By John Stiller
When the Brian De Palma film Redacted was released in 2007, many conservative critics were outraged. Michael Medved was one. So was Bill O’Reilly.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, it is a fictionalized account of a real-life event that occurred during the Iraq War. Some U.S. soldiers raped a young Iraqi girl, before killing her and members of her family.
When the film was released (in a very low number of theaters), Bill O’Reilly argued that making a film like this during the war was dangerous. It could inflame tensions between Muslims and the West, and lead to the deaths of more American soldiers. Whatever the filmmaker’s intentions are, it could be a piece of inflammatory propaganda in the wrong hands.
Case in point: in 2011, two American servicemen were shot and killed at the Frankfurt airport. The man who shot them was a German citizen of Albanian descent. His reasons? He had apparently watched the rape scene from Redacted on YouTube the day before and said he did it because he wanted to stop American soldiers from doing things like that in Iraq.
That’s pretty screwed up, isn’t it?
It would seem that O’Reilly has a point here. However, if he is critical of Redacted because someone used it to justify violence, then he needs to examine some of his own rhetoric.
O’Reilly is a vocal opponent of abortion. On his show, he repeatedly attacked the Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller. He mentioned him on his show 28 times. He referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer.” He also called the clinic where Tiller worked a “death mill” where he performed “Nazi stuff.”
In 2009, George Tiller was shot and killed while working at his church in Kansas. He was killed by Scott Roeder, a violent abortion foe who had many mental issues. It should be noted that the majority of pro-life advocates in the country condemned the murder. Even O’Reilly condemned George Tiller’s murder, but he stuck by his earlier comments. He showed no remorse for the things he said about Tiller previously.
The point is this: by referring to someone as a “baby killer” over and over again, eventually a mentally deranged individual might hear those comments and jump to a logical conclusion: “This doctor is killing babies? Then he needs to be stopped, and I will do whatever is necessary to stop it.”
It’s fair here to say that if O’Reilly wants to condemn the film Redacted for being dangerous and irresponsible, then he needs to examine his own past rhetoric about George Tiller. He must acknowledge then that his comments were dangerous as well, and eventually led to the death of another human being.
This goes beyond the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice. It’s about the responsibility that political commentators (like O’Reilly) and filmmakers (like De Palma) have when they address real world issues in two very different arenas: politics and art.
Here are a few examples to consider:
When the film The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, it was a massive financial success, and many conservative critics praised it. But there was much controversy about it as well. Many prominent Jewish leaders said the film could be used as a tool to incite anti-Semitism and violence. Here they have a point. The story of the passion and how the Jews were supposedly responsible for Christ’s death has been used for centuries to incite violence against Jews. Considering how precarious the situation is in the Middle East, and the threats that Israelis live with on a daily basis, they argued that making the film at this point in time, whatever Mel Gibson’s intentions were, was a very dangerous thing.
If the film did cause any violence against Jews, does that mean that Mel Gibson is responsible for that?
The film Taxi Driver presents the story of a lonely, emotionally disturbed man who tries to kill a presidential candidate as part of his crusade to clean up New York City and save a young prostitute he’s befriended.
In 1981, President Ronald Regan was shot and almost killed by an emotionally disturbed young man who had seen Taxi Driver, and wanted to impress Jodie Foster, the young actress you played the prostitute.
Does this mean that Martin Scorcese (the director) and Paul Schrader (the writer) of Taxi Driver are responsible for the near death of a president?
The film The Fisher King is a fictionalized story set in New York City in the eighties. In the film, Jeff Bridges plays an angry “shock-jock” radio commentator who one day makes comments about “yuppies” on his show, saying they need to be “stopped.” One of his listeners hears this, and takes him seriously. The man later goes into an upscale Manhattan bar and kills several people randomly whom he believes are “yuppies.”
Does this mean that Jeff Bridges’ shock-jock is responsible for the deaths of the “yuppies” he denounced in the film?
The disgustingly racist far-right novel The Turner Diaries features a fictionalized war in the future where “patriots” stand up to the federal government and lead a revolution to destroy it (and eventually lead a campaign of genocide against the entire world). Guess who read this book and highlighted some of his favorite passages? Timothy McVeigh. Ever heard of him? The man who planted a massive bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured or maimed hundreds more?
Does the author of The Turner Diaries bear some kind of responsibility for Oklahoma City?
People interpret both political discourse and art (I guess virtually everything) subjectively, based on their own values. Individuals who have emotional or mental problems interpret what they see and hear just like everyone else. So do hateful people prone to violence. They will take what they see and hear and twist it to fit their own views, and then sometimes use it to justify actions that are morally reprehensible.
Knowing this, what kind of responsibility do political commentators and artists have? The more you examine certain ideas and opinions and how they are expressed, you come to the conclusion that people will often interpret things so radically different than what a commentator or an artist intends, that the content’s original creator is baffled, asking themselves “How the hell did they get that from what I said?”
Bill O’Reilly and pro-life advocates have every right to characterize their opponents any way they wish, even with rhetoric like “baby killer.” But when someone who has severe mental problems takes them literally and then acts on it, then they need to question what and how they are portraying their opponents.
Ultimately, people will interpret things they see and hear in radically different ways. Yes, maybe someone will hear the term “baby killer” and kill abortion doctors. But consider the another possibility: maybe someone will hear the term “baby killer” and become passionately devoted to the pro-life cause, even showing sympathy for women seeking abortions.
But instead of berating them and accusing them of going to hell, this person will approach the women in an open and respectful manner and try to convince them why they shouldn’t have an abortion. In this case, the person is honestly trying to make a difference based on their beliefs (beliefs I don’t agree with), rather than use said beliefs to dogmatically judge others and fuel their own self-righteousness (Michael Moore, I have you in mind here.)
The more you look at it, it becomes clear that people can interpret almost anything from anything.
I don’t know the intentions of Brian De Palma for making Redacted. But it might be argued that showing something as upsetting as U.S. soldiers raping and killing a young girl and her family (all based on an actual case) would give people a view into the reality of what war is really like.
War dehumanizes people, and makes them capable of horrible things. The majority of American soldiers are not bad people. But after enduring the brutality of conflict, where human life becomes cheap and expendable, their values become so damaged that they are ultimately capable of anything.
There’s an issue that nearly everyone on the planet agrees with (besides psychopaths who enjoy human suffering): almost no one wants to go to war, regardless of race, religion, nationality, etc. The reason people keep going to war is because so many of them have never been to one, hence they do not know what it’s like. They latch onto ideas like patriotism, and “saving” humanity, with no knowledge of what they’re getting into.
Making the film Redacted might be a way for normal American citizens who have never been to war to see what it’s really like. Afterwards, they might be shocked. After that, they might start being reluctant to support the use of military force, no matter what the reason. After that, maybe there will be fewer wars.
Who am I to talk? Look, I’ve never been to war, so technically I don’t know what it’s really like. I just know that it is awful beyond words.
That’s why we need films like Redacted.