers in the Israeli tank, who somehow failed to see a white flag through their night-vision goggles, were Bedouin Arabs. The Palestinian paramilitaries immediately turned Miller into another printed poster of yet another “martyr” to their cause. Six months later, Shah received a video message from Ahmed, who has decided he’d rather grow up to be a cameraman than a suicide bomber.

We’ve met the likes of Ahmed in other documentaries about other children, not only down in the infernal circles of the Middle East but in Northern Ireland and southern Africa and the Balkans. The form is usually to encourage us to hope that if only these kids could be removed from their contested sites and convulsed authority figures, and allowed to swim, sing, saddle up, and swap stories together on some goodwill day trip or peace sabbatical, at some interfaith track meet or multiculti music camp, their essential decency would prevail over the hateful scripts their embittered elders seek to tattoo on their sinews and synapses. Certainly even such wishful thinking is a big improvement on the nightly news film festival of burning buses and body bags, the militarizing of everything from architecture (transit camps, security settlements, a Berlin Wall around Jerusalem) to archaeology (catapult stones, battering rams, Bronze Age identity politics).

But these children don’t seem to stand a chance. For every stone thrown, a rubber bullet will return. Bulldozers invite suicide bombs, after which, reciprocating, the “targeted assassination.” Even my favorite Israeli novelist, David Grossman, seems to have given up in his most recent book of anguished journalism, Death As a Way of Life. “Terror,” he says, “contains something that acts like a digestive enzyme—it decomposes the private human body and the body politic.” Our novelists, like children, ought to be dreaming about love and landscape, solitude and community, discrepancy and transcendence. But they are bulldozed instead by Furies. “What remains?” Grossman asks. “To live through this nightmare to its end, to go from funeral to funeral and try to survive each passing moment. Thoughts of peace, of mutual understanding, of coexistence between the two peoples now sound like the last signals of life from a ship that has already sunk.”


Almost as enigmatic as the look on Ahmed’s face is an odd bark of laughter late in The President Versus David Hicks (Monday, August 16; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Sundance). Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the man who laughs. He is sitting in his New York office, listening to an Australian lawyer talk about an Australian citizen who has been held for two years in Guantánamo Bay without charge or legal counsel. George W. Bush has predetermined that David Hicks, who was captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and apparently sold to the Americans for a $15,000 bounty, is an “illegal combatant” on the wrong side of the War on Terror. Ratner, whose outfit just won a Supreme Court case establishing that our Constitution guarantees due process for U.S. citizens no matter what our president thinks, isn’t laughing because he’s amused or surprised; he is laughing at the police-state absurdity of an executive branch pulling an alternative jurisprudence out of its cowboy hat like a rubber duck: So-and-so (fill in blank) is a “killer” and/or “evil one” because Howdy Doody says so, never mind Geneva and her sissified Conventions.

Not that David Hicks is any role model for nonviolent social change. We learn a lot about him from this Curtis Levy–Bentley Dean film—broken home, rodeo days, bad relationship, awful poetry, Kosovo, Lahore, Kashmir, enlisting in the Taliban, quaint views on “the Jewish propaganda war machine”—and none of it suggests magnitude of intellect. Still, an Australian Muslim who happened to be serving in the army of the Taliban when the U.S. decided to invade Afghanistan should certainly be able to talk to his father, Terry, before facing a military tribunal. We follow this father in David’s crazy footsteps all over the world, and end up liking him more than we do his son. But there are at least 600 Davids still in cages at Guantánamo, and it’s not a laughing matter.


To its “Mystery Monday” lineup, BBC America has added weekly reruns of Prime Suspect (Mondays, 9 to 11 p.m.), with the nonpareil Helen Mirren as the nonpareil Jane Tennison. This is, of course, a cause for celebration. Except . . . well, tune in on August 23 for Prime Suspect 4: The Lost Child. And by all means, stop reading if you’ve never seen these particular hours. Veterans, however, should ask themselves what it is they’re really seeing when Jane decides to have an abortion.

Here is our Jane, having learned to play hardball office politics and so gotten herself promoted to detective chief inspector, chewing gum to stop smoking, still single, checking herself in for a D&C. She will emerge to take charge of the case of a missing child, a 14-month-old baby girl named Vicky, leading her now-loyal troops into battle against uncooperative psychiatrists, sleazy porn merchants, and the werewolf media. She will ask us to think about everything from the Susan Smith case to the sale of children on a pedophile exchange. And she will misconceive her entire investigation because, of course, symbolically speaking, the missing child is her own.

The Jane who managed previously to prevail as a detective in spite of sexism, sabotage, and even criminal behavior at her own Scotland Yard, in spite of the scandal of an interracial love affair with a colleague, early pregnancy, and advanced nicotine withdrawal, this time out because of a perfectly legal and straightforward medical procedure is thrown into such a gloomy funk that she will almost blow her case. Not even a certified heroine on British TV is allowed to behave like a real person in the real world, where women who have abortions react as variously afterward as human beings of all kinds have reacted at all times in the aftermath of any important choice, across the spectrum, with relief as well as regret. Much as I wish we lived in a world where no one wanted an abortion because foolproof contraception was readily available and all children, anyway, were loved and cared for, we live instead in an insane asylum where we scientize, parsing trimesters, theologize, counting “souls” like crazy Gogols, and hope for a technological deliverance, like the French pill, while firebombing family-planning clinics and murdering doctors and nurses and promulgating abstinence as the only international law or Geneva Convention we are willing to subscribe to.


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