Friday, September 11, 2009

Truth and Treason

As with many artistic mediums that we explore on this blawg, theatre has been no stranger to themes of law, politics and resistance. One Montreal-based theatre company in particular, Teesri Duniya Theatre (Third World Theatre in Hindustani) has tackled many such themes over the course of its close to 30 year history. Its latest production, Truth and Treason, written by Teesri's artistic director and playwright Rahul Varma is no exception. Set in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of the country, the play examines a variety of issues that stem from the invasion and occupation - many of which implicate the law (particularly the laws of armed conflict, treatment of civilians as well as corruption) into the matrix. Rather than spoiling the play by inadvertently revealing too much information, I provide a brief synopsis of the play here, furnished on the Theatre's website:

At a checkpoint in Iraq, a 10-year-old girl named Ghazal is shot by an unidentified U.S. soldier. Behind the checkpoint, a conference on rebuilding Iraq – attended by high-profile Iraqi and American delegates – is underway. The girl’s condition is critical. Captain Edward Alston, the officer in charge of the checkpoint, learns that Ghazal has a rare blood type and requires an immediate transfusion from her father, a jailed Iraqi writer. Captain Alston tries to arrange for a transfusion. He is also about to let the girl’s distraught mother Nahla, a Canadian woman, go past security to be with her daughter when he is overruled by his superior, Commander Hektor Frank. Why? Because the girl’s father Omar, imprisoned for his writings by the now-overthrown dictator Saddam, is classified as a terrorist by the U.S. government. While the two officers argue over the father’s alleged terrorist history, the girl dies in U.S. custody. A complex story arises involving characters in tension with each other and themselves: Nahla, who can use her Canadian passport to free Omar, but only if he stops threatening to avenge Ghazal’s death; Omar, whose family’s survival is threatened by his activities but who feels bound to serve his troubled country; Captain Alston, who must reconcile his duties as a patriot with his conscience; Commander Frank, who harbours a secret past and can’t take any chances; and the clergyman who turns a personal tragedy into a public fatwa by calling upon Muslims to kill Edward for ‘preventing a mother from seeing her child.’ Truth and Treason invites us to discover the real truth behind the war on terror…

Amidst the political statement(s) against the war, about the lies that led to the war in Iraq and the tragedies that have ensued as a consequence are some interesting legal issues that emerge from the play. In connection with the theme of resistance and the law that I have written about on this blawg, one of the legal themes that arises is the conflict that develops between Captain Alston and Commander Frank over the mistreatment and killings of Iraqi civilians by US soldiers - murders that are covered up in order to avoid bringing the military presence into disrepute or to impose liability on those who perpetrated the acts. Alston's efforts to uncover and reveal the extent of the killings and their cover up leads to his disobedience of Frank's orders to remain silent about what is transpiring. Like many resisters, Alston is confronted with the stark choice of being perceived as a patriot or a traitor for his critique of the military's treatment in Iraq.

Confronting unlawful actions advocated by and sustained by military superiors is very real and challenging, whether it is an American soldier in Iraq (or in an earlier period in Vietnam) or other military personnel in various conflicts. As many studies point out, there is a tendency towards obedience, even when such obedience leads to the commission of crimes or their facilitation. Many such individuals face a court-martial, prison and limited career prospects after their incarceration for their disobedience. Some flee and seek asylum in other states only to be denied. Truth and Treason provides a sense of the intense internal struggle one undergoes in challenging their own state and superior officers, particularly when doing otherwise might not only mean a contravention of law, but a violation of one's own moral code.

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