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L. Neil Smith's
Number 766, April 13, 2014

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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Movie Review-Commentary: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (SPOILERS!)
by Terence James Mason

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

What follows is a review with commentary of Captain America, The Winter Soldier (Disney/Marvel, 2014). As such, it contains spoilers for the movie, so please stop here if you wish to maintain your surprise.

I don't know if I have that much to add to the commentary and coverage appearing elsewhere, but I did want to throw my two cents worth in regarding the new Captain America movie, and particularly its messages pertaining to political liberty.

This is addressed specifically in the context of the self-consistent, so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe," to distinguish it from the fifty (in some places now, seventy) years of comic book history with all of the continuity reboots ("retcons" in the vernacular) necessary to keep characters actively in their twenties and thirties over the span of fifty years of storytelling.

For those of you who haven't been following the movie series, "Captain America, The First Avenger" (Paramount/Marvel, 2011) tells the story of Steve Rogers. Very nearly a stereotypical son of the early 1940's, Rogers is the classical "97-pound weakling" until he is selected by the Army and by industrialist Howard Stark to receive an experimental "Super-Soldier" formula (think ultra-steroids that work in hours instead of years), giving him "the strength of ten because his heart is pure" and making him the darling of the US armed forces.

Leading a guerilla combat team against the Nazis, Rogers (his identity is not much of a secret) in drawn increasingly into conflict with a shadowy organization within the Nazi regime known as Hydra, led by a misshapen German Super-Soldier (based on a trial version of the formula used on him) called the Red Skull, and seeking to use both science and Norse mysticism (the Norse gods, as shown in the concurrent "Thor" movies, are real in the Marvel Universe, beings from another world) to develop weapons of mass destruction to use against the United States. Rogers defeats Hydra's plan but in the process crashes the airplane carrying the super-weapon into the Arctic Ocean, where his body is frozen and preserved alive (apparently a by-product of his treatment) until it is discovered around 2010.

Winter Soldier opens three years after Rogers is recovered (and two years after the events in the other movie to feature him, a piece called "The Avengers" that some of you may have heard of). Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself working along covert operative Natasha Romanoff aka the "Black Widow" (Scarlett Johansson) for the secretive organization SHIELD (think FEMA Security Police, but on a global scale and with less oversight), stopping a group of terrorists attacking a classified SHIELD space launch facility.

Disturbed that Romanoff is given a side mission of data recovery which interferes with the hostage recovery, Rogers confronts SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury introduces Rogers to a secret SHIELD project, Insight; the satellites are part of the surveillance component (together with cyber surveillance) of a project to "pre-emptively" eliminate threats using massive, heavily armed, precision targeted flying battleships/aircraft carriers as the weapon of choice.

Rogers' revulsion at the idea of doing anything pre-emptively sets Fury to thinking. When Fury then discovers that the data Romanoff recovered was encrypted against him—supposedly by his orders—he announces to his immediate superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) that he wants to delay the Insight launch for a review. Almost immediately, a massive effort is undertaken to assassinate Fury, in which the titular Winter Soldier plays a key part. Called to Fury's deathbed, Rogers and Romanoff reconcile over their issues related to the hostage/data recovery mission, then team up when, immediately after an interview with Pierce, an effort is made to take Rogers out as well.

While I don't wish to spoil many of the other aspects of the movie, one purpose of this commentary is to (partially) address a major plot twist and its consequences: it develops both that SHIELD had been heavily infiltrated (up to and including Pierce) by the survivors of Hydra. These would-be global dominators had realized that their Nazi-era efforts failed because they attempted to subjugate the world by force; realizing that they needed more subtlety, they decided to foment unrest and chaos, until the population clamored for protection and security (key theme music for the Patriot Act, TSA, the Homeland Security Police, and all that). The culmination of this plot was Project Insight, which had been suborned by the Hydra elements, not for Fury's ostensibly noble intended purpose, but for the explicit purpose of using the surveillance network and battle stations to immediately eliminate the "twenty million" people who have the insight, inclination, and guts to prevent Hydra, under the ostensibly noble guise of SHIELD, from taking over the world to save it from the chaos they themselves had created.

Up to that point, the parallels with the Drone assassination program and NSA (as revealed by the producers in an interview published in Mother Jones of all places, at [Link], even though the plot predated Snowden; for a counterpoint for those of the "opposite" political persuasion, Bush-Cheney are indicted by the reviewer at [Link]) are painfully obvious, but the announcement that there is a separate plan in play for higher stakes moves from the front pages into the (ostensibly) more paranoid elements of the "blogosphere."

Now, let me say that I believe in the Zero Aggression Principle, subject to the caveat that I believe that conspiracy to commit aggression, particularly on a massive scale using WMD, is actionable—provided that your actions are commensurate with your level of certainty that the conspiracy is real, that they focus on preventing the aggression rather than eliminating the aggressors (unless they take umbrage at being attacked, and it's your head on the line if you chose poorly), and that you don't walk roughshod over the Bill of Rights in the process. And I submit this as the spirit in which Fury intended to operate Project Insight, though he clearly hadn't thought through all of the consequences; absent the later interference from Hydra, Fury and Rogers could possibly have come to a reasonable understanding of the acceptable limits of force. Not all ends justify all means, something Fury realized at the end of the movie even if the Hydra agents didn't. It is worth noting that the "takedown" involved releasing all of SHIELD's classified information, including but not limited to that demonstrating Hydra's plot to suborn SHIELD, but also thereby severely curtailing SHIELD's effectiveness even in those missions where they sought to do good.

But the other part of this message is, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" The movie demonstrated how easily such systems can be subverted to means beyond the intent of their planners and designers, as the NSA is plainly doing today. Such systems are rife with opportunities for abuse, all "for the greater good."

Which leads to the inevitable question: Do we need such systems at all?

Thanks to Abby Mason for some additional insights which made this a better essay.

Terence James Mason tweets at @OneAmericanVoic

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