Thursday, April 24, 2014
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MAHDI: CSPAN and the CIA

“That’s going to be $11. But I’m going to need to see some ID.”

Out of all the potential situations in which I would imagine needing to be carded, a movie theatre was not one of them. I walked into the hall chuckling as two friends and I settled into plush red seats and waited for the opening sequence of “Zero Dark Thirty” to begin.

I thought back to a few days earlier, when I had gawked at the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, after flashing my newly laminated card at the security guard and perusing the shelves. (Filling out the application for that little piece of plastic was a novel (excuse the pun) experience in itself: “I’m from London, I go to school in Boston, but I’m in Washington, D.C. for a semester interning for a think tank.” The woman registering me had shaken her head and laughed as she handed me my card.) Being carded to enter a room filled with some of the most historic documents in history? Acceptable. To see a movie? Debatable.

It dawned on me that no longer was I a mere tourist of the District of Columbia, surveying its library’s immense collection from a glass box above — I was at the gates to the inner sanctum of academia. I thought back to all the movies that featured scenes here, and it seemed only fitting that I was waiting to see a cinematic depiction of the bin Laden operation, another moment in history which had some connection to Washington.

I came out of “Zero Dark Thirty” with new and different perceptions floating around my head. The film brought issues of morality and blurred stories to the forefront of people’s minds. The beginning sequence is a black screen, with a composite of phone calls made on September 11th 2001. Nothing else was needed to remind that audience of the horror of those hours, a tragedy that would forever change the world in which our generation came to consciousness.

I thought nothing more of it, until I received an e-mail saying that the ex-director and chief legal officer of the Central Intelligence Agency and the former director of the National Clandestine Service were coming to the think tank. Three men who actually lived the hunt for Osama bin Laden were going to physically sit in front of me and discuss what happened. I signed up to be a volunteer for the event staff immediately. I would have done just about any menial task thrown my way if it meant I could be there — the day of the event I found out I had the glamorous task of holding the microphone for people as they asked questions at the end of the panel’s presentation.

The reception area was heaving with people. I found my way to the desk where I was handed my microphone.

“Whatever you do, DO NOT let anyone take this out of your hands,” I was told.

The back of the room was lined with cameras. Security was tight, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge video contraption with “C-SPAN” emblazoned across its side. I nervously surveyed the area, familiarizing myself with where all the wires were so I didn’t fall flat on my face. Some of recent history’s most powerful men in the world took their places at the wooden table. The inquisition had begun. The audience wanted to know how the CIA found out about the courier who led them to bin Laden, who was waterboarded, what the protocol was on interrogation, etc.

I thought back to the movie. For the thousands, including myself, that had seen the bin Laden operation in cinemas, the whole operation demanded fewer than five hours of our lives. For these men in front of me, this operation constituted years of theirs. The protagonist of the film — of the real story, that is — is not one person but a composite of men and women who were determined to see the mission through until its end.

The question of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding or sleep deprivation, is a moralistic nightmare. Is it a necessary evil, or excessive abuse? No one has the omnipotence to say it’s one or the other. And I imagine the subject will continue to be a debate that is had for years to come as the complexity of global security increases.

And so other questions emerged. I held on to that microphone for dear life — as it was almost wrangled out of my hands on more than one occasion. One man was visibly nervous as he clutched onto the apparatus with a slightly sweaty palm. As I kneeled down slightly for him to speak, his demeanor was an affirmation that time may go by, but collective memory of what all of this meant would never fade.

Microphone safely restored to its place, I went back to my desk. The office was buzzing with the aftermath of the event. That evening, I went on C-SPAN. There it was, those ex-officers discussing “Zero Dark Thirty” and myself, front and center on the screen, navigating my way through the crowd for my fifteen minutes of fame.

I got into the lift to leave for the day, and two other interns broke off from conversation.

“Hey, weren’t you the microphone girl today?”

“Yes, I was.” I replied, and as I left the building, I smiled before continuing on my way.

 

Sofiya Mahdi is weekly columnist for the Daily Free Press, and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying abroad in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at sofiya218@gmail.com

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